It was suggested in a TV interview that I saw that prior to 1919 in the UK, women were owned by men. An example to solidify this, was women taking on their husbands last name.

My question is:

  1. Were women not been able to own property, mean that they were in fact, property themselves? As in, they could not own land, but could they just not leave their husband and go back to their families if they wished?
  2. Was it not the case that people who owned land in general, were the aristocracy? Meaning that the vast majority of both men and women in the UK did not have land to own? (Similar to the TV show Poldark and Jane Austen novels.)

The video in question is a thirteen minute excerpt from the interview of Jordan Peterson recently by Helen Lewis.

  • 0:48: Lewis states:

    You had a system where one set of people owned another set of people. Until women got full legal rights, [where] they could own property themselves, [and] they could work, essentially they were owned by their fathers and then by their husbands.

  • 10
    Hi Jonathan and welcome to History SE. Please cite the TV interview. What exactly was said? Women still commonly take on the husband's last name without being 'owned'. Nov 3, 2018 at 9:09
  • 6
    Well, can you call young children property of their parents these days?
    – OON
    Nov 3, 2018 at 9:41
  • 7
    What has your own research shown you? Nov 3, 2018 at 9:59
  • 7
    Children take the name of their parents, even now. Are they property?
    – Greg
    Nov 3, 2018 at 17:06
  • 2
    @Jonathan The very fact that someone can "take" something from you is a sign that the something is property. The fact that I'm an adult and social services can't "take" me is a clear indicator that I am not property. Also, plenty of inanimate objects you own can be confiscated by police. Pick a better example.
    – Clay07g
    Nov 4, 2018 at 2:50

3 Answers 3


No. Slavery was abolished in 1833 in England. Prior to 1919 women were not property. Not having equal rights doesn't automatically mean slavery.

Neither is a woman taking the family name of her husband a sign of slavery. It was (and is) a normal custom that only recently (about 40-30 years ago) changed. It actually is the default, even today, with good reasons for it.

You're looking at history from a very modern/progressive viewpoint. That rarely works.

  • 8
    Where it was custom to take the name, it usually still is. And still the default, custom wise. Only that a legal option was added to choose an alternative to this default? Nov 3, 2018 at 9:48
  • 2
    Slavery in this context was for people in the colonies, outside the UK. Inside the UK, were there slaves or indentured servants? Also, I feel that the marriage/property law was much more a rule for the aristocracy until the industrial revolution came where more people owned homes.
    – Jonathan
    Nov 3, 2018 at 9:58
  • 19
    As the Wikipedia article you link explains, it is very misleading to claim that "Slavery was abolished in 1833 in England." The courts had already rules in 1772 that the concept of owning a human being had no basis in English law, and the Slave Trade Act (1807) had already made it illegal to buy or sell slaves anywhere in the Empire. The 1833 Act abolished slavery throughout the Empire, but it had long been illegal in England. (Wikipedia claims since 1102 but it's not very well sourced.) Nov 3, 2018 at 21:42
  • 5
    @LangLangC - that legal option existed for a long time prior to 1919. Since at the latest 1235 the law in England has been that your name is whatever you are known by, and that therefore to not change her name upon marriage, a woman would simply have to make sure that the majority of people continued to use her original name. Now, due to force of custom, she might have found that difficult, but there was no legal reason it wasn't possible.
    – Jules
    Nov 4, 2018 at 6:57
  • 2

If you consider the wording carefully:

Until women got full legal rights, [where] they could own property themselves, [and] they could work, essentially they were owned by their fathers and then by their husbands.

Then in becomes clear that the person making this statement spoke just figuratively. Which is not verboten and essentially a common way to criticise the patriarchy entrenched in many European systems of law for quite a time.

Only in this case the historicity is a bit off, focusing on just one aspect, and emphasising other important steps in the course of women regaining rights. For just one example:

Married Women's Property Act 1882 The Married Women's Property Act 1882 (45 & 46 Vict. c.75) was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom that significantly altered English law regarding the property rights of married women, which besides other matters allowed married women to own and control property in their own right.

A system that might be called patriarchy was the norm in European societies, at least up until the 20th century.

Patriarchy is a social system in which males hold primary power and predominate in roles of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege and control of property. Some patriarchal societies are also patrilineal, meaning that property and title are inherited by the male lineage.

We take note of how well both sides in that discussion in the video manage to talk past each other. Peterson seems to define patriarchy as "the persecution of women", and consequently decorates this straw man with a lot of adjectives that promote an opinionated value judgement. Lewis counters this with pointedly comparing the societal and legal situation of women with "property", without presenting a proper definition for that, just some closely related examples as evidence.

As we have at least a language and philosophy disagreement apparent regarding that word and the question as posed and clarified in comments, the most mainstream definitions to look at for this kind of question, the desired timeframe of up to 1919 and centring around English law will be the concept of coverture:

Coverture (sometimes spelled couverture) was a legal doctrine whereby, upon marriage, a woman's legal rights and obligations were subsumed by those of her husband, in accordance with the wife's legal status of feme covert. An unmarried woman, a feme sole, had the right to own property and make contracts in her own name. Coverture arises from the legal fiction that a husband and wife are one person. Coverture was enshrined in the common law of England for several centuries and throughout most of the 19th century, influencing some other common-law jurisdictions. According to Arianne Chernock, coverture did not apply in Scotland, but whether it applied in Wales is unclear.
After the rise of the women's rights movement in the mid-19th century, coverture came under increasing criticism as oppressive towards women, hindering them from exercising ordinary property rights and entering professions. Coverture was first substantially modified by late 19th century Married Women's Property Acts passed in various common-law legal jurisdictions, and was weakened and eventually eliminated by subsequent reforms. Certain aspects of coverture (mainly concerned with preventing a wife from unilaterally incurring major financial obligations for which her husband would be liable) survived as late as the 1960s in some states of the United States.

To be even more explicit:

By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage,
Sir William Blackstone: "Commentaries On The Laws Of England (1765-1769)", Book 1, Chapter 15O: Of Husband And Wife

That would be in simple English:

Coverture holds that a man and a woman are a single legal entity—that of the husband. A married woman loses her own legal obligations and rights, and becomes "covered" by her husband. Traditionally a woman took her husband's last name as a symbol of this identity. A female child was covered by her father's identity. When she married that coverage transferred to her husband. Under this system a woman did not legally exist and did not own anything. Wikipedia: Coverture compare to Catherine Allgor. "Coverture — The Word You Probably Don't Know But Should". National Women's History Museum.

That does not even cover that some men did consider and treat their women as property, without much legal repercussions, quite long after 1919.

So whatever the reasons for these laws and customs to exist or to have existed, and whether or not there were explicit laws that stated something like "women are the property of men" it is essentially one possible way to put it: that women were in effect like property of a husband or father.

  • 3
    I disagree that there is a patriarchy and I can assume other reasons for this marriage law to exist. Such as, men needed to own property to be able to marry into another family (as the parents wouldn't allow someone without property to marry their daughter). This would be in the context of a family that had sons and daughters.
    – Jonathan
    Nov 3, 2018 at 10:38
  • 4
    @Jonathan Do you disagree that there was a system that might be called descriptively "patriarchy" before 1919? Nov 3, 2018 at 10:43
  • 2
    Yes and that would be using a modern lens to look at history.
    – Jonathan
    Nov 3, 2018 at 10:55
  • 1
    This answer doesn't even try to maintain an objective stance. 1) You're justifying an argument by saying "essentially a common way to criticise the patriarchy entrenched in many European systems of law for quite a time", so you suggest that this type of argument is OK because many people who criticise patriarchy use it? 2) Your opinions on Peterson and Lewis are in no way relevant to the question, yet you dedicate a whole paragraph to them...
    – user159517
    Nov 4, 2018 at 20:36
  • 2
    3) The argument about Blacksone's book is in itself a non sequitur, the wife being inferior to the husband in law is decidedly not equivalent to the wife being the property of the husband. Even admitting it, one could also talk about the following paragraph in the book: "IN the civil law the husband and wife are considered as two distinct persons; and may have separate estates, contracts, debts, and injuries:52 and therefore, in our ecclesiastical courts, a woman may sue and be sued without her husband.53" which proves that a wife didn't belong to her husband: You can't sue property.
    – user159517
    Nov 4, 2018 at 20:43

From another source: https://www.reddit.com/r/JordanPeterson/comments/9tsidj/gq_interview_were_women_mens_property_prior_to/e8ywxfl

Prior to the 1830s (it's been a while so I'm fuzzy) women could vote. The stipulation was land ownership worth/generating £10 a year. Obviously far more men voted but there are plenty of British instances of women voting as of the establishment of parliament as we know it in the 1300s. As the top comment states, the husband acquired the wife's property upon marriage, keeping the number of women enfranchised to a minimum.

As to the question: HA! No. Not as a collective. Men could own slaves, but then so could women, so technically "men" could own "women" but definitely not in the sense the question is framed.


Statutes passed in 1430 and 1432, during the reign of Henry VI, standardised property qualifications for county voters. Under these Acts, all owners of freehold property or land worth at least forty shillings in a particular county were entitled to vote in that county. This requirement, known as the forty shilling freehold, was never adjusted for inflation; thus the amount of land one had to own in order to vote gradually diminished over time.[8] The franchise was restricted to males by custom rather than statute;[9] on rare occasions women had been able to vote in parliamentary elections as a result of property ownership.


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