CLASS, GENDER, AND LIBERALISM IN PARLIAMENT, 1868–1882: THE CASE OF THE MARRIED WOMEN'S PROPERTY ACTS 1
The class and gender identities created by male politicians are vital to a proper understanding of how and why parliament increased women's legal rights in the nineteenth century. An examination of the parliamentary debates on the Married Women's Property Acts of 1870 and 1882 reveals that it is misleading to divide men into supporters and opponents of women's rights, because even some of those who supported the most radical reform did so in the belief that the gender hierarchy should be left intact. At the same time, politicians were reluctant to accept that their own homes should be affected by changes to women's rights, both because they feared that these changes would reduce their domestic authority and create discord in their homes, and because they did not think that the critique of male behaviour which justified the reforms should apply to them or their class. Their ability to confine both charges of abuse and the effects of the acts to the poor was essential to the successful passage of the Married Women's Property Acts. Rather than see this as the defeat of a liberal individualist vision, it was in fact the victory of an alternative strand of Victorian liberalism.
1 I would like to thank my research supervisor, Dr Simon Szreter, for his continuing support and advice. I would also like to express my gratitude to everyone who commented on an earlier version of this paper when it was read at the Graduate Seminar in British Political and Constitutional History, Cambridge University, 30 April 2001. I am also indebted to the Historical Journal's anonymous readers for their valuable suggestions. The research for this article was funded by St John's College, Cambridge, and the Arts and Humanities Research Board.