[Caroline Norton's explanation of the effects of nineteenth-century British law, which considered that a married couple were legally one person (and hence wives had no separate legal existence) appears in her English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century (1854). I have used the online version available from Victorian Women Writers Project at India University (see bibliography). — George P. Landow.]

I was “non‐existent,” except for the purpose of suffering, as far as the law was concerned: it could oppress, but never help me: and the grotesque anomaly of being considered ONE with the husband whose previous libel, was the cause and foundation of this subsequent libel; of having my defence made necessary, and made impossible, by the same person; that person still my nominal and legal protector, in spite of the changed circumstances of our mutual relations with each other—remained a subject for leisurely contemplation, and helpless complaint.

The law‐forms respecting property, followed the same rules as the law‐forms respecting a prosecution for libel. Anxious to make arrangements for a future home; less expensively than in furnished houses, I propose to take a lease; and am told, that, being “non‐existent” at law, my signature is worthless. Anxious to recover property left at home; gifts from my mother and my family, I am informed, that, being “non‐existent” in law, I can claim nothing, and that my husband intends to sell them. Anxious to leave what little I possess through the generosity of my family, or the gifts of friends—my furniture, trinkets, books, etc., to my two sons, I am informed, that, being “non‐existent” in law, it would be a mere farce my attempting to make a will; that a married woman can bequeath nothing, as she can possess nothing; and that my property is the property of the husband with whom I am still legally “ONE,” after seventeen years of separation! Anxious to end the apparently ceaseless disputes respecting a provision for me in this state of separation, I accept Mr Norton’s own terms (after demanding others); I sign a contract dictated, corrected, and prepared under his instructions, which I never even saw except for the purpose of affixing my signature to it. And I am informed, that, being “non‐existent” in law, I have signed that which binds him to nothing. A mock‐trial, in which I do not “exist” for defence; a gross libel, in which I do not “exist” for prosecution; a disposition of property, in which I do not “exist” either for my own rights or those of my children; a power of benefiting myself by literary labour, in which I do not “exist” for the claim in my own copyrights. That, is the negative and neutralizing law, for married women in England.

Now, that married persons should be ONE, in the holy and blessed bond which unites them under a common roof, with common interests, and in the common position of protection on the one side and affection and womanly allegiance on the other, is just, fit, and natural; consistent with social order and religious belief. But that married person should be still considered ONE, without the possibility of interference on the part of justice, when living alienated and in a state of separation, is unjust, unfit, and unnatural, and can be productive only of social disorder and scandalous struggle. In the first and more happy position of things, the husband is the administrator and exponent of the law, for he stands in his natural capacity of protector of his wife; that which is an injury or insult to her, is injury and insult to him; and their expenditure is a matter of mutual interest. In the other miserable position, he stands in the unnatural capacity of oppressor of his wife; injury and insult to her are no longer a wrong to him; he is no longer the administrator and exponent of the law, but its direct opponent (for the intention of the law certainly is, that the woman shall be protected; and that he shall be her protector). Their expenditure is no longer a matter of mutual interest; she is a pecuniary burden; provided for with grudging, at a compulsory minimum, on an alien and extra claim, apart from his household government or family care. [167-68]


Norton, Caroline Sheridan. English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century. London: Printed for Private Circulation, 1854. Victorian Women Writers Project. Web. 11 July 2014.

Last modified 11 July 2014