Women on trial? Rape and the law in Georgian and Victorian England

This week at the University of Northampton there are a number of events and talks are being held to raise awareness about healthy relationships, consent and sexual harassment. As part of this I decided to include a new lecture and seminar workshop on rape as part of my second year History of Crime module (HIS2010 Crime, Policing & Punishment in England, 1700-1900).

We have been discussing the topic of gender and its impact on crime and the court for the last couple of weeks and so students from History, Criminology and Law have been trying to understand why it was that the courts of 18th and 19th century England treated women in ways that were often quite different than men.

The prevailing social mechanism of patriarchy effectively meant that  most women were excluded from the law. Once married women became the property of their husbands, often before that they were the property of their fathers, and in between they were severely disadvantaged as second-class citizens in a male dominated society.

Students were fairly shocked to see that wife beating was commonly justified by men who felt entitled (under the much trumpeted if not strictly legal ‘rule of thumb’) to discipline their spouses so long as they did not go ‘too far’.

By contrast female thieves that acted under male coercion were sometimes able to escape justice by arguing that they were only ‘obeying orders’. This didn’t always work however but those women that found themselves sentenced to death could always opt to ‘plead the belly’ if they were pregnant (or could persuade a midwife they were).

Patriarchy most obviously disadvantaged women and girls who were subjected to male sexual violence. Survivors (which is as Joanna Bourke says, a much better terms than ‘victims’) were hamstrung by a system which was run entirely by and for the male half of the population.

In court (and most rape charges never got as far as a court, being settled or dismissed beforehand)  survivors were forced to tell their stories in front an audience that was exclusively male. Since a successful prosecution required  graphic detail of the sexual encounter, with evidence of penetration and (until the 1820s) male ejaculation, the court was cleared of any women and children.

The survivor therefore had to face the sneers and leers of her wider male community as she tried to explain what had happened to her. Given that a respectable and chaste young woman was not supposed to know anything about sex until her wedding night most resorted to euphemism and stumbled through their testimony ineffectually.

Cross -examination (by a barrister or their abuser) was routine, brutal and uncompromising. After all, it was said, rape was easy to cry and hard to disprove. A man’s life was literally on the line until capital punishment was removed from the penalty for rape in 1841.

If a survivor had known her attacker, if she had been seen out with him, or if he had been a regular visitor to her home then a conviction was unlikely. If she had placed herself in a vulnerable situation (such as walking out at night or across the fields unaccompanied) conviction was unlikely. If she was a poor domestic servant and her rapist a respectable pillar of society, then conviction was unlikely.

Her reputation would be dragged through the court and exposed to male view, just as her body had been exposed and used by her attacker. Even when men were convicted, as Elizabeth Cureton’s rapist was in 1829, a male dominated society would often bind itself together to  rescue him from the awful punishment his crime had earned him.

Rape or attempted rape epitomises 18th and 19th century attitudes towards women. Society was supposed to protect women, but only so long  as women played the game. If a woman (like Elizabeth Cureton whose case my students will explore through the records that the pardoning process for her abuser generated)  had attempted to live an independent life, had taken lovers, and avoided a marriage of convenience then she was deemed ‘fair game’. Many rape survivors in the past had their right to give consent removed from them by men that believed that their own own rights superseded those of the entire female sex.

Drew Gray