Within Her Power: Propertied Women in Colonial Virginia

By Brewer, Holly | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, July 1, 2004 | Go to article overview
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Within Her Power: Propertied Women in Colonial Virginia


Brewer, Holly, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


Within Her Power: Propertied Women in Colonial Virginia * Linda L. Sturtz * New York: Routledge, 2002 * xvi, 278 pp. * $23.95

Within Her Power is a rich examination of women's legal status in colonial Virginia that avoids stale generalizations and challenges generations of assumptions. Sturtz pushes us far beyond what historians have simplistically understood as the guidelines of the common law, helping us to understand the limits of the concept of "femme covert." Especially, her findings challenge us to think more in terms of families and less in terms of individuals (whether women or men) in the early modern period.

Her subtlety on the femme covert question is impressive. What emerges is that many women acted through the courts as legal entities, even when married. For example, in her final chapter, "Madam and Co.," she lays out Virginia women's extensive involvement in family businesses, especially involving Atlantic trading networks. She likewise offers many examples of women in merchants' record books, showing how married women often purchased and often with their own resources, selling chickens and eggs, for example, in exchange for finished cloth. She shows married women defending themselves, representing themselves (and their economic activities), and acting as attorneys for their husbands. Likewise, she offers numerous examples of married women using the law to collect debts.

At the same time her findings challenge the simplistically broad understanding of femme covert that historians have taken from Blackstone, Sturtz makes it clear that femme covert could be a real (though more limited) constraint. Married women selling property often had to rely on their husbands' willingness to be responsible for their debts, even though they could sometimes circumvent this restriction with, for example, their own economic activities. Selling property without a husband's consent was the core of the femme covert restriction, one that posed real women with real problems, especially when husbands had been absent for a period of years. In two fascinating early eighteenth-century cases, the Virginia legislature passed bills to allow abandoned wives to sell property in order to circumvent this common law restriction-both bills were subsequently vetoed by the king.

The larger question is how to understand the wonderful details that Sturtz has uncovered.

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