General:Legal Advice to Women in the Eighteenth Century



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Name: Mary Hemmings


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Role: Librarian

Institution: University of Calgary

Field of Study/Creative Endeavor: legal history, popular culture, legal visual semiotics, law reflected in expressions of popular culture


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Mary Hemmings: Biography An academic librarian since 1980, Mary Hemmings has worked at Concordia University, McGill University and is currently the Assistant Director of the University of Calgary’s Law Library. Mary’s career includes a three-year role as “librarian-in-residence” at the UofC’s English Department and co-ordinator of the Gibson Collection of Speculative Fiction. She is author of a book chapter on the role of women in pulp fiction, and is a co-author of a chapter on libraries and popular culture. She has taught courses in Fundamental Legal Skills and Advanced Legal Skills at UofC’s Faculty of Law. Mary is currently working towards and LLM specializing in legal theory and history at Queen Mary College, Univesity of London. Research Interest: Interdisciplinary approaches to law and society.University courses in interdisciplinary legal issues are a traditional part of the academic landscape and law is an integral part of society. Understanding its sources and traditions allows us to look critically at how laws are made and cases are decided. Saying “rule of thumb” was politically incorrect in the eighteenth century, and would be today if more people knew it referred to the size of cane allowed to be used to beat a wife. By using primary sources, inquiring students can discover a better understanding of law today. Broad approaches among a primary sources, inquiring students can discover a better understanding of law today. Broad approaches among a variety disciplines and media can engage and fuel life-time inquiry into a fascinating topic. Current work: Make ‘em Laugh: Images of Law in Eighteenth Century Popular Culture, Treatise on Legal Visual Semiotics, Wagner, Anne and Sherwin, Richard, eds., Springer, Accepted for publication, 2011. Degrees held: (BA History, Concordia) (MLS, McGill) MA Legal History, Calgary) (LLB, Calgary)


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Eighteenth century women writers had opinions on the legal status of women in society. They expressed these opinions through literary productions: novels, poems, plays. I seek to analyze these messages: who sent them; what they contained; and who was the audience. Assumption: women writers probably focused on middle class rights within traditional familial relationships.

1. Look at specific legal documents written by women

i. Sarah Chapone "Hardships of the English Laws in Relation to Wives" (1735). She argued that women had fewer rights than Roman and contemporary? Portuguese counterparts and presented the 70 page pamphlet to Parliament. Chapone, Sarah (anonymous). The Hardships of the English Laws in relation to Wives. Titlepage Title: The Hardships of the English Laws in relation to Wives. With an Explanation of the Original Curse of Subjection passed upon the Woman. In an Humble Address to the Legislature. London: J. Roberts, 1735.Samuel Johnson later used virtually the same phrase ("an act of complicated virtue") to describe Richard Savage's charity to a woman who had injured him. London Magazine. Alternate Title: London Magazine: or, Gentleman's Monthly Intelligencer. London: C. Ackers, April 1732-June 1785: (May 1735): 283. Link 18th Century Collections Online - found text (above) and "Letter to a new-married lady" & var.... in Bib: See American Historical Review (2000) - no link...

ii. Elizabeth Justice "Amelia" (1751)(cf Henry Fielding's Amelia" December 1751) "Dear Sir, do not imagine that all Law centers in you.

iii. Teresia Constantia Phillips is one of the best-known of the courtesan memoirists of the eighteenth century, though it is still not unanimously agreed that she wrote her own text. Her letter to Chesterfield qualifies her as a feminist

iv. Sarah Fielding's "The Governess" (1749)(first full-length children's story) - TCP said she wouldn't have gotten into so much trouble had she read SF's book ????? Does the book offer legal advice, or rules of social conduct???

2. Analyze types of advice given (reading of primary sources in digital databases)

3. Determine who the advice was for (married women; unmarried women)

4. Was there an underlying theme? eg. Deliberate distancing between middle class and "criminal" elements.


Legal advice to women in the 18th century

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Scope: Public opinion, including those of women had become politicized in the eighteenth century. Satirical expressions through the visual medium of cheap and highly circulated prints allowed artists such as Hogarth to comment obliquely on legal issues. Similarly, a nascent women's rights movement was evident. Women writers interseted in strengthening the rights movement could use literary media to "spread the word".

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Timeline: Eighteenth Century

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* Integrated History of Women's Writing in Canada
* Orlando

Keywords: "a complicated act of virtue"

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Related Stories: Visualising the Charter

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Related Tools: Primary Sources: Proceedings of the Old Bailey (criminal;London); Making of Modern Law; Eighteenth Century Collections Online