11. An Early Legal Handbook for Women

By Zoë Jackson (@ZoeMJackson1)

Ordinary people, including women, in seventeenth-century England participated in legal processes, through which they often demonstrated at least a basic understanding of the law.[1] During the early modern period, there even existed a few legal handbooks specifically aimed at women and their experiences and rights within the law. An early version of this kind of publication was the The Lawes Resolutions of Womens Rights: Or, the Lawes Prouision for Woemen.[2]  

The Lawes Resolutions of Womens Rights was published anonymously in 1632, possibly by Thomas Edgar.[3] The book was presented as specifically intended for women, and topics covered included women’s inheritances as well as legal issues related to marriage and divorce.[4] Though by no means a protofeminist text, the Lawes Resolutions did recognise the particular difficulties of being a woman controlled by a law she had no say in. The anonymous author observed that woman ‘have nothing to do in constituting Lawes, or consenting to them, in interpreting of Lawes, or in hearing them interpreted at lectures, leets or charges, and yet they stand strictly tyed to mens establishments; little or nothing excused by ignorance’.[5] The author justified the publication of this book as performing a service to these women, as ‘it were pitty and impiety any longer to hold from them such Customes, Lawes, and Statutes, as are in a maner, proper, or principally belonging unto them’.[6]

The Lawes Resolutions reflects the widespread legal knowledge and participation of the period. Although women could not be involved in the making of laws, this text reflects the recognition, by men as well as women, that they were still affected by the laws that were instituted and had a right, and a desire, to know to what regulations they were beholden.

Image Credit: Title page of The Lawe’s Resolutions of Women’s Rights. LSE Digital Library. https://digital.library.lse.ac.uk/objects/lse:sor474mew. CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.  

[1] See, for example, Brooks, Lawyers, Litigation and English Society Since 1450; and John Walter, ‘“Law-mindedness”: Crowds, Courts and Popular Knowledge of the Law in Early Modern England’, in Law, Lawyers and Litigants in Early Modern England: Essays in Memory of Christopher W. Brooks, ed. Joanne Begiato, Adrian Green, and Michael Lobban (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 164–184. For women’s legal knowledge, see Mihoko Suzuki, ‘Daughter’s of Coke: Women’s Legal Discourse in England, 1642–1689’, in Challenging Orthodoxies the Social and Cultural Worlds of Early Modern Women: Essays Presented to Hilda L. Smith, ed. Sigrun Haude and Melinda S Zook, 165–191 (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2014), https://www.vlebooks.com/Vleweb/Product/Index/390996?page=0.

[2] The Lavves Resolutions of Womens Rights: Or, the Lavves Prouision for Woemen (London: Printed by the assignes of Iohn Moore Esq and are to be sold by Iohn Grove, at his Shop neere the Rowles in Chancery-Lane, over against the Sixe-Clerkes Office, 1632), https://ezp.lib.cam.ac.uk/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/books/lavves-resolutions-womens-rights-prouision-woemen/docview/2240921122/se-2?accountid=9851; for a discussion of early modern legal texts concerning women including the Lawes Resolutions, see Amy Louise Erickson, Women and Property in Early Modern England (London: Taylor & Francis Group, 1995), 21–26, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/cam/reader.action?docID=166869&ppg=5.

[3] For the common attribution of the text to Thomas Edgar, see Erickson, Women and Property in Early Modern England, 244, footnote 1 to chapter 2.

[4] The Lavves Resolutions of Womens Rights; for women as intended audience, see p. 3.

[5] The Lavves Resolutions of Womens Rights, 2.

[6] The Lavves Resolutions of Womens Rights, 2.

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