Tim Stretton. Women Waging Law in Elizabethan England.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 304 pp.
Illustrations. $59.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-521-49554-7.
Reviewed by Daniel Klerman , Law School,
University of Southern California
In recent years, scholars have begun to uncover and analyze women's
role in litigation. Going beyond the rules enunciated in statutes
and cases, historians have examined women's litigation strategies,
the constraints on their actions, and the attitudes of judges,
jurors and other participants in the legal process. Gowing's work
on defamation in ecclesiastical courts  and Walker and Loengard's
work on medieval dower litigation are notable examples of this
growing literature. Tim Stretton's Women Waging Law in
Elizabethan England is a fine contribution to this body of
Despite its broad title, Stretton's book focuses on one particular
court, the Court of Requests. This court was a conciliar, equity
court which heard a large number cases in the sixteenth and early
seventeenth centuries. Most suits concerned disputes over lands and
debts. The book makes fruitful use of the secondary literature on
female litigants in other Elizabethan courts, but the primary
research underlying the book and the bulk of its content relate to
the Court of Requests. That is not, however, to downplay the
achievement of the book. The records of this court are massive, and
Stretton's thorough research and clear analysis are much to be
The most interesting part of the book is the discussion of the
informal barriers to women bringing suits. (Chapters 3 and 9)
While an impressive number of women brought actions in the Court of
Requests, they represented only about twenty percent of plaintiffs
in that court, and, in over half of these cases, they brought suit
together with their husbands. Legal rules, such as the doctrine of
coverture (which barred married women from bringing most suits
without their husbands) account for much of this
under-representation. Such legal impediments, however, are well
know. Stretton's main contribution is to document the cultural
impediments to suit. By looking at a wide array of non-legal
sources (such as plays and moral writings), Stretton shows that
women were also discouraged from litigating by the idea that a
modest women speaks little, that a chaste woman does not appear in
public, and that a good woman is ignorant of her rights. Because of
this constellation of gender expectations, many women who could
legally bring actions did not do so. Instead, they suffered in
silence or waited until they married (or remarried), so that their
husbands could sue on their behalf.
In addition to documenting the way that cultural ideals of
femininity discouraged women's litigation, Stretton also shows the
ways in which these ideals shaped litigation itself. (Chapter 8)
All litigants in Requests (except those in service of the royal
household) had to plead their own poverty or the overwhelming power
of their adversary in order to invoke the jurisdiction of the court.
Nevertheless, women's plaints of poverty and powerlessness tended to
be much starker. Whereas pleadings by male litigants usually
suggested that their weakness was temporary and to emphasize the
superior position of the defendant, women's pleadings tended to
relate, at length, the abjectness of the plaintiff's position. To
his credit, Stretton does not take the statements in the pleadings
at face value as necessarily revealing the truth of women's
situations. In fact, in some cases it is clear that the litigant
claiming poverty actually possessed substantial wealth.
Nevertheless, Stretton shows that the differential pleading
strategies employed by men and women, even if they were not grounded
in the truth of individual circumstances, did reflect societal (and,
in particular, judicial) expectations of women and the conditions
under which they could properly call upon the courts for assistance.
While these are the most interesting parts of the book, other parts
reflect solid research and argument. Chapter 2 reviews the
historiography of women and English courts. Chapter 4 provides
helpful background on the Court of Requests. Since relatively
little has been written about this court, even scholars with
interests remote from women and gender will find this chapter of
use. Chapters 5 and 6 examine the different litigation patterns of
unmarried and married women. Chapter 6's discussion of the ability
of wives to sue abusive husbands for maintenance in the Court of
Requests is especially interesting. Chapter 7 examines suits
concerning a widow's right to a life estate in her deceased
husband's copyhold lands. These chapters occasionally employ a
plodding style which reflects the book's origins in a Ph.D. thesis.
Nevertheless, they contain much careful analysis and will be of
interest to students of legal doctrine as well as those interested
in women's history.
It is hard to say much negative about this solid and well-researched
book. At times, it would have been helpful if the author had more
carefully distinguished between what he had directly observed in the
Court of Requests records and what he had learned from secondary
sources. In Chapter 7, for example, Stretton several times refers
to the mutability of custom, but it is unclear whether he is merely
repeating the conclusions of others or whether the Court of Requests
cases provide additional support for this idea. Nevertheless, this
is a minor quibble about a fine book which will be of considerable
interest to both legal and social historians.
. Laura Gowing, Domestic Dangers: Women, Words, and Sex in Early
Modern London (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996).
. See, e.g., the articles in Wife & Widow in Medieval England,
ed. Sue Sheridan Walker, (Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press,
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