Married Women's Property Act 1882

Married Women's Property Act 1882

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Long title An act to consolidate and amend the law relating to the property of married women.
Statute book chapter 45 & 46 Vict. c.75
Territorial extent England and Wales, Northern Ireland[1]
Royal Assent 18 August 1882
Commencement 1 January 1883[2]
Other legislation
Amendments Law Reform (Married Women and Tortfeasors) Act 1935
Theft Act 1968
Poor Law Act 1927
Law Reform (Husband and Wife) Act 1962
Related legislation Married Women's Property (Scotland) Act 1881
Status: Amended
Text of statute as originally enacted
Official text of the statute as amended and in force today within the United Kingdom, from the UK Statute Law Database

The Married Women's Property Act 1882 (45 & 46 Vict. c.75) was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom that significantly altered English law regarding the property rights granted to married women, allowing them to own and control their own property.


English women's property rights

English law defined the role of the wife as a ‘feme covert’, emphasizing her subordination to her husband, and putting her under the ‘protection and influence of her husband, her baron, or lord’ (see Coverture). Upon marriage, the husband and wife became one person under the law, as the property of the wife was surrendered to her husband, and her legal identity ceased to exist. Any personal property acquired by the wife during the marriage, unless specified that it was for her own separate use, went automatically to her husband. If a woman writer had copyright before marriage, the copyright would pass to the husband afterwards, for instance. Further, married women were unable to draft wills or dispose of any property without their husbands’ consent.[3]

Women were often limited in what they could inherit. Males were more likely to receive real property (land), while females with brothers were sometimes limited to inherited personal property, which included clothing, jewelry, household furniture, food, and all moveable goods.[4] In an instance where no will was found, the English law of primogeniture automatically gave the oldest son the right to all real property, and the daughter only inherited real property in the absence of a male heir. The law of intestate primogeniture remained on the books in Britain until 1925.[5]

Aware of their daughters’ unfortunate situation, fathers often provided them with dowries (see Dowry) or worked into a prenuptial agreement pin money, the estate which the wife was to possess for her sole and separate use not subject to the control of her husband, to provide her with an income separate from his.[6]

In contrast to wives, women who never married or who were widowed maintained control over their property and inheritance, owned land and controlled property disposal, since by law any unmarried adult female was considered to be a feme sole. Once married, the only way that women could reclaim property was through widowhood.

The dissolution of a marriage, whether initiated by the husband or wife, usually left the divorced females impoverished, as the law offered them no rights to marital property. The 1836 Caroline Norton court case highlighted the injustice of English property laws, and generated enough support that eventually resulted in the Married Women’s Property Act in 1882.[5]

The Act

After years of political lobbying, the Married Women’s Property Rights Act addressed the grievances presented by English women. The Act altered the common law doctrine of coverture to include the wife’s right to own, buy and sell her separate property.[7] Wives' legal identities were also restored, as the courts were forced to recognize a husband and a wife as two separate legal entities, in the same manner as if the wife was a feme sole. Married women’s legal rights included the right to sue and be sued. Any damages a wife might pay would be her own responsibility, instead of that of her husband. Married women were then also liable for their own debts, and any outside trade they owned was subject to bankruptcy laws. Further, married women were able to hold stock in their own names.[8] The Act applied in England (and Wales) and Ireland (subsequently only Northern Ireland), but did not extend to Scotland.[9]

See also

Further reading

  • Amy Louise Erickson, Women and Property in Early Modern England,(London: Routeledge, 1993).
  • Dorothy Stetson, A Woman's Issue: The Politics of Family Law Reform in England, (London: Greenwood, 1982).
  • Mary Lyndon Shanley, Feminism, Marriage, and Law in Victorian England, 1850-1895, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989).
  • Ben Griffin, "Class, Gender, and Liberalism in Parliament, 1868-1882: The Case of the Married Women's Property Acts," The Historical Journal, Vol. 46, No. 1 (Mar., 2003), pp. 59-87.


  1. ^ s.26
  2. ^ s.25
  3. ^ Bridget Hill, Women, Work and Sexual Politics in Eighteenth-century England, (London: Blackwell, 1989), 196.
  4. ^ Hiam Brinjikji, "Property Rights of Women in Nineteenth-Century England",
  5. ^ a b Brinjikji
  6. ^ Anne Laurence, Women in England:1500-1760, A Social History, (New York: St.Martin's, 1994).
  7. ^ OPSI, Married Women's Property Act 1882
  8. ^ Trevor May, An Economic and Social History of Britain(New York: Longman, 1987), 90.
  9. ^ s. 26 of the Act

External links

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