Friday, 6 March 2015

the very being or legal existence of a woman

In India, one of the rapists who brutalised and murdered a young woman on a bus, has offered an excuse for his crime. "A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy. A decent girl won't roam around at 9 o'clock at night. Housework and housekeeping is for girls, not roaming in discos and bars at night doing wrong things, wearing wrong clothes."

In Britain we are tempted to give smug thanks that we live in a country where women are not treated with such utter contempt. We are and always have been so thoroughly civilised here.

Except, of course, that we haven’t.

1982 a motorist raped a teenage hitchhiker. I remember the case very well, because the judge at Ipswich crown court, Bertrand Richards, merely fined the rapist, since the victim was obviously just asking for it. ''I am not saying that a girl hitching home late at night should not be protected by the law, but she was guilty of a great deal of contributory negligence.'' It’s one of a vast ocean of cases where rape victims have been let down by the courts or the police, and the belief is still widespread that in many cases, the women victims are responsible for the crime committed against them.

Not so long ago, some women could be raped repeatedly without the law even recognising it as a crime. They were called ‘wives.’

1736 Judge Matthew Hale established that as marriage was a legal contract, the wife ‘hath given up herself in this kind unto her husband, which she cannot retract.’ Refusal was not permitted.

1991 R.v R: The House of Lords finally declares Hale’s ruling to be a legal myth. 1991.

But still, we think, Britain is a better place for women than many other countries and cultures. Yes, there are still glass ceilings to break through, and a great many theoretical equalities that amount to squat in real life, but we’re not generally treated as possessions, as second-class citizens, as sex-slaves, oppressed, covered up, despised, subjected to forced marriage, mutilated…
Not now. But we haven’t been where we are for very long.

Women allow themselves to be ‘given away’ by their fathers at their weddings, and, okay, it’s on a par with wearing something borrowed, something blue: cute and meaningless. But for centuries, it had plenty of meaning. Parents arranged marriages, and girls were the property of their father until the moment they became the property of their husband.

1870 – 145 years ago Married Women’s Property Act: a wife was allowed to keep her own earnings. Before that, any wealth she earned or owned became her husband’s property. She couldn’t draw up a will or dispose of anything without her husband’s consent.

1882 Married Women’s Property Act: wives were granted the legal status of ‘Feme Sole.’ They existed in their own right. Previously, a wife was legally defined as a ‘feme covert.’ In the words of 18th century lawyer, William Blackstone, "By marriage, the very being or legal existence of a woman is suspended, or at least incorporated or consolidated into that of the husband, under whose wing, protection, or cover she performs everything."
 Mind you, when my mother’s cousin writes to her, she still addresses her as Mrs. Peter Moore.

1990 – just 25 years agoShe’s finally taxed separately.

Which is okay if she’s allowed to work. My grandmother, a seamstress, marrying in 1921, had to make do with a quiet civil ceremony, in order to keep the marriage secret from her employer. Once he found out, she was unemployed. Married women couldn’t work and be economically independent.
Not that they had much of an income to give up, because women could expect to be paid pin money, while men were entitled to a proper wage. As wage slaves, at the beginning of the industrial revolution, they were in demand, as a source of very cheap labour.

1842 Mines and Collieries Act: women were excluded from working in mines, not because the work was too hard or dangerous, but because it involved them wearing trousers and working bare-breasted: it “made girls unsuitable for marriage and unfit to be mothers.”

Women proved themselves capable of any job, in times of war, when the men were needed for cannon fodder, but they were pushed back to the kitchen as soon as the surviving men wanted their jobs back.

The marriage bar on women in most professions, including the civil service, lasted until the 1950s.

1970  Equal Pay Act: at least employers were required to pay lip service to equal pay for equal work. Amazing how tiny distinctions in job descriptions could get round it.

1975 Sex Discrimination Act. You’d think it was simple, wouldn’t you? No more discrimination in jobs, services, etc on grounds of gender. But…

2015: first women members of the Royal and Ancient Golf club, first woman bishop…

Equality in employment requires equality in eduction of course.
Women have struggled for it for centuries, from Margaret Cavendish in the 17th century and Mary Wollstonecraft in the 18th. Tudor royal women were educated as well as their brothers, but it was downhill after that. Young gentlemen learned Latin and how to run the Empire. Young ladies learned deportment. When education began to be regarded as a good thing for the lower orders, in the 19th Century, the girls had their share, but the 11 Plus, in operation after World War II was still deliberately skewed in order to prevent girls consistently out-doing boys. At my Comprehensive school, in the late 1960s, no argument: girls did housecraft and biology (fluffy bunnies and how to cook them) and boys did metalwork and physics (how to get to the moon).  There’s still a struggle to get girls to study STEM subjects.

12th Century: Oxford university already up and running, for boys, followed by Cambridge in 1209.

1869: a mere 660 years later – Girton, Cambridge, first college for women. The founding of a women’s college in Oxford was condemned by theologian Henry Liddon as “an educational development that runs counter to the wisdom and experience of all the centuries of Christendom.”

1948: Cambridge finally awards degrees to women. 1948

1865 Elizabeth Garrett became first woman qualified to practice medicine, courtesy of the Society of Apothecaries, which promptly changed its rules, to stop other women getting uppity ideas.
Of course, women had always been concerned with medicine, and probably did less damage than the official male doctors. But then if they did too much and were suspected of being a little too wise, they always ran the risk of being condemned as witches.

1727: Janet Horne was the last woman executed for witchcraft in Britain. Being Scottish, she was burned. England hanged its witches.

Women’s function was not to be educated and employed, but obedient wives and mothers. .  In the 1940s, The Queen Mother explained why a proper education wasn’t necessary for her younger daughter Margaret: “After all, I and my sisters only had governesses and we all married well—one of us very well.”

Their role was ordained, by law and by God. The Book of Common Prayer recommended this reading for marriage services: “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the Church: and he is the Saviour of the body. Therefore as the Church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing. And again he saith, Let the wife see that she reverence her husband.”

1928; The bride’s vow to obey became optional in the Prayer book. Optional.

1837: civil registration removed the church’s monopoly on marriage – but not on divorce, which was virtually impossible for anyone not called King Henry.

1857 Matrimonial Causes Act: men could divorce their wives for adultery. A woman could divorce her husband if adultery were accompanied by cruelty, incest, bigamy or desertion.

1937 Matrimonial Causes Act: the situation was equalised.

Why would any woman possibly want a divorce? Marriage was a state of bliss – at least, she’d better find it so, or else. A man was allowed to lock up and beat his wife, without restraint.

1853 Aggravated Assaults Act: a wife was granted the same legal protection from assault as a poodle.

1895 The City of London prohibited wife-beating at night, because it kept people awake.

1976 Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceedings Act: wives could take out injunctions against violent partners. We’re still struggling to convince the police to treat domestic violence as a crime and not a private matter.

1351 Treason Act. Husbands were never actually permitted to kill their wives. A husband who did so would be guilty of murder, and might even be hanged. On the other hand, a wife who killed her husband was guilty of petty treason against her rightful lord. The penalty for treason for women was burning at the stake (hanging drawing and quartering involved stripping and was therefore indecent for women. Burning was okay).

1784. John Wesley was busy saving the world. Jane Austen was 9. The Prince Regent was just about to start building the Brighton Pavilion. And Mary Bailey was the last woman to be burned at the stake for murdering her husband

1828 the crime of petty treason was downgraded to murder.

Wives existed to have babies and had no legitimate business preventing conception, even though they’ve been trying to for millennia. Moderately reliable methods have only been available from the 1870s, and it wasn’t until the 1920s that the likes of Mary Stopes ensured they were publicly advocated (for married women). Real control only dates from the 1960s, with the pill and the Abortion Act.

When a couple with children split up, it’s usually the mother who gets custody, much to the resentment of many fathers. Their resentment is nothing to that felt by women in earlier times. Children were the property of the father, who not only gained automatic custody but could deny the mother any access.

1839 Custody of Infants Act: a non-adulterous wife could have custody of any children under 7, if the Lord Chancellor agreed she was of good character.

1873 Custody of Infants Act: a good wife could have custody of children under 16.

1886 Guardianship of Infants Act: a widowed mother was permitted to be sole guardian of her children, without being monitored by a sensible man.

All these laws, concerned with the welfare of women. Passed mostly by men.

1832. Reform Act. Started the redistribution of the franchise. Sounds good, except that it actually withdrew the franchise from women who might previously have been permitted to vote on property grounds.

1838 The great Charter. The radical revolutionary chartists demanded votes for all men. Not women.

1869 Municipal Franchise Act: women ratepayers could vote in local elections! BUT

1872 a court ruling limited it to single and widowed women.

1918 Representation of the People Act: all men over 21 could now vote, and, be still my beating heart, all staid and matronly women over 30. But girl, did we have to fight for it, against not merely ridicule, but torture. It certainly put paid to the notion of chivalrous English gentlemen who treated women with respect. Force-feeding for jailed suffragettes, not always through the obvious orifices, was a form of violence not far removed from the way rape is used as a weapon of war.

1928 Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act. We hadn’t all turned up at the ballot box, simpering, giggling and asking for help to hold the pencil, so finally – equality.

1929 Margaret Bondfield first woman Cabinet Minister.

1958 Life Peerages Act: women were allowed to sit in the House of Lords. Phew.

1979 – oh, let’s pass over that one.

2015 – Harriet Harman’s Pink Bus. Hang on. Are we going backwards here?

So here we are. Still woefully under-represented in Parliament/government, which remains a public-school boy’s club, but we’re getting there. We’ve broken into all the professions, if only by our finger tips. If we’re brave enough, or well-enough funded, we can take employers to court when they treat us unfairly as women, as entire city councils have discovered. We can marry who we like, even if we make a complete pig’s ear of it and make ridiculous choices for all the wrong reasons. Or we can choose sex without marriage, or complete and utter independence, and we will not be hauled before the village elders and flogged or stoned.

We can dress how we want, let the world see our faces and our hair. We can believe and think what we want, and voice our thoughts, loudly, without permission. We are not usually gang-raped if we’re suspected of being lesbian. We don’t have to live in shuttered quarters and avoid the sight of the opposite sex. We can walk and drive, unaccompanied. Our small daughters are not subjected to genital mutilation or sold off in marriage to dirty old men. We are free to use contraception, to have many babies, or just one, or none at all. If we conceive outside marriage, we are not sent to Magdalen laundries, to have our babies stolen from us by nuns from Hell. We are not shot in the head if we dare to demand education.

We’re lucky. We don’t live in that nasty, patriarchal, misogynist, Mediaeval world out there, full of fear and hatred of women. But it wasn’t so long ago that we did, so smugness really isn’t called for. We have what we have because we’ve struggled for it, and sisters, we need to be sober, be vigilant, because our adversary, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking to drag us back into the dark.

No comments:

Post a Comment