What do the first female war correspondent, a prolific novelist, the socialite founder of a Red Cross hospital, a tireless campaigner for women’s suffrage and one of Jack the Ripper’s victims have in common? They’re all included in my book Struggle and Suffrage in Windsor.
As it’s International Women’s Day I wanted to tell you a bit about it.
The book is about ordinary women’s lives in the town between 1850 and 1950, leading up to and beyond the granting of votes for women and the effects of the two world wars, but many of the difficulties faced by the women of Windsor were common to women everywhere.
People who opposed women’s suffrage often argued that women should stay out of politics because a woman’s place was in the home. And yet it was in the home that many of the worst social injustices lay, and without the vote women had no chance of helping to bring about change.
For most of the nineteenth century, when a woman married she ceased to exist as an individual in the eyes of the law. Her earnings and property became her husband’s, including property she inherited.
If the marriage broke down she had no right even to the property that had been hers before marriage.
If a husband left his wife, however, he could come back years later and claim her earnings.
Her children weren’t her own. If the marriage broke down she had no right to custody, which forced many women to stay in unhappy or violent marriages.
But an unmarried mother wasn’t entitled to any help from the child’s father. Bastardy clauses in the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 made the unmarried mother rather than the father legally responsible for the child.
With limited educational opportunities and without a welfare state many women were pushed into poverty through death, divorce or desertion. It’s not surprising that some of these chose prostitution as a means to support themselves, especially in Windsor where there were two garrisons and the main industry was breweries.
The Contagious Diseases Act of 1864 which was brought in for garrison towns like Windsor shows the double standards of the age, putting the blame firmly at the women’s door and treating them as sex objects. Although intended to protect the population and especially the soldiers from the spread of sexually transmitted disease, it allowed prostitutes to be arrested, forcibly examined, locked up and treated. Campaigner Josephine Butler described the experience as “surgical rape.”
Although the Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 and 1882 went some way to improve women’s rights, allowing a wife to keep her earnings and property after marriage, there were many other areas in which women were unfairly treated, including men often receiving harsher sentences for killing another man than killing a woman.
Issues like these drove women in Windsor to campaign for the vote and a fairer society.
Most of the people mentioned in the book have not become famous – drunken housewives shouting and throwing dung at each other in the street, prostitutes attacking policemen, a maid at the castle arrested for stealing her mistress’s jewels, a young woman trying to find a solution to an unwanted pregnancy – but have each in their own way contributed to Windsor’s story.
Struggle and Suffrage in Windsor will be printed soon by Pen and Sword.