Teaching Women’s Rights
From Past to Present

Primary Sources
with Discussions and Activities


Caroline Norton (1808-1877) - England
“Stunned by This Sudden Blow”

Although Caroline Norton became a well known author, she is most remembered for her unfortunate marriage and her struggle to change England’s marriage laws. Married at nineteen in 1827, her husband’s physical abuse and the multiple ways she as a woman was denied her rights to divorce and to the custody of her three children led her on a very public campaign for reform.

“We had been married about two months, when, one evening, after we had all withdrawn to our apartments, we were discussing some opinion Mr. Norton had expressed; I said, that ‘I thought I had never heard so silly or ridiculous a conclusion.’ This remark was punished by a sudden and violent kick; the blow reached my side; it caused great pain for several days, and being afraid to remain with him, I sat up the whole night in another apartment.

Four or five months afterwards, when we were settled in London, we had returned home from a ball; I had then no personal dispute with Mr. Norton, but he indulged in bitter and coarse remarks respecting a young relative of mine, who, though married, continued to dance - a practice, Mr. Norton said, no husband ought to permit. I defended the lady spoken of when he suddenly sprang from the bed, seized me by the nape of the neck, and dashed me down on the floor. The sound of my fall woke my sister and brother-in-law, who slept in a room below, and they ran up to the door. Mr. Norton locked it, and stood over me, declaring no one should enter. I could not speak - I only moaned. My brother-in-law burst the door open and carried me downstairs. I had a swelling on my head for many days afterwards.”

[After his pleas to change, Caroline returned to her husband only to suffer more beatings on many occasions. Finally she left him but could not secure a divorce nor retain any rights to see her children. Rather Mr. Norton dragged her through a trial in which he accused her of adultery and gave the children to his mistress to raise.]

“Mr. Norton, then, took my little children (aged two, four, and six years); and I traced them to the house of that vile woman, who threatened to give me ‘to the police’ when I went there and claimed them....

One of my children was afterwards killed [thrown a horse], for want of the commonest care a mother would have given to her household. Mr. Norton allowed the child to lie ill for a week before he sent to inform me. Lady Kelly (who was an utter stranger to me) met me at the railway station. I said ‘I am here - is my boy better?’ ‘No’, she said ‘he is not better - he is dead.’ And I found, instead of a child, a corpse already coffined.....

I still feel stunned by this sudden blow. He died conscious; he prayed, and asked for me twice. He did not fear to die, and he bore the dreadful spasms of pain with a degree of courage which the doctor says he has rarely seen in so young a child. It is not in the strength of human nature not to think, ‘This might not have happened had I watched over them!’”....

Excerpts from Norton’s Letter to Queen Victoria -1855

“A married woman in England has no legal existence: her being is absorbed in that of her husband. Years of separation of desertion cannot alter this position....She has no possessions, unless by special settlement; her property is his property....An English wife cannot make a will. She may have children or kindred whom she may earnestly desire to benefit;—she may be separated from her husband, who may be living with a mistress; no matter: the law gives what she has to him, and no will she could make would be valid....

If an English wife be guilty of infidelity, her husband can divorce her so as to marry again; but she cannot divorce the husband...however profligate he may be...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.’

An English wife cannot legally claim her own earnings. Whether wages for manual labor, or payment for intellectual exertion, whether she weed potatoes, or keep a school, her salary is the husband’s; and he could compel a second payment, and treat the first as void, if paid to the wife without his sanction. She cannot prosecute for a libel. Her husband must prosecute; and in cases of enmity and separation, of course she is without a remedy. She cannot sign a lease, or transact responsible business..... As her husband, he has a right to all that is hers: as his wife, she has no right to anything that is his....The marriage ceremony is a civil bond for him,—and an indissoluble sacrament for her; and the rights of mutual property which that ceremony is ignorantly supposed to confer, are made absolute for him, and null for her....

The club-loungers smile in scorn. ‘What is all this disturbance about? Woman’s rights and woman’s wrongs?—pooh, pooh; nonsense; Bloomerism; Americanism! we can’t have that sort of thing in England. Women must submit; those who don’t, are bad women—depend upon it: all bad women’....Even now, friends say to me:—’Why write? why struggle? it is the law! You will do no good.’ But if every one slacked courage with that doubt, nothing would ever be achieved in this world. This much I will do,—woman though I be. I will put on record,—in French, German, English, and Italian,—what the law for women was in England, in the year of civilization and Christianity 1855, and the 16th year of the reign of a female sovereign!”

Through Caroline’s efforts, in 1839 Parliament passed the Custody of Children Act, and in 1857 the Marriage and Divorce Act. Further reform campaigns resulted in the Marriage Women’s Property Act of 1870.

Discussion/Activity Suggestions
  • 1) Make a list of the specific ways English women did not have “legal existence” in the mid 19th century.

  • 2) What was the effect of these restrictions on the lives of married women?

  • 3) How effective do you think the form of semi confessional writing Norton used is as the basis of an argument for social reform?

  • 4) Look up current statistics and case studies regarding domestic violence against women. What steps are taken today in your country when a woman reports incidents of domestic abuse?

Lyn Reese is the author of all the information on this website
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