International Women’s Day 2008

It is coming up to International Women’s Day again and it made me think about how far women have come in the last 200 years, and how far we have yet to go.

There is a good summary of the history (or herstory as some call it) at the Australian Women’s Intra Network.

But it is interesting to think how close we western women are to being chattels and not able to have accepted existence apart from men.

Following are some legal milestones in England (Australia diverged slightly from these, but not by much). So to think that only just over 100 years ago all my earnings would have legally belonged to my husband no matter what I thought!


  • 1832 – First Reform Bill extended the vote to men who owned or rented property worth an annual rate of 10 pounds or more (about 18% of the adult male population). It included half of the middle class but excluded agricultural labourers and most industrial workers, and introduced the word ‘male’ into suffrage legislation for the first time.
  • 1839 – Infants and Child Custody Act allowed women who were divorced or separated but had not been proved adulterous to ask for custody of children under seven. Previously, the father was immediately awarded custody of all children, regardless of the reasons for divorce.
  • 1857 – Matrimonial Causes Act/Divorce Act established secular divorce in England. Prior to this secular divorce required an act of Parliament and cost hundreds of pounds, and only four women had ever achieved a divorce this way. The 1857 law provided that (1) a court could order maintenance payment to a divorced or estranged wife; (2) a divorced wife could inherit or bequeath property, enter contracts, sue or be sued, and protect her earnings from a deserter; (3) a man could secure a divorce on the grounds of his wife’s adultery. For women, a husband’s adultery alone was insufficient grounds–she had to prove another charge such as desertion, extreme cruelty, or incest to secure a divorce.
  • 1867 – Second Reform Bill doubled the electorate by extending the vote to almost all working men except agricultural day-labourers. The feminists’ amendment, for which they had presented the petition to John Stuart Mill, which would have substituted the word ‘person’ for ‘man’ in the description of eligible voters, was overwhelmingly defeated.
  • 1870 – Married Women’s Property Act mandated that women could keep their earnings and inherit personal property and small amounts of money; everything else (whether acquired before or after marriage) belonged to their husbands.
  • 1873 – Custody Acts: Women could be awarded custody of children up to age 16, and adulteresses could petition for custody.
  • 1882 – Married Women’s Property Act. Married women could keep all personal and real property acquired before and during marriage.
  • 1884 – Third Reform Bill extended suffrage to rural male householders, to almost all men over 21 (thus a male labourer could vote, but not the wealthy woman who employed him).
  • 1884 – Matrimonial Causes Act: a wife deserted by an adulterer could petition for divorce immediately, rather than waiting two years, as previously required.
  • 1886 – Custody reform: stipulated that the mother automatically got custody of children if the father died.
  • 1918 – Women’s Suffrage: women aged 30 and over could vote and stand for Parliament.
  • 1925 – Guardianship of Infants Act recognised that both parents had equal rights and responsibilities for children.
  • 1928 – Women’s voting age lowered to 21


By Carruthers via Aide-mémoire