Date of Award

Summer 8-2021

Degree Type

Masters Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



Committee Chair

Dr. Kyle Zelner

Committee Chair School


Committee Member 2

Dr. Susannah Ural

Committee Member 2 School


Committee Member 3

Dr. Allison Abra

Committee Member 3 School



This thesis focuses on the evolution of women's legal rights - property, inheritance, and divorce- in colonial Massachusetts between 1630 and 1690. The project explores how and to what extent the legal doctrine of coverture- which severely limited married women’s legal rights- functioned in the Massachusetts Bay Colony under its Puritan government. This study examines how coverture directly impacted women’s property and divorce rights in the courts of law in the colonial Massachusetts legal system. It uses primary documents, such as official court records and Puritan sermons, to examine women’s legal rights in that colony through the intersecting lenses of church and state. This thesis argues that although women had some opportunities to express social power through their roles in their families and churches, Massachusetts’ General Court and the law courts still restricted women’s legal powers. Since the Puritan church believed that women were morally, spiritually, and physically weaker than men, the courts denied women many opportunities to control their own real and personal property during their marriage. At the same time, the Puritan church viewed unhappy marriages as a potential threat to the unity of the church and the stability of the colony, which led the colony to allow divorces in limited circumstances, unlike most other colonies or the English homeland. The close relationship between the Puritan church and Massachusetts Bay’s colonial government thus allowed women in the colony to have more access to divorce than women in other colonies.