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Published on Nov 10, 2017
Women's History Month Talk 2017
'Caroline Norton: England's First Feminist Law-Maker' by Diane Atkinson
On the 17th of August 1839 the first piece of feminist legislation became law. The Infant Custody Act changed the legal status of mothers of good reputation forever. For the first time, a wife who was legally separated or divorced from her husband, and who had not been found guilty of adultery, was entitled to custody of her children up to the age of seven and periodic access after that. The Act was the result of Caroline Norton’s struggle with an abusive husband, and the patriarchal values embedded into English law which insisted that a father was the only parent of a child, and mothers had no rights. Caroline Norton’s wretched marriage drew her out of the private sphere and into the sphere of the law; her pamphleteering also informed the 1857 Matrimonial Causes (Divorce) Act, and the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870. Caroline Norton, the model for Daniel Maclise’s fresco ‘Justice’ in the House of Lords, was an accidental feminist who changed women’s lives for the better.