A husband's right to sexual intercourse was assured by law in several ways. Firstly, by the law and custom of marriage. Sir Matthew Hale commented in 1736 that it was impossible for a husband to be tried for rape, because by marrying the wife had 'given herself up' sexually to her husband and could never retract that consent. Secondly, an ancient right under canon law allowed either party to claim restoration of 'conjugal rights' (i.e. cohabitation). Under the 1857 Divorce Act, refusal to cohabit after being ordered to do so by a judge was contempt of court and could entail a prison sentence. Once a woman was cohabiting with her husband he could rape her with impunity. As Oswald Dawson put it in 1895, a wife was 'at the mercy of the carnal appetite of the man ... at all times and without regard to the state of her health, or any other considerations', he continued, 'This slavery of compulsory cohabitation is surely chattel-like'. He concluded, 'until a woman who is a wife can say, at least at certain times, either "I wish to sleep alone" ... she can never consider herself free'.[1]

The Matrimonial Causes Act 1884 reformed the law so that a refusal to restore conjugal rights no longer led to imprisonment but was deemed to be desertion, which was then grounds for divorce. From then, wives are found applying to court for 'the restitution of conjugal rights', not because they wanted their husbands to move back in, but as the first step towards getting a divorce.

A woman was not allowed to have any sexuality of her own. She was expected to be a virgin until marriage, then to submit completely to her husband's sexual needs. Her pleasure was supposed to be derived purely and entirely from making him happy and her only sex-related desire was for motherhood. Any women who went outside of this rigid boundary (e.g. those who admitted to sexual desires, had sex with men outside of marriage, became unmarried mothers or lesbians) were labelled 'immoral', 'impure', 'scandalous', 'fallen' or 'mentally ill'. A woman who left her husband or was divorced would find herself outcast from respectable society, although she did nothing wrong. Even the parents and relatives of a divorced woman were shunned by some people.

While everything to do with women and sexuality was scrutinised and punished, men had a lot of sexual freedom and privacy. They used prostituted women on a gigantic scale; some financially supported long-term mistresses. These categories of women were labelled by men as 'impure' but used by them anyway. Most importantly, men had written into the marriage laws that they could have sex with other women while their wives had to remain faithful to them.

British Women's Emancipation since the Renaissance

About this website


This website was created as a place where everything about British women's emancipation since the Renaissance could be brought together without being muddled up with people and events of other countries. I've been quite cross at having my time wasted in the past when, halfway through reading a webpage about women's history, it becomes obvious that the article is in fact about Australia or the USA. (About.com is one of the worst offenders, by the way!)

This website's main attraction and uniqueness is its presentation of primary sources. These are sources taken from the period and they have a value all of their own. To be able to read things first-hand; to be able to see the use of language; to be able to see the context; all these things tell us so much about the period. The use of language, too, is fascinating, because language has changed so much.

Another main benefit of this site is the inclusion of details, where available. For example, I have read in several books and websites that Queen Victoria once said, "I am most anxious to enlist everyone who can speak or write to join in checking this mad, wicked folly of 'Women's Rights'." Sometimes they even include that she added: "Lady Amberley ought to get a good whipping," .. but not once have they sourced when she said this, to whom it was said, or in what context. Nor do people who quote this explain who Lady Amberley was, or why the Queen was so angry with her.

This site rectifies the omissions. Not only have I researched and discovered the source of the quote (a private letter to Sir Theodore Martin in 1870) but I have written a short biography of Lady Amberley and even included a photograph of her and presented her ten-point plan for women's emancipation.

I've spent time reading lengthy, tedious debates from the House of Commons and editing them down to the salient points to save other historians from wading through all the chaff to get to the wheat. Here is an example: the 1867 suffrage debate.

I've written a number of brand new essays, to bring together all the scattered scraps of information into one easily-accessible place, for example the myth about men beating wives with a stick 'no thicker than his thumb'.

I've thrown the spotlight onto female activities that are rarely publicised, for example women dressing as men and in particular those who passed themselves off as sailors.

Some of my pages cover subjects that have no other web presence whatsoever. See for example my two unique essays about the Ladies' Gallery, and the registration battles.

Some subjects included on this site have many other webpages devoted to them. However, I cover these subjects in a completely unique way, unlike any other website. See for example my detailed early history of women's suffrage.

This site is a gigantic undertaking which will take the rest of my life to complete, if indeed it ever can be. Five hundred years is a long time to try to cover in depth, and so far my coverage of all eras, events, people and campaigns is patchy.

Lastly, this website is a labour of love, created out of the love I have for my subject, women's history; and most of all out of due respect and heartfelt gratitude to all the women who, over the past 500 years, were brave enough to take baby steps or giant steps towards female emancipation. All British women are today reaping the benefits.

Sources used in the creation of this website include Hansard (transcripts of parliamentary debates) and nineteenth century newspapers and magazines.





Helena Wojtczak

Helena's biography

Email Helena

(forthcoming)(forthcoming) http://braindumps.com/1Y0-300.htm">http://braindumps.com/1Y0-300.htm

At one point there were so many reports of male sailors being discovered to be female that The Examiner commented on 25th March 1843:

Two or three years ago there was a great run on female sailors. Every newspaper has its paragraph announcing the discovery of a female sailor. The result was a through conviction in the public mind that all sailors were female sailors - that there were no other sailors than female sailors in disguise; and now the curiosity would be the discovery of a male sailor, if such a phenomenon could be well authenticated'.

British Women's Emancipation since the Renaissance

Crossdressers: female soldiers


{See also Female sailors }

{See also Cross dressing women }

{See also Cross dressing women press cuttings I }

{See also Cross dressing women press cuttings II}

London Evening Post 3 July 1750

Hull Packet 19 May 1843

Newcastle Courant 6 June 1879

Newcastle Courant 17 Feb 1882

Phoebe Hessel (1713-1821) Born in Stepney, joined the army at the age of 15 served for many years as a private soldier in the 5th Regiment of Foot (or Northumberland Fusiliers) in different parts of Europe including Montserrat and in 1745 at Fontenoy.

Hannah Snell