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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #12 – Chojnacka 1999 "Singlewomen in Early Modern Venice: Communities and Opportunities"

Full citation: 

Chojnacka, Monica. 1999. “Singlewomen in Early Modern Venice: Communities and Opportunities” in Bennett, Judith M. & Amy M. Froide eds. Singlewomen in the European Past 1250-1800. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia. ISBN 0-8122-1668-7

Publication summary: 

While, no doubt, many lesbians in history made their peace with the need to accommodate marriage and family life, when designing a character who has the freedom to refuse marriage to a man, it helps to know what social and economic options would have been possible (or even normal) within your setting. There have been several excellent collections of papers (and even more monographs) on the topic of singlewomen, but I believe this was the first significant one to appear.

Chojnacka, Monica. “Singlewomen in Early Modern Venice: Communities and Opportunities”

It's important to remind readers occasionally that these summaries are meant to be pointers and not "content" itself. I can't possibly include all the relevant details, and often the individuals stories and anecdotes are the most inspiring. If something catches your eye, follow up with the original article, if at all possible.

Although it was not a direct inspiration, the Casa delle Zitelle described in this article is reminiscent of the "Poor-Scholars" institution in my Alpennian stories, although the Zitelle were intended for marriage and my Poor-Scholars were being trained for suitable occupations. They have in common being aimed at "deserving" poor girls with the aim of rescuing some of them from unfortunate alternatives, and of creating a very protective and regulated environment to avoid the social opprobrium associated with singlewomen.

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The article looks at Venice in the 16-17th centuries. Social commentaries framed singlewomen who were not under male control as “dangerous”. Charity aimed at this sector focused on dowries and making young women more mariagable. This paper proposes that worsening circumstances for singlewomen in the16th century resulted in expanded and new opportunities, especially female communities. There is discussion of the usual problems with documentation. In the 16th c. the best source is church 'censuses’ of baptismal status. The household-by-household format of these records provides information on the structure and membership of those households. Surviving censuses cover ca. 2/3 of Venice. Ca. 1/4 of the population was single or widowed (both men and women). Despite social disapproval, 1/3 of the unmarried women headed their own households. These same records show groups of unrelated women living together as households. Other options for singlewomen were to live with aging parents or with siblings. Economic options included low-level textile industry jobs, some positions as jouneywomen, and many in the 'service economy’: food, clothing, domestic service, laundry. A few singlewomen were listed with traditionally male occupations, e.g., boatwoman.

Three characteristic female occupations became increasingly under attack in the late 16th c. In domestic service, which was composed mostly of unmarried individuals, there is some suggestion of a shift from female to male servants, and a clear legal bias against female servants in wages and contracts. The commonness of prostitution as an occupation is hard to assess: the numbers differed significantly between popular perception (with high numbers) and documented records (showing low numbers). Prostitution was popularly ssociated with social ills and was experiencing growing legal persecution. Magic-related professions were also targeted for increasing hostility.

During this time there was also a shift in charity for the poor from local and individual participation to centralized approaches, especially the rise of institution-based charities for women such as the Casa delle Zitelle (focusing on education and reform). This was aimed at "at-risk" girls and directed them toward marriage or a religious life. It was founded by upper class women who saw prostitution not as due to sin but due to lack of choice. The girls were trained in household skills and supervised closely. After their marriages, the heads of the Casa continued to support the zitelles socially, acting in loco parentis. As a side note, the possibility of sexual behavior between the women was a concern and the regulations specifically note, “When it is noted that one of the zitelle is too affectionate with another girl, the two must be separated from each other and accompanied by others.” While the Casa delle Zitelle was aimed and poor, good-looking, young women considered at risk for prostitution, there were other similar institutions for former prostitutes, and for orphans.

During this period, there were a number of noted women writers discussing the need for options for singlewomen, including Lucretia Marinella, Moderata Fonte, and Arcangela Tarabotti. They, like the charitable institutions, may have ben reacting to a constriction of the upper class marriage market.

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