Women’s Legal Rights in Europe in the 1800s

When Mrs. Linde observes to Nora that “a wife cannot borrow without her husband’s consent,” she sets up a key historical context for the play: the legal rights of women in Europe in the 1800s.  During the early years of the century, women had few legal rights and were considered the property of their fathers or husbands. Wives rarely had the right to divorce their husbands, own property, or keep any earned income, and the eldest male child of a family was the legal owner of any inheritance. Social conventions of the time, such as that of the dutiful housewife raising good citizens while their father worked outside the home, famously peaked during the Victorian era of the mid to late 1800s and reinforced these discriminatory laws. 

With the rise of the Industrial Revolution and Darwin’s challenge to the traditional values imposed by Christian churches, attitudes in Europe about the legal rights of women slowly began to change. More workers (regardless of gender) were needed in factories, and family dynamics in lower-income households began to shift. By the mid-1800s, women began to gain some legal rights, such as the right to equal inheritance, the right to elementary education, and the right to work in trade and craft professions. By the late 1800s, women were legally admitted into universities in many countries in Europe, and in some nations, such as France, wives finally gained the right to keep their own income and open bank accounts in their own names. Women did not gain full legal suffrage in Norway, the setting of A Doll’s House, until 1913. Despite these legal changes, cultural attitudes and stereotypes, especially among the upper classes where women typically still stayed at home, remained prevalent in European society.