"Lawful and Discreet Women": Reflecting on Juries of Matrons
The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919 is remembered for allowing English women to sit as jurors in grand trials. Although extensive property requirements and limitations on the kinds of cases they judged served as barriers for most, it was a step forward. For the first time in British history, women and men sat alongside each other as equals on juries.
Despite this Act being cited as the date for women’s inclusion in juries, women had been occupying a different kind of jury since the early 12th Century. Juries of twelve matrons were tasked with examining a woman’s body in cases where a defendant had claimed the defence of pregnancy, often to avoid the death penalty. There were other reasons to "plead the belly" in common law courts - such as widows who claimed they were carrying the heir to their husbands’ fortunes, but the majority of such cases involved female defendants hoping to avoid, or postpone, death. Medieval matrons were usually not midwives, nor did they have extensive medical training. Rather, they were chosen because, as their title suggests, they were respected members of the community who had carried their own children.
The 1220 Bracton English Treatise referred to matrons as "legales et discretas mulieres" or "lawful and discreet women". By following a legal system in which they had no say, these few women actually had the chance to participate in the court process. The legal convention of coverture meant that a married women’s legal identity became encapsulated within that of her husband. She could not make a contract, sue or even be sued - she did not exist as her own entity. Juries of matrons represented a small exception - a way in which married women could engage with the law.
The accusations of witchcraft in the 17th Century created a renewed need for matrons in the colonies as they took on the responsibility of checking women for physical marks of witchcraft. Rashes, moles and scars, for example, were often used as evidence of having made a deal with the Devil. Beyond this, matrons also completed their more traditional duties. For instance, in one of the more famous American cases, Judith Catchpole was accused of giving birth and murdering her baby on her way across the Atlantic. She was only acquitted after a jury of matrons determined that she had never been pregnant at all.
Scientific advancements led to an inevitable decline of juries of matrons. In the 19th Century, juries sparked scientific inquiry into questions about the beginning of life and whether "quickening" was a necessary sign of pregnancy. By the 1910s and 1920s, expert doctors presented evidence to juries of matrons who made the final decisions themselves. The eventual demise of matron juries was slow. Kevin Crosby has recently shown that juries did not just fall into obsolescence but rather were sporadically used in England until their active abolishment in Britain in 1931, a part of a larger effort to standardise jury practices and, ironically, increase female participation.
By their end, matron juries were outdated. But this should not diminish their memory as, for most of their history, matron juries were far ahead of their time. To James Oldman they represented a "humanitarian" response to overly harsh penal laws in the 18th Century and Sara Butler suggests "we should be… impressed with… the continued English appreciation that pregnancy and childbirth were a woman’s realm". For almost a millennium, juries of matrons allowed women a small role in legal systems that often unfairly targeted them.
However, for an institution that existed continuously for around 800 years, juries of matrons have not experienced the intensive study they deserve; their use and position continually fluctuated throughout the period and few historians have taken on the challenge of examining their presence. Notably, there has yet to be a full comprehensive study of American juries of matrons. Hopefully, as the world approaches the centenary of their abolishment, more historians will provide them with the attention they deserve.