We recently had the privilege of interviewing Len and Suzy Rodness, the Co-Chairs of Magna Carta Canada, on the relevance of Magna Carta to the women’s suffrage movement and women’s rights generally. As well, we would like to take this opportunity to thank Mr. and Mrs. Rodness for their support of both our Ms. Suffragette and Ms. Magna Carta projects. We are so grateful to have had the opportunity to work with them over the last year, and are excited to share our interview below.
1. What was the significance of Magna Carta in regards to the development of women’s rights? How was it an impetus for the further recognition of women’s rights, including the right to vote?
To answer this question, we need to understand the context of life in the 13th century in England. Women’s rights as we understand them today did not exist. Women had a narrowly defined role in society and in the home, and little thought was given to “rights” that they may or may not have. Kings were always looking for ways to augment their treasuries to fund defence of the realm, or aggressive pursuit of new territories. One method of raising revenue was to sell to the highest bidder the hand in marriage of a widowed noblewoman. This was a serious concern for women, as obviously no one wanted to be auctioned off to a stranger. However, it was also a concern for noblemen, who feared a stranger coming into their home to potentially disrupt or usurp the inheritance intended for their children. While this practice had been disavowed by prior kings, the Plantagenet kings resurrected it. By including in Magna Carta the prohibition of this practice, coupled with the guarantee that a noblewoman must receive her inheritance before she had to vacate the ancestral home, these rights were enshrined in a way that ensured the king was subject to them. The king could not thereafter simply ignore these rights on a whim when the need arose.
This was the first step on a long and arduous journey towards enhanced and guaranteed recognition of women’s rights, but a very important one given the impact of the king expressly agreeing that he would be subject to the rule of law. This set the stage for the gradual expansion of women’s rights over the ensuing centuries.
2. What significance can be drawn from the fact that Magna Carta primarily recognized the rights of noble women?
We have to remember that noblemen imposed the terms of Magna Carta on King John. Of course, it then stands to reason that they would be most concerned with addressing the rights of noblewomen. For the most part, Magna Carta was primarily focused on the rights of noblemen. In fact, it took almost four centuries for the rights afforded in Magna Carta to extend to all men. So the fact that the provisions which applied to women only applied to noblewomen is not surprising. You have to start somewhere!
3. What clause of Magna Carta do you think afforded the most protection to women?
Clause 7 of the 1215 engrossment of Magna Carta provided that a widowed woman must receive her dower (which was her portion of her inheritance from her husband) before she had to leave her ancestral home, and that she had the right to stay in the home for at least 40 days. These were important rights for women’s security and safety. While the provisions set out in Clause 8, that a widow not be forced to marry someone who paid the king for the right to do so, is important, it is important to remember that it was as much about the preservation of inheritance for noblemen as it was about protecting the rights of women.
4. Was Magna Carta really an important step along the road to contemporary women’s rights in Canada, or is its importance exaggerated?
We would argue that it is an important initial step along that road, for two main reasons. First, the inclusion of women’s rights in Magna Carta set the stage for future charters, laws, declarations and constitutions. If women’s rights were important enough to be recognized in Magna Carta, there could be no justification for ignoring them when formulating and negotiating future rights and laws.
Second, Magna Carta stands for the principle that “no one is above the law”, or, expressed another way, the rule of law is supreme. By ensuring that even the highest ruler in the land was subject to the law, the platform from which contemporary women’s rights would evolve was set. The principle was established that the king could no longer, on a whim, do whatever suited him at the moment, regardless of whether it was lawful. With laws ultimately being established by the will of the people, and with the rulers being subject to those laws, the rights and freedoms of the people were able to be advanced.
For a more scholarly consideration of this issue, we direct you to the wonderful essay by Dr. Carolyn Harris about the importance of Magna Carta in connection with women’s rights, to be found on the Magna Carta Canada website at www.magnacartacanada.ca/women-and-magna-carta.