Today in several American cities demonstrators are marching to protest the expected Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v Wade. Women fear that they will lose the right to decide whether or not to have an abortion. This seems an appropriate week to celebrate the work of one woman who fought to enlarge and protect the rights of women at a time when most women had no choice at all about bearing or raising children. In fact, by law in England once a woman was married, all her rights were given to her husband. But one woman started a battle which continues to this day.
Caroline Sheridan was born in 1808 in London. Her grandfather was the famous playwright, Richard Sheridan, and her father was an actor as well as a diplomat. Caroline was one of three daughters in the family, all of whom were admired for their beauty and lively wit. Unfortunately, when their father died suddenly, the family was left without any regular income and were almost penniless. His daughters had to rely upon their beauty and charm to build satisfactory lives for themselves. And because marriage was the only acceptable career for a woman, that meant they each had to find a reliable husband.
Caroline, the middle daughter, was beautiful and had a quick wit which attracted many men, although some people considered her too sharp-tonged and outspoken. In 1827, she married George Norton, a barrister with political ambitions. He was well-educated and capable, but like his wife, he was dependent on earning enough money to support his family. The marriage quickly became a difficult one. Norton was a harsh and strict husband. He encouraged Caroline to support his career by making friends who could help him to get a government appointment, but he was a heavy drinker and became abusive if he thought his wife was too friendly with other men.
Despite their troubles, the couple remained together and had three sons who became the center of Caroline’s life. As the family unhappiness continued, Caroline threw herself into writing. Her first book The Sorrows of Rosalie was published in 1829. It was a success and she wrote several other novels as well as pamphlets on current affairs. As a married woman, all of the money she earned belonged to her husband. According to English law, married women were not recognized as individuals, but only as dependents of their husband. Furious at the way her husband took all her earnings, Caroline began to spend more and more of the money earned by her writing. Her debts, like her earnings, became the responsibility of her husband, but his anger and resentment about this only led to more abuse. The couple finally separated in 1836 when Caroline left Norton and moved into one of her sister’s houses.
After their separation, Caroline continued her busy social life. One of her closest friends was Lord Melbourne, the Prime Minister. They saw each other frequently and wrote many letters about what was happening in government circles. But then George Norton committed what Caroline saw as an unforgiveable sin—he kidnapped their three sons and moved them to Scotland to live with his sister and her husband. Caroline was not allowed to visit the boys or to make any decisions about their education. She protested to her family and friends, some of whom supported efforts and tried to persuade Norton to let her see her sons more often.
In the midst of this battle over custody, Norton decided to ruin Caroline’s chances by accusing her of sexual misconduct with Melbourne. He brought charges against Melbourne and the case went to trial. Personal letters between Caroline and Melbourne were read aloud in court and servants who had been discharged from the household were called upon to testify that they had seen inappropriate behavior between the two. In the end, the jury ruled that adultery had not been proven. Norton was not able to sue for divorce, but Caroline’s reputation would never recover from the scandal.
Caroline’s life was not destroyed by the Melbourne trial, but it was set on a path which led her into more and more political activity. She continued to write novels as well as articles and political pamphlets. Her work along with that of other women helped lead to laws such as the Custody of Infants Act 1839, the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 and the Married Women’s Property Act 1870.
George and Carolyn’s lives remained stormy although they never divorced. Caroline won the right to see her sons and eventually her grandchildren, but their relationships had been damaged by the years of separation. George Norton died in 1875 and Caroline in 1877
Antonia Fraser has written a thoughtful biography of Caroline Norton called The Case of the Married Woman: Caroline Norton and Her Fight for Women’s Justice (2021). This biography paints a vivid picture of what married life was like during the 1800s and helps us to understand some of the difficult battles that have been fought to enable women to control their own lives. Now it appears that the battle is not over yet.