Book review

R-M Crossan, A Women’s History of Guernsey 1850s–1950s Benderloch, Argyll, Scotland, 2018, ISBN 9780995447482

1  In her own words, Dr Crossan chose the time period which is the subject of her book “for its special significance to the history of western woman”. The work documents key milestones and developments in Guernsey’s journey towards legal and social emancipation and equality of its women. It also compares and contrasts those milestones with those occurring in England, Jersey and France and considers what impact and influence Guernsey’s neighbours had.

2  At the beginning of the period covered by the work, in common with all western society, public life was run by men, for the interests of men and to the exclusion of women, including government and judiciary, public administration, the military, academia and finance. The accepted position of women was in the home, serving the domestic and reproductive needs of men, in accordance with the legal framework and social norms imposed upon them.

3  Dr Crossan highlights the complete economic dependence of women on men as one of the perpetuating reasons for the submissive role women played in Guernsey society at the beginning of the period. She summarises the changes in applicable law; from the husband’s ownership and control of his wife’s property in her person as well as her belonging, and the somewhat unbalanced but reciprocal obligation of a man to maintain his wife, both contained in the Norman Coutume; to the Loi étendant les Droits de la Femme Mariée quant à la Propriété Mobilière et Immobilière approved by the States in 1927. This law accorded a married woman in Guernsey the same rights as a single and widowed woman to own, sell and otherwise deal with her real and personal property. This represented a huge leap forward for women of the time but it is notable that this legislation was not passed until several decades after women in England were given like rights by the Married Women’s Property Act in 1882 and came about, in part, due to reformists, such as then Advocate Sherwill[1] who was elected to the States in 1921.

4  Such pioneering legislative reforms, however, had less of an impact on those women in the less well-off stratas of Guernsey society. Dr Crossan informs us that women with no option but to support themselves had limited options, partly due to a vastly inferior education than that available to men, and partly due to a legal framework skewed toward preserving the interests of men. It is perhaps not surprising then, that Dr Crossan dedicates the longest chapter in her book to female criminality and prostitution. Whilst she reports that the convictions of females amounted to 14% of the total number of convictions during the time period covered by her book, she also highlights the gender disparity in treatment and sentencing of those females convicted. Any female convicted of a crime had a greater chance of being imprisoned than a male, and was less liable to receive a shorter sentence than a man. In what she refers to as possibly marking the high tide of double standards in Guernsey, Dr Crossan sets out the profoundly unjust legislation used for controlling the spread of sexually transmitted diseases via prostitution, pursuant to which, as late as 1936, the court’s Ordonnance supplémentaire ayant rapport aux Maladies Secrètes empowered Guernsey’s Police Inspector (subject to the sanction of a Law Officer) to order the medical examination and detention in hospital of any woman against whom a complaint had been made that she had communicated, or was suspected of having communicated, a sexually transmitted disease to a male person. The result was that any woman was liable to compulsory examination on the complaint of any man. Whilst similar laws had been in existence in England, they had long since been repealed and replaced with more enlightened legislation.

5  Dr Crossan points to the increasing educational opportunities for Guernsey women during the period as a contributing factor in improving their lot. In 1900, the Loi relative à l’Education Primaire Obligatoire made schooling compulsory for all Guernsey children between the ages of 5 and 12 (raised to a child’s 14th birthday in 1923) although the content of that education remained very divisive, to meet the needs of traditional gender roles. She also indicates how increased educational opportunities took time to translate into greater opportunities in the world of work and Dr Crossan notes that pay remained poor for women into the 1950s and beyond.

6  In the final chapter, Dr Crossan sets out the incremental legislative enactments leading up to Guernsey women obtaining the right to vote and contribute to law making by way of public office. At the beginning of the period, in common with the rest of western Europe, Guernsey women were disenfranchised and excluded from all forms of public office, and there appears to have been little public support for such reforms among Guernsey society at that time. In 1919, female ratepayers were granted the right to serve in parochial public office provided they were unmarried, widowed or legally separated. Universal suffrage was finally enacted in 1939 by way of the Loi relative à la Réforme des Etats. In 1920, women over the age of 30 became eligible to stand for election as deputies via the Loi supplémentaire à la Loi relative à la Réforme des Etats de Délibération. Dr Crossan notes however that there were deeply entrenched social, as well as legal, barriers to females taking up public office and as such, it took time and shifts in society’s attitudes before women could truly benefit from the legislative reforms in this area.

7  In summary, that Dr Crossan is passionate about this topic radiates from the work and translates into an articulate and engaging account of the legal and social journeys of women from the 1850s to the 1950s.

Anna Carrington is a Solicitor (England and Wales) and is employed at the Law Officers of the Crown, Guernsey.

A comment from Jersey

8  The 8th March is annually celebrated as International Women’s Day. Its genesis was a serious fire in a textile factory in New York in 1908 which killed a large number of female workers. Today it is recognised in many places around the world as a focal point for women’s rights. This year, no doubt like many Jersey practitioners, I received a celebratory card and gift from a firm of Jersey lawyers comprised of female advocates only. I happened to be in court that day and my opponent was a woman. She greeted me with “Happy International Women’s Day”. In a small and local way, both incidents reflect how far women’s rights have advanced in the last 150 years. As Dr Crossan charts in her A Women’s History of Guernsey 1850s–1950s, this evolutionary process started from a base level where women had hardly any rights. Reform of this state of affairs progressed only haltingly, often on the coat-tails of developments in Britain.

9  Jersey has no equivalent academic study of women’s history. Fortunately, and as with her previous work, Poverty and Welfare in Guernsey 1560–2015 (Woodbridge, 2015), Dr Crossan has included a number of references to Jersey as a comparator. Given their shared Norman heritage, it is unsurprising that certain of the starting points as to the legal status of women are shared by Jersey and Guernsey. As Dr Crossan notes, the Norman Coutume was particularly severe in this respect. A feudal society which linked property holding to the duty to perform military service, performed only by men, was reflected in a legal system designed to grant husbands significant rights over the property and person of their wives and, in the context of succession, to maintain the bulk of the family patrimony in the hands of male heirs.

10  It is in the period 1850–1950, covered by Dr Crossan’s book, that we see the first real attempts to change the situation of women’s rights in Jersey and Guernsey. Two points are particularly noteworthy. First, and unsurprisingly for such small communities, the impetus for what were often radical changes did not spring from within the Islands, but from the changing environment in England and the larger Kingdom. Time and again significant changes in the law in relation to women’s rights in England brought equivalent issues to the fore in the Islands and, in many cases and with varying time lags, resulted in equivalent (albeit not often identical) legislation. Secondly, and notwithstanding the situation as it evolved in England, both Islands were strongly resistant to major changes to their laws pertaining to immovable property, particularly with regard to inheritance, and in relation to the availability of divorce. In the former case, for a long time the emphasis remained on retaining family property as one unit in the hands of the eldest son. In the latter case, whilst divorce was available in England from 1857 and in a fuller and more accessible form from 1923, the States of Guernsey only passed the necessary legislation in 1939. Even then, war and the German Occupation intervened, so that divorce was only available from August 1946. Jersey married couples had to wait until the Matrimonial Causes Law 1949 for an equivalent right. In both cases, there had been a strong, religion-based opposition to divorce.

11  The book is a delight to read and includes many memorable, if sometimes painful, examples of discrimination, unfairness and lack of care and concern for women and the important roles they played in daily life. There has been a very significant shift towards equality. But lest we lawyers get too self-congratulatory about the contemporary scene, we might remind ourselves that neither Bailiwick has yet had a female Bailiff.

John Kelleher is an advocate of the Royal Court and a partner in Carey Olsen LLP.A

[1] Sir Ambrose Sherwill (1890–1968) was a distinguished Guernseyman. He fought in World War I where he was awarded the Military Cross for bravery at the Battle of Messines in 1917. He served as HM Procureur during the German Occupation until his deportation to Germany. He held the office of Bailiff between 1946 and 1959.

Page Last Updated: 16 Jun 2021