In 1856, the first Married Women’s Property petition and bill was debated in the House of Commons and defeated. The bill was one of several that would be proposed and killed before it finally succeeded in 1870. At issue was the fact that under the existing legal doctrine of coverture, a married woman could not own property; and if, as a feme sole (a single woman) she did own property, upon her marriage it became the property of her husband, unless her family had made a special provision or trust that secured her fortune to herself (and her heirs). Also, after 1870, working class women who earned a wage could actually keep it.
In 1857, the Divorce and Matrimonial Causes bill received royal consent and was finally made law. Divorce became recognized as a civil (legal) and local process rather than something requiring visiting two courts and obtaining an Act of Parliament. With this law, women could now divorce husbands if (and only if) he had both committed adultery and committed one of the following four: incest, bigamy, cruelty (defined as bodily injury) or desertion for a period of four years. Men could still divorce wives for adultery alone. But hey, small steps, right? This law also had implications for child custody: now, for the first time, divorce courts had some latitude in assigning custody of children. And the 1878 Matrimonial Causes Act finally provided legal protection for abused wives. If beaten, she could apply for a separation order from a local magistrate (provided she had not committed adultery). Again—small steps.
There was reform in the area of education as well. In 1862, Lowe’s Revised Code was an attempt to institute “payment by result” in schools. Matthew Arnold disagreed vehemently, saying this policy would only provide the rich with better educations and the poor with worse. In 1870 the Educational Endowments Act (aka the Education Act) made education compulsory for all children of ages 5-13 in England and Wales and set up school boards.
Beginning with the Health and Morals of Apprentices Act of 1802, various bills were proposed—and some passed—in an attempt to secure decent working conditions for women and children, particularly in the textile industries. These included dropping the work week hours to 55, and then the working days to 12 hours, or 10. But it was very piece-meal and incomprehensive until finally in 1878 the Factory and Workshops Consolidating Act brought together all regulated industries under one statute and stiffened enforcement of workshop regulations by placing power in factory inspectors. Some industries still remained unregulated, but the movement toward safety and reasonable conditions and hours in all workplaces was cresting.