My research aims to tell the story of the Married Women’s Association. On this site, you will find information on the women and men in this group and their role in the history and development of English family law.
The Married Women’s Association had neither a large membership nor wide ranging political aims. Its focus was narrow – to promote economic equality in marriage. Nevertheless, the Association’s central objective had powerful and far reaching consequences. Its purpose – to promote ‘marriage as a partnership of equals’ – has become part of the vocabulary of family law today. But there is no mention of the Married Women’s Association in family law textbooks.
When the Married Women’s Association formed in 1938, few married women were employed, and those who did work tended to occupy low paid jobs. Work in the home was almost exclusively the wife’s domain, and was unpaid. Although this work did not directly produce the household earnings, it was crucial to the generation of this income because it enabled the breadwinning husband to work in the public sphere. This contribution was not recognised in law, however, because the principle of separate property meant that only the husband could have a legal interest in the money and property he earned.
Married women were also economically vulnerable on divorce, as until 1970 wives were dependent on maintenance from their ex-husbands and this was not always paid. In short, married women had no claim in property directly earned by their husbands, and had little opportunity to accumulate property in their own right.
The Married Women’s Association sought to change this, by arguing that the work of the homemaker was as valuable as the work of the breadwinner. Married women could not achieve equality until this was recognised under law, and so the Association worked with lawyers, academics and MPs to achieve legal reform. It called itself ‘The Housewives’ Trade Union’, and argued that work in the home was to be valued economically long before the wages for housework campaigns of the 70s. The Association was never given the credit it deserved for the development of family law. As the minutes of its 1963 Annual General Meeting noted:
By researching the work of the Married Women’s Association, I want to find out who these ‘dedicated progressive few’ were, why they formed/joined this group and what impact their campaigns had on the property rights of married women.
If you knew a member of the Married Women’s Association (or anyone connected to it), or if you have any information that could be useful for this project, I would be very grateful if you could get in touch.