Professor Anne Lawrence and Dr Jacqui Turner recently spoke to Dan Damon on the BBC World Service about Magna Carta and its implications for women’s rights. Here they reflect on some of the key points of that interview. You can listen to the interview on the BBC iplayer – their section starts at 16:55 of the recording.
What connects Magna Carta to feminism today? We have an answer – and it is a book published in 1632. The book is called The Lawes Resolutions of Womens Rights and its title can claim to be the first time the phrase ‘women’s rights’ was used in print! In the search for these hoped-for rights, its author surveyed English law from Magna Carta to the reign of Elizabeth I, as well as consulting the Bible. The results were disappointing, and in places the author’s tone is almost shocked; yet the belief that ‘women’s rights’ should be there to be found in English law, and that Magna Carta was the place to start, remains a landmark. Even better, the University of Reading has a copy of this book in the Lady Stenton Library, part of the university’s Special Collections.
In our interview we discussed how Magna Carta gave some rights over property and marriage to heiresses and widows. But we also pointed out that married women had effectively no rights to property or anything else since they had no legal existence. This was still the same in 1632, as the author of our book noted. On page 6 (Book 1, section 3) he says:
‘See here the reason of that which I touched before, that Women have no voice in Parliament, they make no Lawes, they consent to none, they abrogate none. [This is because] All women are understood either married or to be married and their desires are subject to their husband. I know no remedy, though some women can shift it well enough.’
Little changed for centuries, as women lived under the common law of ‘coverture’. In William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765) he spells out the status of women in marriage:
‘By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband; under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs every thing … her condition during her marriage is called her coverture.’
Additionally, a husband ‘might give his wife moderate correction’ as he would his children. The legal status of women remained akin to that of their children until the 1882 Married Women’s Property Law effectively overturned coverture and women could own and control their own property and earnings, effectively giving them a measure of legal independence. While this was a shift in the status of women, it is something of an illusion, as women had no full and equal rights to citizenship until some women received the partial franchise of 1918.
What would our Magna Carta say today?
Jacqui: there must be a 50:50 parliament – not until women have an equal role in the polity and an equal say in the making of laws can we consider ourselves equal.
Anne: Women’s voices should be equally heard under the law. The sad fact is that although women now legally exist, can go to court, give evidence, sit on juries and even be judges (all of which is great), outcomes of trials, particularly in cases involving harm to women themselves, still have a long way to go. So my Magna Carta would still need to give women’s voices equal weight when giving evidence in such cases.
What would feature in YOUR Magna Carta?
We are compiling your responses for a project across all of our social media platforms: tell us what you would include if you were writing a #newmagnacarta.
We will collect responses and feature ‘The New People’s Magna Carta’ in the autumn. We will also collect negative responses for the accompanying ‘The New Magna Carta of Shame’. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, and Instagram. Watch this space on our blog!
A final first for the University of Reading was fitting two people into their studio to do one piece – and the technology worked!