Many cultures across Europe, such as early Islam, ancient Hinduism, Biblical era Jewish law, and the wealthier parts of Roman society included the provision for women to own businesses, have their own income, and own property. Anglo-Saxon laws from the 800s allowed women to own property and continue to own it after marriage, while Norse law let women conduct business as equals with men.
In the 1100s, English common law combined Anglo-Saxon and Norman traditions to create the idea that marriage was a single financial entity, known as coverture. This meant that married women couldn’t own property, run a business, or take someone to court, because the ‘marriage entity’ had to do that. This concept of coverture gradually eroded over time until women became the property of their husbands around the 1600s. Widows were restricted by inheritance laws, but spinsters had some freedoms away from this mess.
Coverture favoured men until the UK passed the Married Women’s Property Act in 1870, allowing married women to keep any property they brought into the marriage. Prior to 1870, whatever a woman owned prior to marriage automatically became the husband’s property, along with the woman. The Married Women’s Property Act was also a big moment in the suffrage movement, which dates back to 1832. In terms of independence, the 1870 Act was a massive step for women as they finally were able to maintain property independent of their husband.
Now, none of this discussion includes the work done by women, especially working class women, as their contribution to the household. Most of this work has been erased from records because women (and therefore their work and income) belonged to their husband. To be a spinster in these times gave women a lot more freedom from the restrictions of coverture, however, it meant they had to have their own income either through work or inheritance (and most inheritance laws ignored female children).
How this relates to my books:
Bluestocking Series – mf romances set in 1887/88. Once married, the heroines could retain any wealth they brought to the marriage under the Married Women’s Property Act.
Her Lady’s Honor – ff romance set in 1919. Women over 30 in the UK had been given the vote (as well as men over 21) in 1918. Lesbian relationships weren’t recognised by law; they weren’t illegal (that law only applied to gay men), and they couldn’t get married either. They lived as spinster ‘best friends’ with a lot more personal and financial freedom than married women. Because inheritance laws in the UK still favoured men, women often didn’t have independent incomes unless they earned them through their own work. Women during WWI were paid much less than men for the same work, with women earning an average of 11 shillings a week and men earning 26 shillings a week.