|1808 - 77
In mid-nineteenth century England women’s legal rights were governed by the laws of coverture. According to these, on marriage, a man and woman became a single legal entity and, as a result, a husband acquired rights over all of his wife’s property. Wives lost any power to enter into contracts or to make wills as independent people. Husbands, but not wives, could sue for divorce.
Caroline Sheridan was born into a well-connected but impoverished family. She accepted the marriage proposal of Tory MP the Hon. George Norton, though they had little in common and the marriage was soon very unhappy. Norton was discovered to have misrepresented his financial position and began to subject his wife to vicious beatings. Caroline found consolation in writing and the publication of her verses led to appointments as magazine editor which brought some measure of financial independence. In 1836, she finally left her husband who responded by accusing her of adultery with the Home Secretary Lord Melbourne, despite his previous encouragement of the friendship. He sued Melbourne for seducing his wife and, although he lost the case, the publicity ruined Caroline's reputation. Norton refused Caroline access to her three children and attempted to take her earnings from writing.
Caroline Norton campaigned for legislative change to make women equal to men in the eyes of the law. She lobbied influential individuals and wrote a series of pamphlets, including Observations on the Natural Claim of a Mother to the Custody of her Children as affected by the Common Law Right of the Father (1837) and English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century (1854). Norton’s efforts were influential in bringing about the Custody of Infants Act 1839, the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 and the Married Women's Property Act 1870. Thus her achievement is to have instigated changes in legislation which ameliorated the position of many women.
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