It has to be admitted that women in England have had a very poor deal since the time of William the Conqueror. It is only in the late twentieth century that they have regained the rights they had in Anglo-Saxon times. That is 900 years of oppression.
It seems outrageous to us today that by law all women’s property and estate automatically became that of her husband’s when she married. This law persisted up until 1882. It is equally outrageous that universal women’s suffrage did not become law until 1928. I am ashamed that Britain was one of the last countries in Europe to grant women full voting rights with the Equal Franchise Act.
We know that from the 15th century women competently ran large estates, and defended them. The letters of Margeret Paston of Norfolk to her husband, who was in London for many years, testify to this.
Looking at the wills of local people of the 17th and 18th century it is clear that the men who left wills (and it was mostly men, occasionally widows) referred to their ‘much beloved wives’, these men bear witness in their wording and bequests which shows how much they appreciated their wives. The men loved their wives and children every bit as much as today.
Many widows continued to run the family business after their husband’s decease, especially, but by no means exclusively, inns and brewing. They could also take over the farms and manage them successfully.
In the 18th and 19th centuries almost every male in the country, from the Archbishop of Canterbury to the local Overseers of the poor, believed that women should be married. Single women were stigmatised socially and economically. Women were paid generally only half the man’s wage for an equivalent job and employers before the industrial revolution preferred married women over single women.
In Dorset by-work for women such as spinning, button, lace and glove making had their boom and bust times. They each went bust with the introduction of machinery. Even in the boom times women could earn only between 6d and 1s 6d per day – and that was a dawn to dusk job, six days a week. This could supplement the family’s income, but with weekly rents at around 2s, and food and clothing to find, this left very little over.
Single women could not afford accommodation unless it was really bad. Of course, for single women and widows in rural areas, they had the parish to fall back on. The Overseers of the Poor had to raise and collect ‘Poor Rates’ to distribute to the needy. Most of the occurrences of payments to the poor which we have studied concern payments to single women, widows and those too infirm to work.
The Overseers were under great pressure from the rate payers to reduce their payments, with the result that they worked hard to get children apprenticed from the age of seven, families forcibly removed to other parishes and young women into service.