19th century activist helped change divorce law after being ruined by abusive husband
Caroline Norton, a woman at the center of one of the most publicized lawsuits of the 19th century and an “anonymous heroine in the fight for women’s rights”, is being celebrated with a blue inheritance plaque in London.
Biographer Lady Antonia Fraser this week revealed the plaque to someone she said she deserves to be much better known for, a woman who was in an abusive marriage and was ruined by her husband but resisted and helped change the law.
“She was terribly treated for being found innocent in an adultery case with the Prime Minister,” said Fraser.
The politician was Lord Melbourne, against whom Norton’s husband, George Norton, filed a lawsuit, suing him in 1836.
Norton lost and felt humiliated. He took his revenge by making the most of the law: throwing his wife out of the family home, denying him any contact with his three children, all under the age of seven, and continuing to benefit from his earnings as a writer.
“A married woman, in short, had no legal existence,” said Fraser. “It fills the person with sympathy for him, especially because he is deprived of his children. She was a very good mother … the agony of not seeing them.
“What she did after that, instead of regretting or giving up, which I think almost anyone would do, she became an activist, she wrote pamphlets, she pressured politicians.”
As a result of their campaign, mothers ended up receiving custody of children under the age of seven in cases of divorce or separation, and access thereafter.
Further advances in the way that divorced women were treated under the law can also be attributed to Norton’s efforts, along with the recognition that married women can own their own properties.
“All of this resulted from this terrible personal tragedy,” said Fraser. “Why I admire her so much is that she didn’t accept defeat.”
The plaque opened at 3 Chesterfield Street, the house in Mayfair where she lived alone, campaigning and writing.
Anna Eavis, curatorial director of English Heritage, said Norton was “an anonymous hero in the fight for women’s rights”.
She added: “Through her battles with the legal system in the mid-19th century, she was directly responsible for protecting women from abuse of power by their husbands.
“She secured historic victories for married women, changing the legal system by establishing her existence in the eyes of the law to protect her children, property, income and bequests. Women owe a lot to her. “
Fraser said it was a happy coincidence that his new Norton biography was published in the same year that English Heritage was installing the sign.
Norton deserved it, Fraser said, adding that she was a remarkable and very funny woman, with many terrible jokes. In a letter to a friend, she wrote: “Why wasn’t Uncle Tom’s cabin written by human hand? Because it was written by Harriet Beecher’s Toe. “
There are other good books about Norton, Fraser said, “but it is surprising how few people have any idea that women’s rights were void in 1836. I was very surprised.”
London’s blue plaque scheme was established in 1866, with the first revealed at Lord Byron’s birthplace.
It took 10 years for a woman to be recognized with a plaque when one was placed at the home of theater actor Sarah Siddons. In 1905, only five women had plaques dedicated to them, including George Eliot. Today, only 14% of the more than 950 blue plaques honor women.
In recent years, English Heritage has encouraged the public to nominate more women and there is progress. It said, “This year, half of our new plaques will be dedicated to women, and women represent well over half of the cases currently on hold.”