Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
John D. Krugler
Julius R. Ruff
A. Kristen Foster
What was the legal status of women in early colonial Maryland? This is the central question answered by this dissertation. Women, as exemplified through a series of case studies, understood the law and interacted with the nascent Maryland legal system. Each of the cases in the following chapters is slightly different. Each case examined in this dissertation illustrates how much independent legal agency women in the colony demonstrated.
Throughout the seventeenth century, Maryland women appeared before the colony's Provincial and county courts as witnesses, plaintiffs, defendants, and attorneys in criminal and civil trials. Women further entered their personal cattle marks, claimed land, and sued other colonists. This study asserts that they improved their social standing through these interactions with the courts. By exerting this much legal knowledge, they created an important place for themselves in Maryland society. Historians have begun to question the interpretation that Southern women were restricted to the home as housewives and mothers. The research in this dissertation illustrates that the female role in Maryland's legal system refutes this assumption specifically about Maryland women. Studies of Maryland, whether of society, women, or the law, are numerically fewer than studies of other colonies. This includes the other southern colonies. Nevertheless, in the past twenty years, there has been a historiographical shift toward rehabilitating the role women had in society. This dissertation contributes to that trend by illustrating women's agency outside of the household.
Maryland was unique. As the first British colony to allow all Christians freedom of conscience, Maryland had a society that allowed rights for a variety of people. Extending from this point, the Maryland legal structure in the early colonial period allowed women many rights. As the system developed, women learned to understand how to use and abuse the legal system. This is evident in the four categories of crimes in this dissertation. Witchcraft, violent crimes, sexual offenses, and property offenses all involved females in different capacities. It was this experience with these varied cases that helped women from 1648 through 1715 carve out a place for themselves in society.