The following is an expanded version of an earlier 2014 article. – PW
Many a good woman of the Henpecked Club has to be on her good behaviour in order to keep on anything like peaceable footing with her better half – (1860)1
The Henpecked Club, a very real organization, global in scope, has been in continuous operation for at least the last 200 years. It served the needs of married women who faced domestic abuse from husbands, and helped young bachelors to learn ways of responding to abuse when they might encounter it in later life.
Until the 1970s when the last of the clubs disbanded they were both widespread and international.
Essentially a project for creating ‘Good Women,’ the Henpecked Club consisted of an international network of meeting-places where women came for support, especially if enduring emotional and physical abuse from husbands. In this aspect the club is similar to Al-Anon, the modern support-movement for spouses of alcoholics. The clubs actively encouraged wives to tolerate husbands’ abuse, with the strategy of placating him with any means necessary to moderate his behaviours.
Club members, for instance, were expected to take their husbands breakfast in bed daily and to do most of the household chores even after a hard day’s work, with the hope that this would place husbands in a more amiable frame of mind or – perhaps more accurately – in a less abusive mood. The following are instructions to all members of the club:
- That every member of this society shall kindle the fire, set the kettle over, and have the water boiling before she awakes her husband in the morning.
- That every member shall take her husband his clothes to bed, after having aired and made them warm and comfortable, or be fined twopence for each offence.
- That she shall state to her husband the work she has done, and ask if there is anything more he wishes her to perform before she goes to her work in the morning.
- That if any member or members should come home to her dinner, and find her husband gossiping and the dinner not ready, she shall not complain; but cook for herself and family, and something for her husband that will make his comfortable when he does come home, or forfeit threepence.
- That if any member or members after their day’s labour come home and find that her husband has not washed the pots, or any other thing she thinks should have been done, she must do the same herself, and not find fault; she must likewise mend the fire, warm the water, sweep the house, mop and scrub the floor, and them make the bed or beds to his satisfaction, or forfeit fourpence.
- That when any member shall have finished her week’s work, she shall return home with her wages and give the same to her husband.
- That when any member has given the wages to her husband, she shall ask his what he wishes her to do the next, if he wishes her to go to the shop she must go, but if he wish to go himself she must stay at home to clean the house and furniture, and set things in order, that he may be satisfied when he returns, or forfeit sixpence.
- That every Sunday morning, each member shall rise at six o’clock, kindle the fire, clean and dress the children (if any) and get them ready for school, before her beloved husband shall be disturbed; but if he call for a pipe of tobacco, a pinch of snuff, or a glass of some nourishing cordial, she shall serve his that instant, or forfeit sixpence.
- That peradventure a member’s husband may wish to have some splendid clothing such as a silk velvet bonnet, a fine cap with artificials, a new gown, crinoline, boots, sandals, silk stockings, or any other article of fashionable dress, his wife shall provide for such things out of her over-time money, or forfeit one shilling and eightpence.
- That when a member’s husband is sick or in labour, she shall run for the doctor as fast as she can, whether it be night or day, frost or snow, hail or rain, or forfeit two shillings.
- That any member refusing to clean the child when it has shitten or bawed (as the term may be), she shall forfeit sixpence.
- That every member shall wash the child’s shitten hippins [diapers], when her husband order her or forfeit fourpence.
- That every Monday night, each member shall clean her husband and children’s shoes and clogs.
- That every Tuesday night each member shall look up the clothes for washing.
- That every Wednesday night each member shall look the buttery over, and see whether there be a sufficient quantity of tea, coffee, sugar, butter, bread, cheese, meal, flour, beef or mutton, and if found wanting, she shall provide the same without grumbling.
- That every Thursday night, each member shall provide for her loving husband such things as may improve his private happiness, such as cordials or spirits, according to circumstances.
- That every Friday night, each member shall look up the stockings, shirts, &c., and such as want mending she shall mend them.
- That every member shall pay the strictest observance to the five last-named rules or forfeit threepence for every neglect on conviction before the committee.2
Such instructions, which were typical of most of the Henpecked Clubs, were sometimes couched in self-mocking humor by the members if they had suffered abuse or violence by husbands, and this has led to the erroneous assumption that the clubs were merely comedy. But that assumption is incorrect – and perhaps a little driven by denial of men’s violence – for the issue of domestic abuse was a serious concern, as were strategies for dealing with same.
Women were also advised to absorb any violence or abuse without complaint, stoically tolerating it so as not to provoke or further upset the perpetrator. This, explained club policy, was how one become a ‘good woman.’ If the woman’s husband continued his abuse after these conciliatory gestures, Club officials would ask the woman what she may have unwittingly done to provoke him, followed by “How might you better serve his so he doesn’t become upset again?” The answer to that question was typically for the wife to do more housework, but there was also a novel intervention of ‘rocking a husband to sleep,’ of which I will say more shortly.
Henpecked clubs existed in their hundreds from the 1700s through to contemporary times, and in places as diverse as England, Austria, USA, Germany, France, Australia, Yugoslavia, China, and Japan.
Why haven’t we heard of these clubs – many containing several hundred members struggling to find ways to deal with difficult marriages – in an age when we are so hyper-focused on gender relations? Not even a peep from historians, despite the availability of material about Henpecked Clubs. Why?
Because it doesn’t chime with the image of a ‘dominant matriarchal wife’ proffered in modern interpretations of history.
So in a gesture of redressing history, here is small part of an 1810 book entitled, Some Account of that Ancient and Honourable Society, Vulgarly Denominated The Henpecked Club – showing that the project of creating ‘good women’ has been going on for at least 200 years, and probably more:
“[Wives] submit to the pleasing bondage of their husbands, in as great numbers, and with as much good will, as in any enlightened period of ancient or modern times.
“Henpeckicism, which has been graced by ranking as its Members the greater part of the most celebrated women who have appeared since the creation to the present day, whether legislators, philosophers, conquerors, poets of divines, requires no other argument to vindicate and establish its right to the most extensive influence and operation, than the language of every lover, who readily acknowledges herself to be, and swears to continue, the slave of her mistress, before marriage; ergo, she who denies his supremacy, when he becomes her husband, is guilty of the most criminal and unnatural rebellion against manly authority that Goddess herself have set over her. If other arguments were wanted, however, many might be adduced to prove that the superiority of the male is an ordination of Nature. For example, the noblest or fiercest dog will tamely submit to the snarling and snapping of the most pitiful bitch of the species.”
“For in Henpeckicism there is no distinction: the peerless man ladies it over his vassal even as the peasant: All are equally comprised in the description so happily given by the poet:
“The crouching vassal of the tyrant husband,
“Who has no sixpence but in his possession,
“Who has no will but in his high permission,
“Who must to his his dear friends secrets tell,
“Who dreads a curtain lecture worse than hell”
“The rules observed by the Members of those Meetings were every way adapted to preserve the existence of the institution. Such Members as had the honour of receiving a black eye from their spouses, were entitled to an allowance of 10s. 6d. per week, for so long as the glorious colouring remained: The allowance for two black eyes was £1 1s 0d. In all cases, proof was required that the contusion was received according to the true spirit of genuine Henpeckicism, that is, without resistance or murmuring, according to the example of that inestimable deceased Member, Socrates, who, together with her Gentleman, is alluded to by the poet in the following lines:
“How oft he scolded in a day she knew,
“How many pisspots at the sage he threw,
“Who took it patiently, and wip’d her head-
“Rain follows thunder – that was all she said.”
Such married women as had not the honour to appertain to the Society, were earnestly requested to attend these Meetings, not as Members, but as visitors, in order that they might be induced to unite themselves with it, by witnessing the perfect happiness which it was calculated to confer. For what happiness can be greater than that of belonging to a spouse who takes upon himself the weighty care of regulating not only his own conduct, but that of his wife and the rest of his family; to a spouse who takes the trouble of receiving and paying all money; to a spouse who kindly undertakes the task of judging for his wife (in every occurence) of what is proper for her to do; of what time she should spend in public houses; of how much money she must expend; of what secrets ought to be retained in her or rather his possession, and of what ought to be divulged to the world? In short, he who takes upon himself all anxiety, all trouble, and leaves to his darling wife nothing to do but the delightful task of executing his commands; well remembering that:
“Her proper body is not hers, but mine,
“For so said Paul, and Paul’s a sound divine.”
The design and ostensible object of the Institution having always been to preserve, and even, if possible, to extend the just and laudable dominion of the fair sex, the several meetings thought it proper, also, to request the attendance of bachelors, not merely with a view that they might be benefited by witnessing such perfect examples of submission, but that those bachelors who had not yet turned their thoughts toward matrimony, or who might have overlooked so great an inducement to enter into the married state as the existence of out Institution, might be induced, as early as possible, to place themselves on a level, in this respect, with most of the greatest women in the world.
“The most common methods by which males attempt the full exercise of that unlimited power which of right belongs to them, is, at a very early period after marriage, to become extremely noisy and abusive, and to make a point of dealing out blame very liberally to their wives for every action which they commit, whether they are really of the opinion that their conduct has been reprehensible or not. This method is at some times attended by blows. Though a vigorous and persevering course of this treatment may frequently be successful, yet there is considerable danger of resistance from those brutal fellows injudiciously termed women of spirit, a resistance which may be attended with consequences extremely injurious to male countenance. I would strenuously recommend this method be pursued by men, however, with all those efmasculate characters who are more afraid of sustaining a drubbing, than eager to vindicate their title to womanhood, as would especially advise it to be practiced on the whole tribe of fops or puppies, creatures possessed of no better proofs that they are privileged to rank as women, than that they have two legs and wear breeches.
“Some men pursue a course quite the opposite of this, and with greater success. They at one time load their wives with caresses, magnify their own affection, and seem to have no other avocation worth their attention but that of convincing them that the sole study of their lives will be to invent fresh blandishments, and to render them in all respects completely happy. At other times, however, they affect a sulkiness of behaviour: a sudden and sullen gloom succeeds their former cheerfulness; they sigh frequently, and burst into floods of tears; nay, they are even seized with swoonings and hysterics.
The wretched wife of such a husband, alarmed at these surprising symptoms, anxiously enquires the cause. He affects to evade the question–she becomes more importunate–he persists in declining to assign a reason–her importunities are redoubled–till she is at last informed, with gentle reproaches and a burst of grief, that she herself is breaking his heart; that the reward of all his love is her neglect, &c. &c. Astonished at a charge which she is wholly unconscious of having merited, she at first endeavours to ridicule what she terms his childish uneasiness. He affects, however, still to doubt–she makes solemn protestations of her innocence; and they are reconciled. In a few days, however, the same farce is played out again, and again, and again, till the unhappy woman is at length almost convinced, contrary to the evidence of her own senses, that her conduct has been criminal. Nay, to pacify her afflicted partner, she is even brought to confess her imaginary faults, and to promise amendment in the future. For fear of unintentionally giving offence, she learns to keep a strict watch over her own actions, becomes afraid to take any notice of those of her husband, and is, for the same reason, cautious of contradicting him, lest her cruelty should cause him to swoon; and, in short, becomes a Member of the Henpecked Society.
“Though the great object of our Society is to extend the domination of the male sex, it is far from being its intention to obtain that end by such reprehensible or unhappy means. The only worthy Members of the Society are those who have become so, as much by conviction of its utility, as by entertaining a due sense of the superiority of their husbands. All such Members, however, have been treated in a manner very different from the preceding. They have (and let every husband endeavour to follow the same plan) been first brought to acknowledge that their husbands, by their care and economy, were better adapted than Themselves to manage their concerns; have been satisfied, by their attentive behaviour, that they were well qualified to govern their families; and have been convinced, by their mildness and moderation, that the authority with which they were invested would never be abused. In such a family, resistance will never be attempted. Commands from the one party will be met by prompt obedience from the other. Perpetual harmony will be established; and correction, when necessary, will be submitted to, according to the fundamental rule of the Society, without murmuring and without resistance.”3
The Good Woman’s Husband Pacifier
The good women of the Henpecked Club were responsible for an interesting innovation: an adult-sized rocking cradle, which was used for soothing nagging husbands instead of babies. If you look closely you can see curved feet that allowed the cradle to be gently rocked from side-to-side by the dutiful wife.
The ‘Peace Box’ was invented by a club member named Harry Tap in 1862, and several were manufactured for hire by Henpecked Club members suffering under tempestuous behaviour from husbands. If a husband was abusing his wife too much, the wife would entreat her husband to recline in the box, which could be rocked like a child’s cot in order to send the husband to sleep. While he was sleeping the wife would perform all the household chores then awaken her husband who would hopefully have calmed down.
With those juicy historical morsels now in the open, we seem to have come full circle, back to the future. Here we remain, with hat in hand, beseeching Dear Man for forgiveness for having displeased him, hoping that he will notice how hard we are trying to be good women.
You may at this point be feeling nauseous in the knowledge that women have been kowtowing to such abuse for hundreds if not thousands of years, and yet we’re still being asked to to Take It Like A Woman™, Woman Up™, and be Good Women™. If you are feeling that way you are not alone, and with the growing army of women and men in the MHRM you can help bring an end to such appalling gynocentric customs.
 Huddersfield Chronicle – Saturday 11 August 1860
 This list of duties was in use at the Rochdale chapter of the club and is a condensed version of an earlier official document circulated among clubs: New Rules and Orders Reformation Act (1840)
 Some Account of that Ancient and Honourable Society, Vulgarly Denominated The Henpecked Club (1810)