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The Matrimonial Causes Act was a landmark act of the British Parliament enacted in 1857, which made dramatic changes to the existing divorce standards and granted women several important rights. Prior to the act's passage, divorce was available only to the wealthy, as it required either an ecclesiastical annulment or a private act of Parliament, both of which were time-consuming and costly processes. The matrimonial causes act recognized marriage as a contractual relationship, rather than sacramental and subject only to Canon law, and permitted dissolution of that contract in courts of common law.
Prior to passage of the Matrimonial Causes Act, marriage in the United Kingdom stripped women of many of the rights they enjoyed while single, such as the right to inherit, control, and bequeath property. Essentially, a married woman's identity was merged with that of her husband, who had the legal right to control her, her property, and even her earnings. The institution of divorce as commonly understood in the modern western world did not exist to protect women from abusive husbands. Instead, divorces were available only through proceedings governed by Canonical law in an arcane institution called the Doctors' Commons, or through private bills passed by Parliament, which required public debate in the House of Commons. Relatively few divorces were granted through either method, and of these, only a fraction were granted to women.
Caroline Norton (1808 - 1877), a popular and influential member of British society in the mid-19th century, was locked in a loveless and abusive marriage, and left her husband. An accomplished author, she attempted to make a living for herself from her writings, but her husband successfully sued to exercise his legal right to all her earnings. She vigorously lobbied her friends in the Parliament for passage of legislation that would recognize and protect the rights of married and divorced women, and the enactment of the Matrimonial Causes Act is widely acknowledged to have been due largely to her efforts.
Not only did the Matrimonial Causes Act establish the concept of marriage as a contract subject to the jurisdiction of secular law, the dissolution of which could be initiated by either party, it is also remarkable for establishing rights for married women that had hitherto been unrecognized. For example, divorced or estranged husbands could be ordered to make maintenance payments to their ex-wives, and both married and divorced women were allowed to inherit, control, and bequeath property on their own, without the approval of their husbands. Divorced women's earnings were protected, and women were granted limited custodial rights to their children. As commonplace as these rights may seem in modern Western society, they were revolutionary in mid-19th century England.
Both before and after passage of the act, the grounds for divorce were narrow and severe, nearly always requiring that the petitioner prove adulterous conduct on the part of the defendant. The act did little to change this situation; in fact, a woman petitioning for divorce not only had to prove her husband's adultery, but also that he'd committed either bigamy, desertion, cruelty, or incest. A man filing for divorce under the act, on the other hand, had only to prove his wife's adultery.
Despite being blatantly tilted in favor of men's rights, the act was highly controversial and it was feared that making divorce more easily accessible to more people, as well as broadening the scope of women's rights, would seriously damage the institution of marriage. However, the court established to hear divorce cases, the Court of Divorce and Matrimonial Causes, earned wide respect for the integrity and even-handedness with which it operated. In fact, of the more than 1,000 divorces it granted during the first three years of its operation, only one was overturned on appeal. The court also earned widespread popularity among women as a protector of their rights.
The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 can be credited with initiating a number of significant changes in British jurisprudence, including the end of the Doctors' Commons, the modernization of the legal profession itself, and the unification of the legal systems of England and Wales. Its impact on British society, both by making divorce so much more easily accessible and by ending the system of recognizing married women as their husbands' property, is inestimable.