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100 Years: Matrimonial Causes Act of 1923

Authored by Nishah Malik
Published on 18th July, 2023 4 min read

100 Years: Matrimonial Causes Act of 1923

Today (18/07/2023) marks 100 years since the passing of the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1923. Introduced as a Private Member’s Bill, the Matrimonial Causes Act granted women the right to divorce their husbands for adultery.

Prior to this Act being passed it was difficult for women in England and Wales to obtain a divorce for adultery. This was due to section 27 of the Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, which was hypocritical and inconsistent. It stated that a man could divorce his wife on the basis of adultery alone. A woman, however, could not divorce her husband solely on accusations of adultery. The law did not regard adultery, on the part of the husband, as serious enough to justify the dissolution of a marriage. Consequently, a woman could only obtain a divorce if she proved additional faults such as incest, bigamy, rape, sodomy, bestiality or cruelty.  

The report of the Campbell Commission highlighted how under the Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857: 

“Only four women had succeeded in obtaining a divorce under the Parliamentary procedure and in each of these cases the adulterous husband had also committed either incest, bigamy or cruelty.”1

Section 27 of the 1857 Act likewise drew attention to double standards in the law, as men had been allowed to obtain a divorce for adultery committed by their wife as early as the seventeenth century. Prior to the 1900s divorce was extremely rare. Indeed, it was often viewed as a scandal confined to the rich. In the first decade of the twentieth century there was just “one divorce for every 450 marriages”.2

The historian Ann Sumner Holmes has observed how the 1857 Act “drew an important distinction between men and women”.3 The idea that adultery committed by a woman was far more of a serious offence than in the case of a man epitomises the hypercritical moral standards prevalent in mid-Victorian England.

Changing attitudes towards divorce throughout the interwar years led to the abandonment of these Victorian moral values. This was partly due to the positive changes in women’s social standing resulting from their contribution to the war effort. As Arthur Marwick once observed, this “helped to advance women’s rights and weaken male bigotry”.During this time women gained legal emancipation in other areas. For example, they were allowed to sit in Parliament, to serve on juries, and were granted the right to vote. The work of suffragettes such as Emmeline Pankhurst was crucial in this respect. In the years after the Great War British society likewise witnessed an increased number of divorces which led to more pressure for change.

The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1923 was a landmark in divorce law reform. Its passing was a major win for post-war feminist groups who had campaigned for women's rights. The 1923 Act established equality in divorce laws, providing women with a legal standing and abolishing a patriarchal double standard that had once held sway within British law.  

Footnotes

  1. Rebecca Probert. "The Controversy of Equality and The Matrimonial Causes Act 1923", Child and Family Law Quarterly 11, no. 1 (1999), 33. 
  2. "Divorce Since 1900", UK Parliament, Available at: https://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/research/olympic-britain/housing-and-home-life/split-pairs/ 
  3. Ann Sumner Holmes, "The Double Standard in the English Divorce Laws, 1857-1923", Law & Social Inquiry 20, no. 2 (1995), 601. 
  4. Arthur Marwick, The Deluge (LondonBodley Head, 1965), 96.


Authored by Nishah Malik

Nishah Malik

Nishah Malik is Collections Editor at British Online Archives. Nishah gained a Masters in History from the University of Derby in 2020. Her research interests centre around South Asian culture and heritage, as well as the history and experiences of the South Asian diaspora. She also has a keen interest in women's history.


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The British Online Archives Notable Days diary is a platform intended to mark key dates and events throughout the year. The posts draw attention to historical events and figures, as well as recurring cultural traditions and international awareness days, in both religious and secular contexts.

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