Publication Date

April 2008


College of Arts and Sciences



Primary Subject Area

History, European


property rights, Early Modern England, Colonial Virginia, women's rights, Common Law, primogeniture, dowry, coverture, separate estate, jointure, widows, Elizabeth I, inheritance


According to English common law during the early modern period, women were not granted the legal privilege of exercising property rights. The British institutions of primogeniture, dowry, coverture, and widowhood governed this suppression of women’s rights. Aristocratic women found ways around these restrictions in the form of separate estate and jointure agreements, among other methods. With the settlement of the British colony of Virginia, it was expected that the patriarchal common law would rule colonial society. Despite this, several factors present in Virginia combined to increase the legal agency and property rights of Virginian women across the economic and social boundaries. These women enjoyed rights above and beyond those exercised by their British predecessors and counterparts.