Despite the fact that we are all human beings, throughout history men and women have been treated differently, both in legal and social terms. Even in prehistory archaeological discoveries have confirmed that the sexes were regarded separately. These differences highlight that one sex is often dominant, usually male, and even today in some cultures ideology completely subjugates women. Over the centuries, in some societies, movements have emerged to overcome these prejudices.
There have of course been powerful and influential women such as in 400 BC, Greek woman, Agnodice, who against the law, practised medicine. She was discovered but with support she was allowed to continue. Boudicca waged war against the Romans, Elizabeth I by strength of character ruled for 45 years, Mexican Nun, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, in 1691 defended women’s rights to education and courageous modern women who have worked tirelessly to improve the condition of women’s lives but these are the exception, not the rule. Most women have to live their lives, as best they can, some more successfully than others, under the prevailing legal and social conditions.
In order to understand how and why people act we need to understand the legal and cultural framework within which women made decisions and conducted their lives. We need to put our ladies into context, if we are to make sense of their lives. it can help to have a timeline of events and acts of Parliament, social mores which people around them expected them to follow and social movements which had a bearing on our women’s lives. This timeline includes references to many aspects of how women lived, from the family, personal relationships, education, health - both mental and physical, community, criminal activity and social relations to the occupations which they wished to follow. or were excluded from. Some of the dates relate to records where women’s names are to be found. The list is not exhaustive and if anyone has suggestions we are happy for you to get in touch with us.
Please note that, at present, this timeline focuses on England and Wales.
1235: Statute of Merton. Stated that 'he is a bastard that is born before the marriage of his parents', 'woman shall recover damages in a writ of dower' and widows had a right to 'bequeath the crop of their lands'.
1536: Act for the Punishment of Sturdy Vagabonds and Beggars.
1538: Thomas Cromwell’s order to keep Parish Registers. In early registers women are often not mentioned when their children are baptised.
1540: Marriage Act Set out regulations regarding pre-nuptial contracts.
1557: Act regarding abduction of 'Madyens'.
1563: Witchcraft made capital offence but had been denounced by Rome since mid 1400s.
1597: Act against taking away women against their will.
1604: Bigamy Act.
1609: A mother who failed to provide for an illegitimate child could be sent to the house of correction for a year.
1612: Pendle Witch Trials.
1624 Act to 'Prevent the Destroying and Murthering of Bastard Children' instituted the death penalty for this offence.
1645: Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General, began his campaign against witches in Essex and surrounding counties by finding 80 year old Elizabeth Clarke guilty. She was executed.
1695: The Marriage Duty Act taxed marriages until 1706 and prevented marriages without banns or licence.
1696: Act to stop marriages without banns or licence.
1732: The Bastard Child Act. Unmarried mothers were expected to name the father of thier illegitimate child under oath during a bastardy examination. Fathers were to be imprisoned until they agreed to support their child.
1740s: More than half of London's marriages took place clandestinely in the Fleet Prison.
1741: Foundling Hospital founded in London by Thomas Coram opened. Some outposts too.
1744: An illegitimate child up to the age of seven could now take mother’s place of settlement. Prevented separation of mother and child.
1753: Hardwick’s Marriage Act. Each party to be 21 or have parental consent. Banns or licences required.
1774: Madhouse Act. All madhouses to be licenced to stop abuse of those not insane being incarcerated. Remained in force until Mental Health Act of 1959.
1777: Tax on male servants encouraged the employment of women.
1783: An Act for stamp duty on baptisms, marriages, burials.
1785: Tax on female servants.
1792: Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women.
1803: Concealment of a birth became a crime.
1808: County asylums to be established for the mentally ill.
1812: Rose’s Act regarding baptism and burial registers.
1820: Abolition of flogging of female prisoners.
1824: The Vagrancy Act.
1823: Marriage Act reduced the residential requirement to 15 days. Age of consent returned to pre 1753 levels; 14 for boys, 12 for girls.
1828: The Offences Against the Person Act. abortion no longer attracts the death penalty.
1832: The Reform Act extended the male franchise, women excluded.
1833: Factory Act to regulate work in textile factories. The maximum working day for women and children is twelve hours.
1834: Poor Law Amendment Act makes illegitimate children the sole responsibility of their mothers until they reach the age of sixteen.
1835: Marriage Act forbidding marriage between close relatives, including the deceased wife's sister.
1839: The Custody of Infants Act allowed mothers to petition the courts for custody of their young children up to the age of seven and for access to older children.
1842: Mines’ Act outlawed employment of women and children under ten.
1843: Parliamentary Enquiry into Women and Children in Agriculture.
1844: Factories Act restricted the hours of women and children. Child employees were to be listed.
1845: The Lunacy and County Asylum Act. Mentally ill people in the workhouse had to be moved to asylums within fourteen days.
1845: Cause of death now generally certified by doctor.
1851: Father’s name could not be recorded on a birth certificate if the parents were not married.
1853: The Act for Better Prevention and Punishment of Aggravated Assaults upon Women and Children.
1857: Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act allowed for divorce in England and Wales on grounds of adultery only. Women also had to prove cruelty or desertion. Women were regarded as the property of their husband, so husband's could claim compensation from the adulterer. Jurisdiction over marital issues was transferred from church to civil courts.
1859: Annual Medical Registers, listing doctors licensed to practice, began.
1860: Criminal Lunatic Asylum Act proposed a system of dedicated asylums.
1861: Offences against the Person Act made concealment of a birth a crime that was punishable for up to two years in prison.
1864: Contagious Diseases Act. Allowed for forcible examination of women found loitering in a port or near a barracks. Jurisdiction later extended before the act was repealed in 1886.
1866: John Stuart Mill's petition for women’s suffrage to be included in the Reform Act but this did not happen.
1867: London Society for Women’s Suffrage founded.
1867: Agricultural Gangs Act to regulate the employment of women and children.
1869: Female rate payers (single or widowed) could vote in municipal elections for Poor Law Boards, from 1870, school boards.
1870: Married Woman’s Property Act. Gave married women in England, Wales and Ireland the right to keep own earnings and any property inherited after marriage.
1870: Foster’s Educated Act. Established elementary education for 5-12 year olds. Teachers to keep attendance lists and log books.
1872: Secret ballot for all elections. Recording votes discontinued.
1872: British Home Children Scheme to Canada.
1872: The Girls Day School Trust founded by Mrs Maria Grey, Miss Emily Shirreff, Lady Stanley of Alderley and Miss Mary Gurney.
1873: The Infant Custody Act custody children under sixteen can be awarded to mothers.
1874: Factory Act established a maximum fifty six hour week.
1874: Birth & Death Registration Act, registration compulsory within forty two days to avoid additional payment. Father of of an illegitimate child had to be present if they were to be named name on a birth certificate.
1878: Factory and Workshop Act. Regulations apply to all trades. Minimum working age was ten. All those under ten to be in school.
1878: The Matrimonial Causes Act women can be granted judicial separation in cases of aggravated assault,
1880: Elementary Education Act. Compulsory education for all.
1882: Married Women’s Property Act. Married women to have the same rights as single women to control their financial affairs, including own property, running a business, liability for debts and making a will.
1883: Cooperative Woman’s Guild, aimed to improve women’s conditions.
1888: First equal pay resolution at Trade Union Congress.
1888: County Elector’s Act. All individuals who paid rates or occupied property with a rental value of more than £10, qualified to vote in county and borough elections. This applied to women if they were ratepayers or occupiers in their own right.
1888: Women at Bryant and May's match factory strike over working conditions.
1889: Charles Booth begins his survey of London.
1892: Women's suffrage petition with 250,000 signatures is handed to parliament.
1893: Elementary Education Act. School leaving age raised to eleven. Provision made for deaf and blind schools.
1893: St. Hilda's College, Oxford for women founded by Dorothea Beale.
1895: Notification of infectious diseases. This affected women who were prostitutes, particularly in sea ports.
1897: Founding of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies.
1898: The Inebriates Act made it an offence to serve alcohol to anyone convicted of being a habitual drunkard; local authorities circulated books with photos & physical descriptions to pubs.
1899: School leaving age raised to twelve.
1900: School leaving age raised to fourteen.
1900: Higher Elementary schools catered for pupils aged ten to fifteen.
1902: Textile workers petition for the vote.
1902: Balfour’s Education Act.
1903: The Women’s Social and Political Union founded by the Pankhurst family.
1905: Alien’s Act controlled immigration.
1906: National Federation of Women Workers founded.
1907: Notification of births to health authorities to be made by midwives or parents.
1907: The Qualification of Women Act. Women could be elected to borough or county councils or be elected mayor
1907: Deceased Wife’s Sister’s Act. Widower allowed to marry wife’s sister.
1908: Children’s Act to prevent baby farming.
1910s: Suffragettes' protests.
1913: The Temporary Discharge Act, nicknames the Cat and Mouse Act to get round women’s hunger strikes.
1914: Alien’s Act, all alien’s over sixteen to register with police. This included British women, who on marriage to foreigner had become citizens of his country.
1915: Women’s Institute founded.
1915: Board of Agriculture training courses for women set up.
1918: Representation of the People Act. Gave the vote to men over twenty one and women over thirty who were householders or wives of householders.
1918: Parliamentary Qualification Act. Women could stand as a Member of Parliament.
1918: Education Act. School leaving age raised to fourteen.
1919: The Sex Disqualification Removal Act gives women access to trades and professions.
1920: Oxford University admits women for degrees.
1921: Marie Stopes opened the first English birth control clinic.
1921: Unemployment benefits to include wives.
1921: An attempt to make lesbian relationships illegal is rejected.
1922: The Law of Property Act. Husband and wife to inherit property equally.
1922: Infanticide Act abolished the death penalty for a woman who killed her child whilst suffering mental health problems after childbirth.
1923: Women granted the same divorce rights as men if adultery was proven.
1925: Mothers given custodial rights over children.
1926: Registration of still born babies began.
1926: A widow’s entitlement to an intestate husband’s estate was raised from a third to a half. The remainder to go to the children.
1926: The Legitimacy Act. Allowed for the legitimisation of children whose parents married after their birth.
1926: The Adoption of Infants Act. Set out rules for formal adoption; registration began in 1927.
1928: Women are given the vote on the same basis as men.
1929: Marriage Act. Raised the minimum age for marriage to sixteen.
1929: Women become 'persons' in their own right by order of the Privy Council.
1967: Abortion Act. Legalised Abortion in Britain (excluding Northern Ireland) up to twenty eight weeks gestation.