Francine Ryan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment. The women of the Suffragette movement are often depicted as pioneers in the struggle for female emancipation. But Edwardian women were not the founding mothers of the cause for equality. A generation before, Victorian women had begun the campaign.
And among them was an an unlikely heroine by the name of Caroline Norton. But through her battles with the legal system she demonstrated how little protection the law afforded in cases of abuse of power. She ultimately secured a landmark victory for women along the way. Caroline was born in into a genteel but impoverished family. They had three sons.
Catalog Record: A letter to the Queen on Lord Chancellor | HathiTrust Digital Library
It was a turbulent marriage and Caroline was subjected to physical and emotional abuse. George wanted to control his wife but she resisted. She openly mocked him and flirted with other men.
The gossip that surrounded Caroline humiliated George, increasing his misery and rage. The collapse of the marriage culminated in June when George Norton sued the then prime minister, Lord Melbourne — a Whig — claiming he had had an affair with Caroline. He not only wanted to prove his wife had committed adultery, which would be the first step towards obtaining a divorce, but his action was part of a plot by the Tories to try to bring down the Whig government.
She was unable to divorce him and had no legal rights.
George refused Caroline access to their children, which led to her starting a campaign to change the law. She was already an accomplished and established writer so she used her literary skills to produce a series of political pamphlets — a powerful persuasive tool at the time. The aim was to educate the public about the plight of mothers and to persuade MPs to support the cause.
It argued that all children under the age of seven should remain in the custody of their mother and that the decision as to where older children should live should be decided by the court — not the father. She made copies and circulated them privately.
Caroline modelled for the fresco of Justice in the House of Lords by Daniel Maclise , who chose her because she was seen by many as a famous victim of injustice. Sheridan authored three short novels described by one of her daughter's biographers as "rather stiff with the style of the eighteenth century, but none without a certain charm and wit In , her father died in South Africa, where he was serving as the colonial secretary at the Cape of Good Hope. The combined beauty and accomplishments of the Sheridan sisters led to their being collectively referred to as the Three "Graces".
“Lopsided and Left-Handed Laws”: Narratives of Mothers and Wives
Her younger sister, Georgiana , considered the prettiest of the three, later became the wife of Edward Seymour, 12th Duke of Somerset. During the early years of her marriage, Caroline used her beauty, wit, and political connections, to establish herself as a major society hostess. In spite of his jealousy and pride, Norton encouraged his wife to use her connections to advance his career. It was entirely due to her influence that in he was made a Metropolitan Police Magistrate.
Her first book, The Sorrows of Rosalie , was well received. In , Caroline left her husband. Not long after their separation, Norton abducted their sons, hiding them with relatives in Scotland and later in Yorkshire , refusing to tell Caroline anything of their whereabouts.
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- NORTON: The Collected Writings of Caroline Norton ().
Lord Melbourne wrote in a letter to Lord Holland that, "The fact is he Norton is a stupid brute, and she had not temper nor dissimulation enough to enable her to manage him. This conduct upon his part seems perfectly unaccountable You know that I have always counselled you to bear everything and remain to the last.
I thought it for the best. I am afraid it is no longer possible. Open breaches of this kind are always to be lamented, but you have the consolation that you have done your utmost to stave this extremity off as long as possible. The trial lasted nine days, and in the end the jury threw out Norton's claim, siding with Lord Melbourne. Caroline was soon faced with an additional tragedy; the death of her youngest son, William, in Unfortunately, William died before she arrived in Scotland.
Due to her dismal domestic situation, Caroline became passionately involved in the passage of laws promoting social justice, especially those granting rights to married and divorced women. When Parliament debated the subject of divorce reform in , Caroline submitted to the members a detailed account of her own marriage, and described the difficulties faced by women as the result of existing laws.
An English wife may not leave her husband's house. Not only can he sue her for restitution of "conjugal rights," but he has a right to enter the house of any friend or relation with whom she may take refuge If her husband take proceedings for a divorce, she is not, in the first instance, allowed to defend herself She is not represented by attorney, nor permitted to be considered a party to the suit between him and her supposed lover, for "damages.
If an English wife be guilty of infidelity, her husband can divorce her so as to marry again; but she cannot divorce the husband, a vinculo, however profligate he may be Those dear children, the loss of whose pattering steps and sweet occasional voices made the silence of [my] new home intolerable as the anguish of death The Act applied in England, Wales and Ireland only.
While Caroline could have hoped for custody of her youngest son, and access to her older sons who were seven and ten when the Act was passed into law, her husband insisted that her sons stay in Scotland. The Act gave married women, for the first time, a right to their children.
However, because women needed to petition in the Court of Chancery, in practice few women had the financial means to petition for their rights. The Married Women's Property Act allowed married women to inherit property and take court action on their own behalf. The Act granted married women in the UK, for the first time, a separate legal identity from their husband. He chose her because she was seen by many as a famous victim of injustice.
While Caroline fought to extend women's legal rights, she wasn't involved in further social activism, and had no interest in the 19th-century women's movement with regard to issues such as women's suffrage.