Magna Carta: "Women's Rights"

The Revd Margaret Legg

There is only one reference to ‘femina’, Latin for women, in Magna Carta.

It comes at Clause 54, which states that ‘No one shall be arrested or imprisoned, on the accusation of a woman, for the death of anyone, except her husband.’

If the accusation came from a man, the accused would be arrested; if from a woman,(unless it is the death of her husband) they only had to give sureties that they would appear and stand trial.

Clause 54 reduces the rights of women. One might say Magna Carta discriminates against them.

Is there prejudice or a sound reason for this? A bit of both. Accusations made by women were prevalent in 1215 and the feeling was that they were being made often irresponsibly. This was either because women were irresponsible – a common prejudice – or because they were being manipulated by men. The common pre-trial procedure was a trial by battle between the accuser and the accused and a woman could not be made to answer in that way. There was clearly a procedural advantage when it was a women who made the accusation.

The point is that giving freedom is an often complicated business. Centuries later, the front line in the Armed Forces is still a men only zone. This is currently under review with the Ministry of Defence. Women undoubtedly have courage, as Queen Esther demonstrated in spades, but research has shown how different their physique is from men: the female heart is on average, 20% smaller than the male and women on average have 30% less muscle mass than men. Giving freedom is tricky.

The struggle for the freedom of women has been particularly long and hard, because the curtailments on women’s liberty are so embedded in the structure of society. Telemachus, as we heard earlier, silenced his mother, in a story written towards the end of the 8th century BC. At least he didn’t put her in a ‘scold’s bridle’. This, as the historian Amanda Vickery explained in the current BBC 2 Programme ‘Suffragettes Forever!’ was a cage that a husband could have slipped over his wife’s head; often they had a spike. It pierced the tongue and stopped her from even trying to speak!

For centuries in English Common Law, married women had no separate legal identity. Their land, money and children all belonged to their husband, who could implement corporal punishment on their wife with any implement thinner than their thumb. Wives could and indeed were sold, even after it became illegal. The last ‘wife auction’ took place as recently as 1928, in South Wales. The price paid: £1! In the Book of Common Prayer marriage service, the only authorised form of Service until 2000, the Minister asked: ‘Who giveth this woman to be married to this man?’ and she is literally ‘handed over’ just like a piece of property!

Things began to change with the ‘Married Women’s Property Act’ of 1882, which entitled all wives to hold money and property in their own name, but public life remained barred. Indeed women could only respectably engage themselves with public acts if they limited themselves to acts of charity: visiting the sick, helping the poor, teaching in Sunday Schools. And of course they could not vote.

Enter the Suffragettes! For 300 years before Emmeline Pankhurst came to the fore, women had been trying, peacefully and with limited success, to secure their freedom. Hannah More formed the first female pressure group in 1825, as part of the fight to end the slave trade, and the boycott of grocers and confectioners using West Indian sugar did much to help end it. The ground was laid for organised feminism.

Suffrage means ‘the right to vote’ and when peaceful protests didn’t really get anywhere, Emmeline Pankhurst, her 2 daughters and many others adopted stronger tactics: when Emmeline and Annie Kenney were arrested in 1905 for producing a ‘Votes for Women’ banner and heckling Winston Churchill and Sir Edward Grey at a political meeting (unheard of in those days) it was as Emmeline Pankhurst wrote in her autobiography: "the beginning of a campaign the like of which was never known in England, or for that matter in any other country.....we interrupted a great many meetings......and we were violently thrown out and insulted. Often we were painfully bruised and hurt."

Houses were fire bombed, they chained themselves to the railings of Buckingham Palace, went on prison hunger strikes and only stopped when war broke out in August 1914.

The work done by women in the First World War was to be vital for Britain's war effort. In 1918, the Representation of the People Act was passed by Parliament and women were finally given the vote – at least the over 30’s were.

But, Growing freedom is a messy business, Two steps forward, one step back: 1919 the Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act ordered women to vacate wartime jobs for returning men, and in 1920 the Unemployment Insurance Act specifically did not cover domestic servants, the alternative employment for women. The church itself demonstrates how hard it can be to change attitudes and curb limits on women’s freedom. (Later in this series we’ll find out how true that is for gay rights too). Indeed St Paul would, I suspect, be horrified to see women here with bare heads, (1 Cor 11) let alone to hear me speaking (1 Cor 14)! We have come a long way in 2000 years, indeed in the last 50 years: eg the1970 Equal Pay Act -1 in 4 24 to 35 year olds earn more than their partner, according to a recent survey of 2000 women by Scottish Widows. Just a few weeks ago, women were permitted, in the UK, to be ordained bishops.

There is still work to be done. Ageism against women in the BBC has hit the headlines recently; equal pay has been an issue for years in Hollywood. Just last year a Sony hack revealed a pay gap for women in the company and ja few days ago at the Oscars ceremony, Patricia Arquette argued for gender equality.

In Africa the situation is frightening: FGM is practised in 28 countries. Not something we need concerned about? Well, in the UK, where it is illegal, 70,000 Londoners have suffered this. Take child marriage. In Ethiopia 1 in 5 girls are married before the age of 15 and President Mugabe has said publicly that women are there to have babies. That is their raison d’etre.

The responsibilities of freedom must be remembered. Do women fully appreciate the struggle and suffering undergone to win these freedoms? Of those registered to vote in the 2010 General Election, 46% did not exercise their right and that goes up to 56% in the under 24 age bracket. Emmeline Pankhurst must be turning in her grave!

Just last month the most senior female Army officer ever court martialled in the UK, Lieutenant Colonel Angela Knock, was dismissed from the service and handed a suspended prison sentence. She had helped to save the lives of dozens of injured soldiers in Afghanistan but fiddled her military allowances.

Do women realise how fortunate they are to be able to sue for divorce after just one year’s marriage, compared to the plight of women in their great-grandmother’s day who were, in law, the property of their husband’s? With that freedom comes the responsibility to work for a living (so long as your children are aged over 7). As Lord Justice Pitchford pointed out to the ex-wife of a millionaire racehorse surgeon last week, she does not now have the right to be ‘supported for life’ at his expense. On the other hand, the refusal of a business man with a £150m fortune to pay anything at all to his estranged wife, led the judge to question whether or not they were living on the same planet! The hearing continues.

Growing freedom in communities can be a messy business. Jesus was counter cultural when he treated women and men equally. Remember the male accusers of the woman caught in adultery, the outcry when the woman anointed his feet at dinner, an occasion when women were present only to serve food and Jesus positive reaction. Remember his affirmation of Mary, when he was dining with her and her sister Martha, his close friends and of course, the faithfulness of his mother Mary, specially chosen to be the ‘God bearer’.

The line in the sand is still being redrawn and we continue drawing it, always in faith: the faith that one day all will be equal, all will be free and God’s Kingdom will come.