Return to Title Page for The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXVIII The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXVIII - Public and Parliamentary Speeches Part I November 1850 - November 1868
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
99.: Married Women’s Property 10 JUNE, 1868 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXVIII The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXVIII - Public and Parliamentary Speeches Part I November 1850 - November 1868 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXVIII - Public and Parliamentary Speeches Part I November 1850 - November 1868, ed. John M. Robson and Bruce L. Kinzer (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1988).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The online edition of the Collected Works is published under licence from the copyright holder, The University of Toronto Press. ©2006 The University of Toronto Press. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced in any form or medium without the permission of The University of Toronto Press.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Married Women’s Property
Speeches of Mr. Jacob Bright, M.P., Mr. Robert Lowe, M.P., Mr. J.S. Mill, M.P., and Mr. G. Shaw Lefevre, M.P., in the Debate on the Second Reading of “The Bill to Amend the Law with Respect to the Property of Married Women” (Manchester: Ireland, 1868), pp. 9–11. Based on PD, 3rd ser., Vol. 192, cols. 1370–2. Reported in The Times, 11 June, p. 6, from which the responses are taken. Mill presented petitions in favour of the Bill (31 Victoria [21 Apr., 1868], PP, 1867–68, III, 375–8) on 9 and 10 June. On the day he spoke, Mill wrote to a correspondent (possibly Isabella Tod, of Belfast) to say that the Bill had passed its second reading, “(after an interesting debate of which all the honours were on our side) by the casting vote of the Speaker, and is to be referred to a Select Committee”
(CW, Vol. XVI, p. 1413).
aperhaps, sir, thosea who, like myself, bthink that women can never hope that the laws and customs of society will do them full justice unless they are admitted to participate in political rights, ought, perhaps, to wish that the House would rejectb this Bill, because cit is quite certain thatc its rejection would give a most extraordinary impulse to the movement, which has lately made so much progress, for giving the suffrage to women. (Hear, hear.) I wish, however, that my sex should have the credit of giving up unjust dand impolitic privileges before they are brought under the influence of other motives than their own good feelingsd . The debate has produced many gratifying expressions of opinion—the able and persuasive speech of my honourable friend the member for Manchester for example, and the logical and high-principled address of my right honourable friend the member for Calne.1 (Hear, hear.) The honourable and learned member for Colchester2ehas very truly said that his honourable friend the member for Reading3 is not the author of the Bill, but has adopted it from others, who, he seems to think, must be persons strongly prejudiced against the existing institutions of societye. I regret that the learned gentleman has left the House, as I could have told him who some of those persons were. I do not think the learned gentleman can have been aware that among fthe persons whom he was condemningf were those eminent socialists and revolutionists the present Secretaries of State for Foreign Affairs and for War.4 The noble lord (Lord Stanley), along with that eminent judge Sir Lawrence Peel,5 was a member of the committee of the Social Science Association which drew up the Bill, similar to this, formerly introduced by Sir Erskine Perry;6 and the right honourable baronet (Sir J.S. Pakington) took the chair at a public meeting for the same purpose.7 The learned gentleman is aware that ghe has against him the right honourable Recorder of London ,8 but attributes his absence to not being hearty in the cause. I wonder the learned gentleman does not know that the recorder is prevented from being present by the discharge of his judicial duties. His feelings on the subject are very strong, and, had he been present, he would probably have given the House his experience of the manner in which the law affects the women of the humbler classes. That conscientious and feeling judge might also have given the Attorney-General9 an insight into the working of the provisions of the Divorce Act,10 and how unreal and nominal an amount of protection has been given by that Act to the women of the humbler class. It does, indeed, allow married women to apply to the magistrate for protection to their earnings, but only in cases of desertion. Cases are, however, constantly occurringgh, some within my own knowledge,h in which the husband just avoids the amount of desertion which would justify the magistrate in giving protection to the wife. He stays away for a sufficient time to enable her to accumulate a small sum, and then he lives with her just long enough to squander it. As, however, the Attorney-General has expressed a willingness to extend and improve the operation of that Act,11 I trust that he will himself introduce a Bill on the subject. (Hear, hear.) There has been, indeed, on the part of the Legislature a wonderful overlooking of the need of some similar protection. Even in cases where the words “to her separate use”12 are introduced by the Court of Chancery for the wife’s protection, the sole effect of the words is that the trustees cannot pay the income of the settled property except upon the wife’s receipt. That is a perfect protection if the wife be living away from her husband, but if she be living with him the money immediately becomes the husband’s income, and he has a right to take it from her the moment she receives it. (Hear, hear.) iA large portion of the inhabitants of this country are now in the anomalous position of having imposed on them, without their having done anything to deserve it, what we inflict as a penalty on the worst criminals. Like felons they are incapable of holding property. And the class of women who are in that position are married women, whom we profess a desire to surround with marks of honour and dignity.ijMany people seem to think it impossible that two persons can live together in harmonyj unless one of them has absolute power over the other. This kmay have been the case in savage times, but we are advanced beyond the savage state; and I believe it is not found that civilized men or women cannot live with their brothers or with their sisters except on such terms, or that business cannot be successfully carried on unless one partner has the absolute mastery over the other. The family offers a type and a school of the relation of superiors and inferiors, exemplified in parents and children; it should also offer a type and a school of the relation of equality, exemplified in husband and wife. I am not insensible to the evils which husbands suffer from bad and unprincipled wivesk . Happily, the levilsl of slavery m(and I do not use the word in an invidious sense)m extend to the slave-master as well as to the slave. But if we were endeavouring to invent a mode of giving to the wife the strongest possible motive to strain to the utmost her claims nagainst the property of her husband, what step more effectual for this object could be taken than to enact that she should have no rights of her own, and should be entirely dependent upon what she can extract from the husband?n It is only by doing justice to women that we can hope to give them any moral feeling against encroaching on the rights of others. oIt is by remedying the injustice that married women now suffer that real harmony is to be introduced into the married state.opWould the honourable Member for Colchester accept for himself exclusion from all rights of property, on condition that some one else should pay his debts, and make atonement for his wrongs?p The Attorney-General adverted to what is certainly the weakest part of the Bill when he pointed out that, if the rights of husband and wife are to be equal, their obligations ought also to be equal, and if the Bill should go into committee it will be necessary to alter the clauses so as to establish an obligation equally on both parties.13 The Bill will no doubt require a great deal of consideration in committee, not so much with a view to the omission of some clauses as to the addition of others. No doubt it is true that many other qalterations of the law will be necessary; for when the law is founded on a bad principle much re-adjustment is necessitated by the adoption of a good one. But if it should please the House to refer the Bill to a Select Committee, there are honourable and learned Gentlemen on both sides of the House quiteq capable of proposing such radditions as wouldr make the Bill work smoothly. (Hear.)
[The division on second reading was tied, and the Speaker voted “Aye” to allow further discussion (cols. 1376–8).]
[a-a]PD] P Those
[b-b]PD support the extension of political rights to women, should desire the rejection of
[d-d]PD] P privileges voluntarily
[1 ]Jacob Bright, cols. 1360–4, and Robert Lowe, cols. 1364–7.
[2 ]Edward Kent Karslake (1820–92), cols. 1355–8.
[e-e]PD said with great truth that the real authors of the Bill are not present, and he seemed to think they must be persons in whose eyes any change in existing institutions must be an improvement
[3 ]Shaw-Lefevre, who had introduced the Bill, and later (cols. 1373–6) spoke to it.
[f-f]PD] P them
[4 ]Stanley and Pakington.
[5 ]Lawrence Peel (1799–1884) had been Chief Justice of Calcutta (1842–55) and a Director of the East India Company (from 1857) when Mill was Chief Examiner.
[6 ]Thomas Erskine Perry (1806–82), then M.P. for Devonport, Speech on the Married Women’s Property Bill (14 May, 1857), PD, 3rd ser., Vol. 145, cols. 266–74, introducing “A Bill to Amend the Law with Respect to the Property of Married Women,” 20 Victoria (14 May, 1857), PP, 1857, III.ii, 243–8 (not enacted).
[7 ]On 31 May, 1856; see “Property of Married Women,” The Times, 2 June, p. 5.
[g-g]PD the right honourable Recorder of London (Mr. Russell Gurney) is a supporter of the Bill, because his name is on the back of it; but he seems to think that Gentleman’s absence intentional, though, as a lawyer, it is strange he should not have known that the Recorder’s absence is caused by his presiding in his Court. That conscientious and feeling judge was very desirous of being present, and would, from his judicial experience, have put the House in possession of the real effects of the present law, and afforded to the Attorney General and the honourable Member for Colchester some information as to the true working of that power in the Divorce Act to which allusion has been made. It is only in cases of desertion that this power comes into exercise, and that the magistrate has power to make orders of protection; but cases are continually happening,
[8 ]Russell Gurney, like Mill, was a sponsor of the Bill.
[9 ]John Burgess Karslake.
[10 ]20 & 21 Victoria, c. 85 (1857).
[11 ]Karslake, col. 1369.
[12 ]See Sect. 25 of 20 & 21 Victoria, c. 85.
[j-j]PD It seems to be the opinion of those who oppose the measure that it is impossible for society to exist on a harmonious footing between two persons
[k-k]PD] P might be true whilst people were savages; but civilized men are able to live with their brothers, women with their sisters, and men with their sisters, without any such absolute power, and why not men with their wives? I am quite aware that men may suffer from bad wives, as well as women from bad husbands
[n-n]PD] P over her husband, it would be by giving her no rights of her own.
[13 ]Karslake, col. 1369.
[q-q]PD] P parts of the law, having been adjusted to a bad principle, will require modification, in order to accommodate them to a good one. But a select committee, comprising able lawyers, will be perfectly
[r-r]PD alterations as will