chapter  1
24 Pages

The Ghost Family: Inheritance, Property, and Stepfamilies

Rigid as coverture seems as a legal concept, the distinction ordained between the feme sole, who had legal capacity, and the married feme covert, who had none, was not absolute in the colonial setting.8 From the days of Mary Beard, historians have recognized that common law alone failed to delineate women's actions and that "equity" jurisdiction (with its cases heard in Courts of Chancery) offered a significant means of defining women's property rights. Equity had emerged to mitigate the harshness of common law and to insure justice in cases where a plaintiff feared a powerful opponent could corrupt proceedings at law. In England, the lord chan-

cellor heard equity cases and judged them on their merits. In Virginia, county courts heard both common law and chancery cases. From 1645 a defendant in Virginia could request a hearing in equity at any time before proceedings began on an issue. Once in chancery, a case would be kept from common law until the defendant had answered and the commissioners of the court decided whether the case would be heard in chancery or under common law.9