Report on Leverhulme Lecture by Tim Stretton: Stepmothers at Law in the Long 18th Century, 29 Feb 2016

CRECS was delighted to welcome Tim Stretton, Professor of History at St Mary’s University, Nova Scotia, for his Leverhulme Lecture on ‘Stepmothers at Law in the Long Eighteenth Century’. The concept of the ‘wicked stepmother’ is one which we cannot help be culturally aware of. Tim’s talk was an opportunity for us to delve into the complexities of family law and how the figure of the step-mother was integrated into such legal practises.

In Tim’s own words, the focus of his research is ‘the legal position of married women in the English past, tracing the Common Law idea of ‘coverture’ over many centuries, prior to the dismantling of most of its effects between the 1870s and 1925.’ As a means of introducing us to his work, Tim posited that the negative connotations associated with the term ‘stepmother’ stem from the fact that she is fundamentally figured as a rival for both affection and material possessions. The site of Tim’s research is a study of lawsuits and litigation cases in order to explore the terminology used in relation to the stepmother. Tim suggested that the accusations presented in these cases were heavily gendered; namely that if a stepmother were seen to have failed the children, it was said to be because of her female gender and all the associated vices such as vanity and greed. Whereas, if a stepfather fails in his responsibility then the blame is generally transferred onto the stepmother—which prompted a collective musing on the depressing continuity of this throughout the centuries.

Moving the discussion onto the process of actually becoming a stepmother, Tim asserted that from the fourteenth to the nineteenth century women were discouraged from remarriage. The perception being that such activity stemmed from women’s uncontrollable sexual urges, and such behaviour ought not to be encouraged. Men, on the other hand, were expected to remarry.


Turning his attention to the importance that the eighteenth and nineteenth century fairy tales played in the establishment of the ‘wicked stepmother’ trope. Tim asserted that the reification of motherhood results in the previous character of the ‘evil mother’ being replaced by the ‘wicked stepmother’. This reification of the ‘natural’ mother means that the reputation of the stepmother suffers in counterbalance. The question of how a woman can act as a natural mother to children, who are not naturally her own, is constantly posed in relation to the stepmother.

The kinship ties of the nuclear family are a key aspect to this study, Tim posited that the alienation of the stepmother arose from the strengthening of the emotional family bonds. Tim further suggested that the term ‘stepmother’ and ‘mother-in-law’ were largely synonymous over the course of the eighteenth century, the effect of this was that the stepmother was distanced both legally and emotionally from the family unit. As an interesting aside, in French the term ‘belle-mère’ can refer to both a stepmother or a mother-in-law.

Turning now to English law as a site of stepmotherhood, Tim began by explaining the relationship between the stepmother and the arrangement of dower. In normal circumstances, widows were entitled to one third of her husband’s freehold landed interest, which any heirs would inherit once the widow had passed away. However, many stepmothers were significantly younger than their husbands which meant that any heirs would have to wait significantly longer than they had perhaps bargained for. Tim pointed out that social order relies upon an orderly transition of material goods and land being passed down through the generations—stepmothers were seen as a hindrance to this. Significantly, Tim drew our attention to the fact that stepfathers were entitled to one hundred per cent of the property and land from their spouse, and yet they did not incite the same ire as the stepmothers did. Tim then explains that dower was replaced by jointure, since estate lawyers had rendered dower as useless, in this new system, whatever a women brought into a marriage, she then received ten per cent of that sum a year rather than the former one third that a woman was entitled to through dower. Tim postulates that this ought to have decreased the resentment towards step-mothers.

In Court Chancery records, Tim explained that he has detected a broad shift, over the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, in how stepmothers are characterised semantically. In earlier records, they are denounced as ‘unnatural’ and ‘wicked’, in the eighteenth century there is a diminishing of such generalisations and the focus shifts onto the individual herself. There is also a shift to legal instruments in the eighteenth century with a move towards a commercial, contractual economy, in which those contracts are built upon negotiation rather than accepted rights.

Tim argued that a move to such an economy, which was concerned with self-interest rather than family interest, means the biological bond between family members becomes blurred. As a light-hearted note, Tim jokingly referred to the conspiracy laden, cut-throat cases of family members suing one another as reminiscent of ‘The Sopranos’. Tim then drew our attention to the issue of the family name and how this notion fared in such a climate. He stated that in the eighteenth century, bloodlines become less important, with the family name becoming the key arbiter of kinship.

Then, Tim turned to the exclusion of the ‘half-blood’ from inheritance, in doing so he sadly informed us that this has nothing to do with Harry Potter, unless J. K. Rowling has a secret penchant for Chancery cases. Between 1350 and 1833, ‘half-blood’ family members were excluded from inheritance, in many cases with the property actually forfeited rather than be inherited by the ‘half-blood’. In 1760 it is acceptable for William Blackstone to publicly defend the exclusion of ‘half-blood’ inheritors, why then does this change in the 1830s? Tim suggested that a cynic could attribute the longevity of such a law as resonating from the fact that the crown profited from the continual forfeiting of properties. Tim asserted that following the abolition of the ‘half-blood’ exclusion from inheritance law by the Royal Commission in 1833, English men had the most freedom of anyone in history to will their goods as they saw fit, as well as disinherit people as they wished. This was done in the name of commerce and the individual power of the patriarchal father. Tim left us with the thought that in the midst of such unfettered individual power in the hands of the husband, the wily young step-mother in fact had an extraordinary scope for influence.

Following the talk, we retired to the reception in order to discuss the potential resonances and connections that this research could have for the literature of the long eighteenth century over a glass of wine and a few nibbles.

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