From 1714 -1837 women experienced significant disadvantages by comparison with men, in legal status, education, employment and social life.
Newbury Branch meeting held at West Berkshire Museum 10th November 2021
Speaker: Penny Stokes
Women in the eighteenth century experienced significant disadvantages by comparison with men, in legal status, education, employment and social life.
No woman could go to university, join the professions, or hold any kind of public appointment. Although not explicitly banned by law until 1832, women never voted in elections.
On marriage women lost their legal status entirely: according to the doctrine of coverture a wife’s existence was subsumed within that of her husband. She could own no property (including her earnings), could not make a will or sue, and had no legal rights over her children.
But coverture was no protection from liability in law. A woman who killed her husband was guilty of petty treason, because such a killing was viewed as an attack on authority, and by implication the Crown. (Wife-killing was different.) Hanging, drawing and quartering was the official penalty, although burning at the stake was preferred in the interests of public decency.
Unmarried motherhood was condemned by all levels of society and could be punished by flogging and public humiliation, although the overseers administered a rudimentary system of child support.
Newbury corporation ran a free school for boys, but there was no free education for girls until 1811 when church schools were established. A few girls benefited from Wests’ Charity, gaining places at Christ’s Hospital, where they were prepared for motherhood and domestic service. Private education was available only to those whose parents paid at least 14 guineas a year.
Women’s employment tended to concentrate in the clothing and victualling sectors, or domestic service. Widowhood could, however, release them to continue running their husband’s business; there were numerous examples of Newbury widows running pubs, and even the town gaol.
Middle-class women could be active in charitable enterprises, and such opportunities expanded as the period progressed. Some wealthy women left endowments specifically to benefit poor women.
Social life based on civic dinners, pubs, fraternal societies, coffee houses and sport was exclusively male-oriented, although parties and dances at the assembly rooms included women.
Official listings (until the first census) and petitions did not include women’s names. Churches reinforced this by failing to record women’s names properly in registers (eg, “wife of…”).