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17th c

LHMP entry

The rise of a virulently negative attitude toward never-married women in the 18th c. seems to have been a peculiarly English reaction. While negative attitudes toward never-married women appear earlier, the 18th c. saw an increase in hostility. This occurs in parallel with the rise of feminist literature challenging sexist and patriarchal structures, and especially questioning the benefit of marriage to women. The negative screeds against “old maids" presage modern anti-feminist venom in framing singlewomen as simultaneously sexually frustrated and undesirable to men.

This is a complex, data-heavy survey of sources for the demographics of singlewomen, the overall (very complex) patterns that emerge, and an analys of the theoretical frameworks that attempt to explain those patterns. For my summary, I’ve rearranged the topics to try to focus on single variables at a time.

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 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.

Introductory chapter to a collection of papers on the topic described in the title. The collection in general addresses the question of women living outside the “nuclear family”, and especially looks at systems and categories rather than treating singlewomen as isolated anomalies.


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