Negotiating the Law

The theme of gender discrimination in legal theory and practice is the focus of a number of Centre research projects. Topics covered range from the legal provision surrounding marriage, separation and divorce, same-sex marriage and civil partnerships; legislation and practices surrounding changing marital property rights; the obstacles confronted by female participants in both criminal and civil courts of law; to the regulation of reproductive rights and practices.

Funded projects have focused on the history of working class marriage in Scotland (Gordon, Elliot and Hughes), women negotiating the boundaries of justice in Britain and Ireland, c.1100-c.1750 (Shepard), and a report on religion in Scots law (Brown). A cluster of postgraduates are working on legal records as sources on projects relating to marital breakdown; domestic abuse; rape and sexual assault; and married women’s legal rights.

2020-2021: Women, Marriage and Law in Scotland: Historical and Legal Perspectives (ESRC/SGSSS)

Funder: ESRC
PI: Dr Rebecca Mason


The historical struggle for gender equality has transformed women's access to justice in our modern world. Over the last two centuries, early feminists and their supporters campaigned for women's right to vote, to own property and engage in economic networks, to seek marital separation, and to obtain custody of their children before the courts. Yet, women’s struggles for equality is not a modern phenomenon. Throughout history, women approached the courts in an attempt to secure their legal status and rights to property. Within the historical and contemporary landscape, there is always movement; equality usually have to be continuously fought for and, once achieved, protected.


This ESRC-funded postdoctoral fellowship project, led by Dr Rebecca Mason, seeks to explore how understanding women’s agency and property rights in the past can help legal practitioners and the courts make better decisions when encountering similar problems today. The ways in which we make sense of women's social agency needs to acknowledge the intersectional nature of ongoing discrimination in the past. Even today, the struggle for gender equality in Scotland is far from complete, and a glaring disparity between the achieved equality of women and their lived realities still remains. The Scottish National Advisory Council on Women and Girls was established in 2017 to make gender inequality a historical curiosity by providing the First Minister with evidenced-based approaches to changing public attitudes to equality. Women still struggle to obtain equal access to justice, particularly in deprived areas of Scotland. Collaborative organisations, such as the Scottish Women’s Rights Centre, assists women in achieving equal access to justice through legal advice, representation and advocacy. Scottish Women’s Aid helps women facing domestic abuse to access law when seeking a divorce, securing child custody, and protection from violent partners. Historical knowledge of women’s involvement in legal changes and property debates can greatly inform current policy change and decision-making, which in turn plays a significant role in understanding women’s contribution to social and legal outcomes. By combining innovative historical research on women’s access to justice with women’s organisations, legal experts and government committees, this project will hopefully have a lasting impact on current legal debates surrounding women’s rights to property during the ongoing reform of succession and cohabitation law in Scotland.

2014-18: Women negotiating the boundaries of justice in Britain and Ireland, c.1100-c.1750

AHRC 2014-18
PI: Prof Alexandra Shepard

This AHRC funded project explores women’s relative access to justice in various parts of Britain and Ireland between the twelfth and the eighteenth centuries.  Lead by Dr Deborah Youngs of the Department of History and Classics at Swansea University, the project involves a team of scholars including Prof Alexandra Shepard of Glasgow University and Dr Garthine Walker of Cardiff University as Co-Investigators, and Dr Sparky Booker from the University of Dublin as Research Associate.  The project will also employ an additional Research Associate as well as two fully-funded PhD students (one based at the University of Glasgow and one at Cardiff University).

While much excellent historical research on medieval and early modern women and the law exists, most studies have focused on single jurisdictions or regions. English cases have dominated the field: if Irish, Welsh or Scottish materials have been explored at all, it has been on rigidly national lines.  This exciting new project will develop our understanding by its comparative focus. We do not ask simply about women’s access to justice and the legal process, the choices they had, the obstacles and opportunities with which they were confronted as ‘women’. Rather, we shall explore the extent to which the answers to these questions were determined by and varied according to national boundaries, language, ethnicity, confessional identity, and social status. In which judicial and cultural contexts were women more or less legally disadvantaged? How and with what success did they negotiate these limits? How did this change over time?

Answers to these questions will be sought by analysing evidence from England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland between 1100 and 1750. The comparison across borders and time, including Jewish, Irish, Welsh and Scottish women operating in courts where their first language was not spoken, and processes imposed by a dominant or colonial power, is a new approach to the subject.

Resources for the project will include records from both secular and church courts, encompassing civil, canon and criminal jurisdictions. Samples will range from the Anglo-Norman state where Jewish women will be considered alongside Christians; the English colony in Ireland; local courts in Wales and the Welsh use of central courts; the English and Scottish church courts; and women in the varied legal landscape of Highland and Lowland Scotland. The period studied reflects a time of significant political change and social upheaval in British and Irish history, when the state's physical boundaries, administrative structures and religious identity were all shifting and evolving. The law, to a degree, provided some continuity through this period, but the complexity of jurisdictions, overlapping, competing, local and central, religious and secular, meant that similar courts in different regions might differ a great deal.

2012-15: A History of Working-Class Marriage in Scotland, 1855-1976

AHRC 2012-15
PI: E Gordon; Co-I: A Hughes and R Elliot

This project explores the history of working-class courtship, marriage and marriage breakdown in Scotland in the period from the civil registration of marriages in 1855 to the introduction of no-fault divorce legislation in 1976.  Among its key goals, the project aims to establish the structure and form of the working-class family over time; to identify the basis of choice of marriage partner; to examine the nature of the relationship between husbands and wives and to establish the pattern, causes and consequences of marriage breakdown throughout Scotland. 

Principal investigator for the project is Prof Eleanor Gordon.The project team also involves Dr Rosemary ElliotDr Annmarie HughesDr Jeff MeekDr Andrea ThomsonFelicity Cawley and Matthew Barr.

Link to to the Working Class Marriage project website.