This little pamphlet was produced to encourage the passing of legislation to allow women to have access to their children in the event of separation from the father. Under the law that existed until the time of this debate, women who were separated from their husbands had no right to visit the children if their husbands did not agree. The father had sole custody and could make decisions about whether the mother was allowed to even see the child.
This is what happened to Caroline Norton. She was a dashing young woman, a wit, a poet and a penniless grand-daughter of Sheridan. She married a guy who turned out to be a drip, and was named as possibly having a liaison with Lord Melbourne, the Prime Minister. After a very public court case, it was found that there was no evidence of her wrong-doing. Nonetheless her husband cast her out without a penny and then denied her access to her children for the remainder of their childhoods.
Married women were subsumed into their husband’s identities. Married women could not own property, control money they earned, enter into contracts, go to the courts in civil cases or have custody of children. They were subject to coverture, literally ‘covered’ by their husband’s legal identity. In Caroline Norton’s case this meant that her husband had no obligation to support her but that anything she earned was legally his property. She left the house and came back to find the doors barred against her – from then on she spent only hours with her children (all aged under ten) until the two who survived to adulthood returned to her company.
I’d like to say her story had a happy ending. It almost did – After her husband finally died she remarried, but then died 14 weeks later.
However, she did produce a large quantity of popular Victorian poetry and a few leaflets dealing with the pivotal issue of her life – access to children. I am happy to say that changes to the law were made in 1839 that allowed contact between mothers and children. This was part of the gradual disentangling of married women from their husbands in the 19th century, with later acts vastly improving the status of married women.
As she wrote in this snappy pamphlet, the key issue was ‘the general feature of all the laws respecting women (namely, the non-admission of their separate legal existence when married)’. Her husband was a magistrate (a job she got for him through her connections and that he did not give up despite it being the gift of Melbourne) but not capable of batting in this league.
Norton was careful not to claim too much or to personalise the debate. Indeed, the pamphlet was originally released anonymously. She kowtowed appropriately to the rule of the fathers. ‘Doubtless the claim of a father is sacred and indisputable…’
You can feel the but coming; she continued: ‘ but when the mother's claim clashes with it, surely something should be accorded to her. There are other laws besides those in made by men —what says the holier law, the law of nature?
Does nature say that the woman, who endures for nearly a year a tedious suffering, ending in an agony which perils her life, has no claim to the children she bears ? Does nature say that the woman, who after that year of suffering is over provides from her own bosom the nourishment which preserves the very existence of her offspring, has no claim to the children she has nursed? Does nature say that the woman who has watched patiently through the very many feverish and anxious nights which occur even in the healthiest infancy, has no claim to the children she has tended ?’
She follows up the pamphlet with an overview of the most relevant precedents, including a woman whose child was ‘’cruelly tak[en]… from the breast’ and fulminations against the men who wronged women.
Norton was a society beauty, who was immortalised as the figure of Justice in the Halls of the House of Lords The painter chose her specifically as a beautiful woman who had been wronged by the law.