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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #13 – Froide 1999 "Marital Status as a Category of Difference: Singlewomen and Widows in Early Modern England"

Full citation: 

Froide, Amy M. 1999. “Marital Status as a Category of Difference: Singlewomen and Widows in Early Modern England” 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.

Froide, Amy M. “Marital Status as a Category of Difference: Singlewomen and Widows in Early Modern England”

From the point of view of creating single female characters with agency and social power, the figure of the widow is a rather enticing choice. There is a down side in the context of lesbian characters, because a widow comes with the assumption of a past sexual history with a man. On the other hand, given the non-romantic nature of many marriages in the medieval and early modern period, such a history need not imply romantic attraction. The key point of this article is that one can't treat widows and never-married women as equivalent when determining how your character would move in society and how her actions would be viewed.

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The article looks at category differences between never-married women and widows. There can be a problem with conflating the two despite superficial similarities. Widowhood was more respectable, while singlehood was both pitiable and suspect. Singles were sometimes twice as common as widows, only emphasizing differences in treatment in the records. Widows were viewed as being a deputy for her late husband but the never-married were expected to be dependent, either on a father or as a member of another (male-headed) household. This was an attitude expressed through many avenues, though not an absolute legal requirement. The article focuses on these differences as they affected housing, employment, and poor relief.

Widows typically retained control of the family home, but alternately might live with family members, take boarders, or combine households with other widows. Singlewomen had no automatic separate household, though some did establish one. More typically they lived in their parents’ home, or as a servant or lodger in another home. Non-dependent women were viewed with suspicion and there was a rising tide of laws restricting singlewomen living independently during the 15-17th c. Many were superficially aimed at servants ‘living out', due to concerns about having no male control, and an excess of sexual freedom. Independent singlewomen could, in some cases, be forced into service or expelled from the city. Although prosecution declined in the mid 17th century, it had little effect on the numbers of independently-living singlewomen. Despite this discrimination ca. 8% of never-married women headed their own household in the late 17th c. Generally they were older, no longer had living parents, and were of relatively higher/wealthier status. For example, in 18th c. Staffordshire & Dorset, ca. 5% of singlewomen under 45 headed households, but 36-40% over 45 headed their own household. This age break was sometimes enshrined in law, with singlewomen over 50 being exempt from some of the penalties. In some regions during the 17th c. all single female heads-of-household were fairly well off.

Widows of tradesmen were given an allowance to continue their husband’s trade (or even his offices) whereas this was not permitted for singlewomen. Widows and wives were licensed to perform casual work e.g., food, peddling, at much higher rates than singlewomen were. The occupational allowance was not extended to changing trades, though, emphasizing that the widow as acting as an extension of her late husband. Singlewomen had no access to 'inherited' trade and could perform skilled labor and even become apprentices but could not set up independent businesses. Even when they were considered legally equivalent, widows were given more leeway, especially when legal allowances were at the subjective discretion of civic leaders. In addition to 'male control' issues, singlewomen were seen as competing in the labor market with male households. Despite all this, there are anecdotal examples of singlewomen with independent businesses as milliners, linen drapers, clothiers, glovers, shopkeepers, schoolteachers.

With respect to poor relief and other charities, widows were typically considered 'deserving poor', whereas unemployed or indigent singlewomen were more typically viewed as able-bodied slackers and subject to legal penalties. This could mean being forced into service or put in workhouses. One odd exception to this judgment was unwed mothers, where concern for the child seems to have overridden moral judgment. Another exception was that singlewomen who were in a position to be givers of charity often focused on other singlewomen.

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