This article is a case study of female litigants acting in the capacity of mother in the English equity court of Chancery between 1550 and 1700. It starts by asking how prevalent mothers were as plaintiffs and defendants in Chancery, though the burden of the article is a qualitative analysis of maternal narratives in Chancery pleadings and the use of gendered tropes such as “poor mother.” Stepmothers and women acting in loco parentis—aunts, grandmothers, and godmothers—have been included to reflect the full range of women who acted in a maternal role in early modern society and explain how they were portrayed, sometimes through a querelle des femmes lens. The different legal strategies of mothers (and their lawyers) are examined in detail and the question of the “female voice” in the archives is addressed. The intention is to demonstrate how social and legal maternal identities were used to produce strategic storytelling by mothers and their lawyers in a rhetoric that they hoped would advantage their cases. More broadly, the article addresses questions about the structural connections between law and society, especially the construction of social identity and the habitus and doctrine of equity.
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