‘Female Husbands’, Community and Courts in the Eighteenth Century

Derry, Caroline (2017). ‘Female Husbands’, Community and Courts in the Eighteenth Century. Journal of Legal History, 38(1) pp. 54–79.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/01440365.2017.1289674


While there was no specific law prohibiting sex between women in the eighteenth century, some women were prosecuted as a consequence of same-sex relationships. These ‘female husbands’, women who married other women under male identities, often lived highly individual lifestyles; but their path through prosecution and punishment involved a much more intricate web of relations. Thus an exploration of their cases highlights important features of the contemporary criminal justice system as well as popular and elite attitudes to the specific offences. In particular, understandings of the role of the community in the discovery, prosecution, and punishment of criminal offences are complicated by an examination of the female husband cases. In a crucial period of change for the legal system, the complexities of its processes as well as the impact of class, gender, and culture are exposed. Light is shed upon the shifting roles and interests of the individual, the local community, and the courts at a point when criminal cases were in the early stages of a shift from private prosecution and public punishment to greater formality and state control. These unusual cases bring into focus the complex role of community relationships in an evolving legal system.

Viewing alternatives

Download history


Public Attention

Altmetrics from Altmetric

Number of Citations

Citations from Dimensions

Item Actions