“Criminals, Idiots, Women and Minors”

Andrea Zuvich

29th October 2006

Peasant Woman Nursing an Infant, by Jules Dalou

Peasant Woman Nursing an Infant, by Jules Dalou

In Francis Power Cobbe’s, “Criminals, Idiots, Women and Minors,” the author adamantly argues that changes must be made in respect to the Common Law of England, which states that a married women forfeits any right to her own economic (and sometimes personal) well-being. Written in 1869, Cobbe’s work illustrates how feminists viewed this restrictive law as a dangerous denial of basic women’s rights. Women of the nineteenth century had been raised to live in total submission to a male figure- a father, brother, and ultimately- a husband, then possibly a son. Cobbe also gives insight into how the Common law affected a woman not only legally, but also economically and spiritually.

In Common Law, a woman lost all her legal status once she entered into a married state[1]. Cobbe also states that women are believed by men to be “physically, morally, and intellectually inferior” to their husbands[2]. It becomes clearly apparent that Cobbe’s goal is to have this law abolished since it not only denies a woman her rightful properties and inheritance, but it also makes her legally impotent to achieve that which should rightfully be hers and not her husband’s[3].

Religion also played a crucial role in the rights of women in a society. In order for men to support their laws, they turned to such religious texts as the Bible, wherein they found the support they needed to keep women helpless; “Wives, submit yourself unto your husband, as onto the Lord[4].” This sentence itself was testimony enough that women were ordered by God (to whom they could not disobey) to obey their husband’s wishes.

Cobbe uses several true-life references in her work which details the detrimental economic effects this law caused. The most shocking must be that of a Mrs. Seymour, (whose husband in effect denied her nourishment and money to obtain it elsewhere) who went to authorities for assistance and was rejected on the basis that her husband had a sufficient income to maintain her and she later died of starvation[5]. Another example was that of Susanna Palmer, who was found guilty of murdering her husband in self-defence, regardless of the fact that he was abusive and spent all her money on drink whilst their children starved.[6]

In conclusion, women in nineteenth century England had very few to no options when it came to equality in marriage. The Common Law of England totally denied a married woman’s right to her own fortune, which sometimes led to her inability to survive, as was the case with the unfortunate Mrs. Seymour. Cobbe wrote against this unjust law because it relegated women legally, economically and spiritually to men’s control. Cobbe noted that of all the things a women should do, “Is it not this: that a woman’s whole life and being, her soul, body, time, property, thought, and care, ought to be given to her husband.[7]


[1] Boxer, Marilyn J. & Jean H. Quartaert. Connecting Spheres : European Women in a Globalizing World. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 39.

[2] Cobbe, Francis Power. “Criminals, Idiots, Women and Minors,” 6.

[3] Cobbe, Francis Power. “Criminals, Idiots, Women and Minors,” 22.

[4] Boxer and Quartaert. Connecting Spheres. 38.

[5] Cobbe, Francis Power. “Criminals, Idiots, Women and Minors,” 12.

[6] Cobbe, Francis Power. “Criminals, Idiots, Women and Minors”14.

[7] Cobbe, Francis Power. “Criminals, Idiots, Women and Minors” 18.

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