4 Legal Limits for Ladies in Jane Austen's Time - dummies

4 Legal Limits for Ladies in Jane Austen’s Time

By Joan Elizabeth Klingel Ray

Part of Jane Austen For Dummies Cheat Sheet

In Jane Austen’s day, the legal rights for a lady were minimal. A lady was a member of a social class called the gentry, who were landowners and had the good taste and refinement associated with polite society. What seems like a life of leisure for these women, however, came at a cost.

Under the law, a lady couldn’t do things that many women today take for granted. She could not

  • Vote.

  • Attend a university.

  • Enter a profession.

  • Control her money and property (including her clothes!). Rarely did a married lady hold property in her own name. When a woman got married, she had to surrender her money and her legal rights to her husband. A lady’s one option for securing her own property was to place it in a trust.

    Her husband had

    • Control of their children. If he wanted, he could deny her access to the children or take them away from their mother.

    • Control over their sex life. He could demand sex and even rape her or commit adultery with impunity.

    • The right to hit her. She was his property, so he could do as he liked.

Now that you know the downside of being a woman in Austen’s time, don’t think that she lived in a nation of wife-beating brutes; a majority of marriages were happy or at least satisfactory, and most wives weren’t beaten!