In 1938, a group of feminist campaigners gathered in London to address what they saw as the most pressing issue of their time: marriage inequality. For Married Women’s Association, the right to vote – a victory for women over 30 in 1918 – was only the beginning of women’s emancipation. Next was the legal status of housewives.

When you were a married woman in the early 20th century, you had no rights to your house, the money your husband gave you, or even the bed you slept in unless you bought it with your own money. .

You were also paid less than men, while all housework was yours alone and unpaid. Your husband, on the other hand, will be paid inflated income to support his dependents, known as “family allowances”, to which, ironically, you had no rights. In the eyes of the law, you were essentially invisible.

‘No recognition of its economic existence’: notes for a speech by the association’s vice-chair Theresa Billington-Greig, photographed at the Women’s Library.
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The Married Women’s Association sought to use the law to combat poverty faced by women in relationships. As the association’s founder, Juanita Francis, said:

I’m not asking for protection, I’m asking for legal rights in hard cash.

These women’s stories are long overdue unkempt. As I show in my new book, Quiet revolutionaries (and corv podcast), what they fought for remains very relevant.

For the first time in at least 30 years increase in number women leave their jobs to take care of their families. This hitting their career progression, their potential income and their pensions. Women are bearing the brunt of rising childcare costs in the UK and the cost of living crisis is only set to worsen. In the absence of better government support, the question – as it was for women in the 1930s – is whether the law can do anything.

Black and white photo of two women in wigs.
Association member and pioneering lawyer Helena Normanton (left) was one of the first two women to be appointed a King’s Counsel (KC) in 1949, along with Rose Heilbronn (right).
DL Archive Collection | Alami

Birth of the Society of Married Women

I have carried out extensive archival research in the Women’s Library of the London School of Economics, which holds the association’s papers. The idea to create a group came Dorothy Evansa former militant suffragist.

Evans was a lesbian and personally opposed the marriage. However, she saw marriage reform as the key to women’s emancipation. She argued that the lack of recognition of the value of housewives’ work, as well as men’s work outside the home, affected the lives of all women.

Evans recognized the leadership potential of Juanita Francis, a former nurse, burlesque dancer and magician’s assistant. Frances was a newcomer to the feminist movement and wanted to make a difference. “How have I missed this all my life?” she spoke of her involvement many years later in an interview in 1986. She recalled, “I entered the feminist movement and it struck me.”

The society had several prominent members. Besides being the first president of the association, Edith Summerskill was a doctor active in the creation of the NHS, a member of parliament and the first woman to name herself a feminist in parliament.

Authors Vera Britton and Dora Russell played an important role in the association, as did the pioneering lawyer Helena Normantonthe first woman to practice as a barrister and one of the first two women to be named a King’s Counsel. Doreen StevensMeanwhile, her involvement was instrumental in her becoming the first female head of the BBC.

Photograph of an archival document.
Flyer advertising the Married Women’s Association, photographed at the Ladies’ Library, London.
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Their ideas were as radical as their resumes suggest. They argued that since men could not go to work without their wives taking care of the house and children, wives should have the right to share in their husband’s property. Housework and care, for which they were largely responsible, made an undeniable contribution to the family’s well-being.

Reforming family law

In order for this to be recognized, the association proposed a new marriage law. This legislation would give married women a legal right to their husband’s property during the marriage and the right to know what he has earned.

In the end, the association failed to get the new marriage law passed. Her proposals were considered too extreme. For many, the Married Women’s Rights Act was akin to an intrusion into the privacy of the home. A 1952 article in the Daily Mirror described these women as menacing man-haters:

“Married Women’s Association!” How it rolls off the tongue, like the roll of distant thunder! Its sound is deep and ominous. Even a look of four words in type looks like the iron mouth of a fifteen-inch cannon – menacing, determined, implacable.

However, the association has had a significant impact in terms of wider family law. Although their ambitions for equal partnership were revolutionary, their methods were quiet but persistent.

Members of the association worked behind the scenes to make it easier for women for forced service after the divorce, when the husbands refused to pay. They were instrumental in passing the Married Women’s Property Act 1964, which gave wives the right to half share in economic savings.

They also helped Summerskill secure justice for abandoned wives to stay in his house through her Family Homes Act 1967. And they exerted pressure on the government in the introduction Matrimonial Proceedings and Property Act 1970. this law is still valid as part of today’s Matrimonial Affairs Act 1973, it gave a husband and wife engaged in domestic affairs property rights after divorce.

The struggle continues

Since the first days of unification, the status of women has changed beyond recognition. Broader issues of gender inequality, however, endure.

Research shows that mothers are still more likely sacrifice a career than parents. Women take longer than men to recover financially when their marriage broke up. And the issue of pension provision can also create significant financial inequalities between spouses.

Dismissing these statistics is easy reflecting women’s “choice” becomes difficult when the price of childcare rises to the point where employment is reaping little financial gain.

Photograph of an archival document.
Leaflet advertising the Married Women’s Association conference, photographed at the Ladies’ Library, London.
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The number of unemployed women aged 25-34 has risen in the UK over the past 12 months up 13%. And with childcare costs staggeringly higher than almost anywhere else in Europe, mothers increasingly can’t afford to go back to work.

While caregiving is often a marginalized, female experience, some men certainly make these sacrifices as well. However, so far these contributions are not valued in law, as the Association of Married Women argued more than half a century agothe ambition of an equal partnership in marriage cannot be realized. If we don’t value women’s work in the home, we are still losing women.

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