Through most of history, men were thought of as the stronger sex. Men were and in many cases still are considered to be the more violent, more intelligent, more courageous, and the more determined sex.
Women were considered more placid and at worst governed by their unpredictable emotions. The ideal woman was expected to be passive, chaste, modest, compassionate, and pious.
Historians claim that the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries witnessed a significant separation of the sexes in society. For example, at that time women and men to started to develop separate social lives. Women took tea at home, while men frequented the coffee shops in town. Women started to withdraw from the dining table after a meal to let the men smoke and talk politics while they concerned themselves with more domestic topics of conversation, played cards and drank tea. These social changes were in part due to increased wealth and to some extent, the growing influence of evangelical Christianity, which placed a high moral value on female domesticity, virtue, and religiosity. The women of the comfortably off were not expected to want for anything and if they did they were expected to keep their desires to themselves.
Those girls and women of the lower classes who broke society’s rules were treated with a mixture of cruelty and disdain. When it came to crime, women were accused of fewer, and different, crimes to men. At the Old Bailey women accounted for only 21% of the defendants tried between 1674 and 1913. This figure masks a significant chronological change, however. While women accounted for around 40% of the defendants from the 1690s to the 1740s (and, highly unusually, over half the defendants in the first decade of the eighteenth century), over the course of the period this proportion declined significantly.
The shadow of Newgate Prison looms over the book Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe just as the real building must have loomed over surrounding London. Moll starts her life in that cold place, and she comes pretty close to ending it there, too. The prison is mentioned nearly forty times over the course of the book, more than any other place or even any other character’s name. Moll enters the prison as a thief and says looked around upon all the horrors of that dismal place.
‘I looked on myself as lost, and that I had nothing to think of but of going out of the world, and that with the utmost infamy: the hellish noise, the roaring, swearing, and clamour, the stench and nastiness, and all the dreadful crowd of afflicting things that I saw there, joined together to make the place seem an emblem of hell itself, and a kind of an entrance into it.'(Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe.)
By the early nineteenth century only 22% of defendants were women, and as the twentieth century dawned that percentage had dropped to 9%. By the early twentieth century serious crime had become a mainly male problem and female deviance was viewed as a consequence of sexual immorality and mental defectiveness and was addressed through other agencies such as the asylum. Reasons for admission were various and included Egotism, Fever and Jealousy, Immoral Life, Novel Reading, Nymphomania, Shooting a daughter, Greediness and Self Abuse between 1864 and 1889 according to a poster from the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in the US.Similar practices occurred in the UK.
During the 18th century women tended to be accused of certain kinds of theft – pickpocketing, shoplifting, theft from lodging houses, theft from their masters stores, and for receiving stolen goods. The more serious crimes that women were involved in included coining, kidnapping, keeping a brothel, and offences surrounding childbirth such as infanticide, concealing a birth or illegal abortions. Young women who fell prey to their employers and their employer’s sons often found themselves with an unwanted child and no job.Although prostitution itself was not tried at the Old Bailey, keeping a brothel was, and women account for about a third of those prosecuted for brothel keeping.
Of the 47 infanticide cases Naomi Clifford read researching her book, It is Women and the Gallows: Unfortunate Wretches, 13 ended in the acquittal of the manslaughter or murder charge but the conviction rate for the lesser crime of concealing a birth, for which the defendants were given prison sentences ranging from 14 days to 2 years more commonly brought in a guilty verdict. When convicted of infanticide a woman was usually hanged.
Appearing as a defendant at the Old Bailey must have been a significantly more intimidating experience for women than it was for men. All court personnel, from the judges and jury to lawyers and court officials were men except when a panel of all women was convened. These all female juries were known as a ‘jury of matrons’ and were called to determine the validity of a convicted woman’s plea that she was pregnant. Pregnant women could not be hanged until they had delivered their unborn child.
There is some evidence that juries treated evidence presented by female witnesses more sceptically than that delivered by men. The testimony of women was more likely to be omitted from court proceedings. At the same time, other evidence suggests that juries may have been more reluctant to convict women because women were perceived to be less of a threat to society. The legal principle of the feme covert, which made women responsible for crimes committed in the presence of their husbands (they were presumed to be following their husbands’ commands) was not often applied. A married man was legally responsible for any debts his wife ran up with or without his knowledge.
The pattern of punishments for convicted women was significantly different from that of men, though when sentences for the same offence are compared, the differences are not so significant.
Before 1691, women convicted of the theft of goods worth more than 10 shillings could not receive the benefit of clergy unlike men and were sentenced to death. In practice, they were often acquitted, convicted on a reduced charge, or pardoned. Juries are usually reluctant to convict when they feel the punishment does not fit the crime.
Women convicted of treason or petty treason were sentenced to death by being burned at the stake until 1790 while men convicted of the same offences were hanged, drawn and quartered. It seems the authorities did not want to expose women to this humiliating fate of being undressed in public when they were being executed. Women sentenced to death who successfully pleaded that they were pregnant had their punishments respited and often remitted entirely. From 1848, reprieves granted to pregnant women were always permanent.
Following the suspension of transportation to America in 1776, a statute authorised judges to sentence male offenders otherwise liable to transportation to hard labour improving the navigation of the Thames (they were incarcerated on the hulks), while women, and those men unfit for working on the river, were to be imprisoned and put to hard labour. Only men could be sentenced to military or naval duty, and fewer women were selected for transportation when transportation to Australia began in 1787. The public whipping of women was abolished in 1817 (having been in decline since the 1770s), while the public flogging of men continued into the 1830s (and was not abolished until 1862).
The perception of women as passive and weak and the types of misdemeanours most frequently committed by them made them seem far less of a threat to society than the crimes committed by men. However, when a woman transgressed into the world of ‘male crime’, her punishment was likely to be more severe because as a woman she had not only committed a crime against society she had transgressed the ideal of womanhood and stepped outside her expected gender role.
Julia Herdman writes historical fiction.
Sinclair is available of Amazon. Click here to get your copy.
Sinclair is set in the London Borough of Southward, the Yorkshire town of Beverley and in Paris and Edinburgh in the late 1780s. Strong female leads include the widow Charlotte Leadam and the farmer’s daughter Lucy Leadam. Sinclair is a story of love, loss and redemption. Prodigal son James Sinclair is transformed by his experience of being shipwrecked on the way to India to make his fortune. Obstacles to love and happiness include ambition, conflict with a God, temptation and betrayal. Remorse brings restitution and recovery. Sinclair is an extraordinary book. It will immerse you in the world of 18th century London where the rich and the poor are treated with kindness and compassion by this passionate Scottish doctor and his widowed landlady, the owner of the apothecary shop in Tooley Street. Sinclair is filled with twists and tragedies, but it will leave you feeling good.