Originally published in The Riveter, September 2009.
Few people have heard of Caroline Norton (1808-1877), as her efforts for women’s rights largely conducted through necessity and by the quiet lobbying of politicians whom she systematically befriended and turned to her cause, most notably the Prime Minister Viscount Melbourne. Nonetheless she had a profound effect on the legal rights of British women.
Caroline married an odious MP called George Norton, with whom she had three children but whom she bitterly regretted marrying. He in turn was physically violent to her. Suspicious of his wife’s relationship with Lord Melbourne, he tried to sue him for adultery but lost, and, in revenge, cut off Caroline’s access to her children, which the law allowed him to do at the time. He later tried to claim several legacies that had been left to Caroline as technically as her husband he had control over all her financial affairs. In each case, Caroline took up a public campaign to change the law in favour of women, writing several pamphlets and lobbying politicians. Her campaigning led to the passing of the ground-breaking Custody of Infants Act 1839, which gave women the right to claim custody of their children and the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857, which legalised divorce through the courts and recognised married women as people in their own right before the law, where previously they had been the property of their husbands. On this foundation, along with other early feminist writings, the movement for women’s liberation was born.