Need for reform

Women in the early nineteenth century had inherited a status that was underprivileged in law, religion and social status relative to men.

A well regulated family is a small state ... . In this little state the father is the head and the ruler. Though a wife sometimes has more brains and gifts of administration than her husband, yet she must recognise his position as head of the family ... Subordinate to her husband, the wife should reign as queen in her home. Though woman is, in a sense, inferior to man, still her mission in life is not less noble than his ...
The RC Bishop of Clonfert in his 1912 pastoral, quoted in Cliona Murphy, The Women's Suffrage Movement and Irish Society, 1989, p.147.

The English common law concept by which a woman lost her legal rights as an individual when she married was called 'coverture.' The rich protected their daughters from material want by marriage settlements. They set up trusts for their benefit which were managed by male relatives or friends. It is estimated that about ten per cent of women benefited from such arrangements. Women, happily married to good husbands would hardly be affected and many were not even aware of the restrictions in the background.

The fact that a husband could deprive his wife of her own earnings and property was troublesome for women earning their own living, women with obstinate, mean, violent or criminal husbands and those who were separated, or needed to separate from their husbands. It also limited the credit of women running their own businesses.

On the other hand, men were obliged to support their wives - but only sufficiently to maintain life and health. They also had to pay the debts of their wives, but if necessary they could give public notice that they would no longer honour those debts.


  1. Consider the ways in which women were underprivileged in the early nineteenth century. Select the four factors you think were the most serious and give reasons for your choice.
  2. Explain the concept of coverture.
  3. Suggest reasons for this legal concept.
  4. How did rich parents try to protect their daughters from material want?
  5. Suggest reasons for depriving married women of the right to legal custody of their children.
  6. Suggest reasons why it was women who were penalised to a far greater extent both by law and society for sex-related transgressions.
  7. Suggest reasons why clergy frequently preached 'obedience, modesty, purity and chastity to women, and less frequently to men.'
  8. Discuss the value of the extract from the 1912 pastoral letter of the RC Bishop of Clonfert quoted above as historical evidence for attitudes to women at the time.


  1. Write a speech or article raising married women's awareness of injustice in the 1830s.
  2. Write a letter from a wealthy man to his daughter who is about to marry in the 1830s.
  3. Write a letter advising a business woman who is about to marry in the 1830s.
  4. Study Caroline Norton in the next section and in Documents at the end of this section.
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