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Women on the margins: Blended families and legal practices in the courts of early modern Scotland

Monday 18 May 2020, 5.15PM

Speaker(s): Rebecca Mason (Institute of Historical Research, University of London)

Women were often defined as single women, wives or widows within early modern legal handbooks. Women’s access to law was primarily built around their relationships with male members of their kingroup (fathers, brothers and uncles) and, when married, their husbands. The tripartition of women’s legal status as contingent on the progression from single to married to widowed, however, overlooks their varied, and often marginalised, status within blended families: as illegitimate daughters, stepdaughters, single mothers, remarried widows, and stepmothers. Within the pages of early modern court books, we find remarried widows settling the dissolution of their previous marital estates within subsequent marriages. We also uncover single mothers initiating legal proceedings against their illegitimate children’s fathers when attempting to receive child maintenance and support. Court clerks recognised that women’s legal and family relationships were varied and contestable, with many women forced to operate on the margins of the family unit when asserting their legal rights before their local courts. This paper uncovers how women living in early modern Scotland negotiated their varied identities at law, and will explore how the legal system recorded, challenged, and reacted to their mixed legal rights and claims to property.

Dr Rebecca Mason is the Economic History Society Power Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research in London. Her PhD was funded as part of the AHRC research project, Women Negotiating the Boundaries of Justice: Britain and Ireland, c.1100-c.1750, at the University of Glasgow under the supervision of Professor Alexandra Shepard. She is a historian of gender and law, with special focus on the legal activities and property rights of women in early modern Scotland. She has published articles on married women’s legal rights to paraphernalia and the impact of gender and marital status when accessing justice in early modern Scotland. She is currently preparing a monograph on how married women’s access to law and their ability to defend their property rights in Scotland varied in accordance to jurisdictional boundaries, language, confessional identity, and social status prior to the 1707 Act of Union.

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Rebecca Mason poster (PDF , 10,031kb)

Image: John Smibert, Portrait of Sir Francis Grant, Lord Cullen, and His Family, between 1688 and 1751, Wikimedia Commons


Location: Zoom online event