November 28, 1911, To the Editor of The Standard, “Man-Made Law”
In this letter Davison engages the state of British law as it applies to women’s rights as wives and mothers. In response to R.W.E.’s contention that legislation has given women rights that they had never had in Britain, Davison points out that the rights women can exercise in marriage are largely the result of hard campaigns led by women, pointing out the sex prejudice embedded in the laws of Britain even in 1911—that a man will be more lightly sentenced for severely beating his wife, than for committing a theft.
Sir, –Your correspondent R.W.E. brings forward as a proof that ‘man-made law’ is not so bad as it is painted by suffragists various proofs that women nowadays are almost privileged under the law. He quotes the fact that mothers may be given the custody of children, and also the fact that nowadays a woman has the right to leave her husband. Will you allow me to point out that these features of the English law on marriage are due (a) to the scandalous state of affairs which obtained in olden days, when the wife was in the eyes of the law exclusively the chattel of her husband; (b) to the noble and tireless labours of devoted women? That this is so is well proved by the way in which the two main laws which give women certain rights as to the guardianship of children were put on the Statute book in 1839 and 1886. The former is due to the life-long work and martyrdom of the Hon. Mrs. Norton, who made a gallant attempt to get the custody of her children from her worthless husband. The other, the Act of 1886, is due to the splendid efforts of Mrs. Wolstenholme Elmy, by which the mother has the right of joint guardianship with any guardian appointed by the father. This same noble pioneer was also one of the main spirits who obtained the epoch-making Married Women’s Property Act, which enacted that women could own separate property. These two acts of elementary justice were only won by herculean effort and suffering by brave women. But the great mass of the injustice of the marriage law still remains, which allows the law to give a man a smaller penalty for nearly killing his wife than for committing a theft.
EMILY WILDING DAVISON
31, Coram-street, W.C.