March 8 is International Women’s Day. And women have come far over the centuries.

But what was life like for the women here? Tough, mostly. Women were seen as temptresses, blamed for almost everything since the Garden of Eden, with the pain of childbirth seen as fitting punishment for Eve succumbing to temptation.

Women living in Victorian St Albans had fewer rights than those living in the 8th-9th centuries. Then they could own and sell land without their husband’s or father’s consent. They could inherit from their parents. They could also divorce husbands, take half the household goods and have full custody of the children.

But in 1066, the Normans arrived and things changed. Women could no longer divorce their husbands. They could only own property if widowed. They needed permission to marry, permission to run a business. And they were considered to be their husband’s possession, along with the furniture. And it pretty much stayed that way for 800 years.

Rank didn’t help either. In the 1700s, Lady Grosvenor was discovered in a compromising situation with the infamous Duke of Cumberland (brother of King George III) at the White Hart, Holywell Hill. Huge scandal ensued when Lord Grosvenor sued the Duke for damages of £10,000, (almost £2 million today), to his ‘marital’ property.

Wealth or the right connections undoubtedly made life easier. Take local girl Sarah Churchill, 1st Duchess of Marlborough. Sent to court in 1673 when she was 13, Sarah became a close confidante of Queen Anne, accumulating influence and wealth.

A canny business woman, Sarah amassed a huge fortune, always choosing the right time to buy or sell her investments. Some of that money found its way to St Albans in the form of the Marlborough Almshouses, Hatfield Road.

Schools were usually for boys. Education was mostly considered unsuitable for women. However, St Albans School records from 1295 tell of Lordes de Boyes, a girl pretending to be a boy, being educated there. Her deception was discovered after three years but by then she’d gained an education.

Most women had to be resourceful, finding ways to earn money from spinning, brewing and market trading. Some practised midwifery, or even rudimentary medicine.

But for many women the only way to earn was 'the oldest profession'. Prostitution was outlawed in the 16th century, but that didn’t stop it, just criminalised it.


And St Albans wasn’t immune. During the 1800s, church ministers complained that "flashily dressed and painted women could be seen in Lamb Alley at all hours of the day and night". One wonders how they knew?

French Row also had a long running, dubious reputation, in particular the Christopher Inn. In 1861, Landlord Neptune Smith pleaded guilty to keeping a disorderly house (ie, a brothel) and soon afterwards the inn closed for good.

And meanwhile, throughout the centuries, the women of St Albans have doggedly worked, fought, loved, laughed and raised children. So yes, we have come a long way.

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