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Behind Casanova's charter: Edith Summerskill, divorce and the deserted wife

Thompson, Sharon ORCID: 2022. Behind Casanova's charter: Edith Summerskill, divorce and the deserted wife. Probert, Rebecca, Monk, Daniel and Miles, Joanna, eds. Fifty Years of the Divorce Reform Act, Hart Publishing/Bloomsbury Publishing,

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The Divorce Reform Act 1969 is a landmark in legal history because for the first time in English law it enabled spouses to divorce on the basis of irretrievable breakdown instead of requiring a matrimonial offence. Yet in 1973, Leo Abse MP wrote in his memoirs that it was a ‘real wonder…that the Divorce Bill ever reached the statute book’ at all because of the grievances levied against it by Edith Summerskill, who at that time was a life peer in the House of Lords. As a leading advocate of the Act, Abse’s frustration in his memoirs is palpable: ‘No one was more successful in delaying its passage, and in arousing hostility to its objectives, than…Summerskill’, he said. Abse’s frustration is arguably misplaced. The two-year delay in the Act coming into effect was of critical importance because it meant that the financial consequences of divorce could be reformed too. However, in the story of the Divorce Reform Act 1969, Edith Summerskill is not remembered as the militant feminist pioneer who won a hard-fought battle for impoverished deserted wives. Instead, she is best known as designating the 1969 Act a ‘Casanova’s Charter’ for husbands wishing to divorce their middle-aged wives and marry younger women. Her opposition on this basis is considered ‘illogical’ in some accounts, with her feminism challenged for being ‘contradictory’ given that other feminists were in support of an easier divorce process that would allow women to be liberated from unhappy marriages. In this chapter, these characterisations of Summerskill’s view are challenged and this history is revisited using new and previously unexplored sources. In short, this chapter argues that dismissing Edith Summerskill’s view as anti-divorce per se would be a mistake. She did more than simply condemn Casanovas; she gave voice to deserted wives by fighting for their financial protection.

Item Type: Book Section
Date Type: Publication
Status: In Press
Schools: Law
Subjects: D History General and Old World > D History (General)
D History General and Old World > D History (General) > D839 Post-war History, 1945 on
D History General and Old World > DA Great Britain
K Law > K Law (General)
K Law > KD England and Wales
Publisher: Hart Publishing/Bloomsbury Publishing
ISBN: 9781509947881
Last Modified: 10 Nov 2022 10:14

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