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Single Women in an Awkward Age

Monday, March 15, 2021 - 21:00

Not much to say on this one. Also: my brain is a bit knocked out from the Daylight Savings Time change, so I'm not up to being clever tonight. Just glad I got the blog done on Monday this week! I hate letting things slip past their delivery targets, because that way lies chaos.

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Nord, Deborah Epstein. 1990. "'Neither Pairs nor Odd': Female Community in Late Nineteenth-Century London" in Signs vol. 15, no. 4 733-754.

I almost didn’t blog this article, once I started reading it. The title suggested more relevance than the content ended up providing. It falls into the category of “what are the options for women who aren’t in conventional heterosexual marriages” which can be useful for character development. But there’s a lot of content on that topic and I try to stick to more general demographics. This article is more a biographical sketch of a specific set of connected individuals.

Nord takes a deep dive into the lives of three single women who made lives for themselves in 1880s London outside of conventional family structures, but also apart from organized women’s communities and institutions. Nor were these women in unrecognized female partnerships. All three intersected the field of social work in some way, but without approaching it as a female-coded vocation. And all three were loosely connected to each other (as well as to other single women) socially, but in a somewhat loose fashion that did not assume mutual support.

These women occupied a somewhat ambiguous and contradictory position. They chose to marginalize themselves in society by stepping outside the conventional structures of middle class life, but often found their vocations in promoting and encouraging those conventional structures for other women, as in the administration of settlement houses (structured housing for the poor). They fell in an intermediate temporal position between earlier Victorian female homosocial communities who operated within traditional domestic structures, and the independent 20th century “new women” who deliberately embraced singlehood and female community as a political position.

The women in this study did not specifically reject marriage, though they might set it aside for a time. And they pursued individual emancipation from the restrictions of female roles, but did not necessarily embrace feminist politics in general. But choosing to spend some portion of their lives single, in professional pursuits, enabled them to envision new roles for women in society.

Three women who are the focus of this article. Beatrice Potter Webb developed an interest in sociological research via working as a rent-collector and administrator of a slum tenement. From her observations of the lives and struggles of the residents she wrote a number of studies of working class dynamics and the causes of poverty. Webb’s cousin Margaret Harkness was also involved with the tenement that Webb administered but converted her observations and experiences into novels criticizing various social conditions. The third woman in the study is poet and novelist Amy Levy, who brought a particular focus to the Jewish community in London.

This loose network of women dissolved at the end of the 1880s, due to personal conflicts, death, or emigration. Nord suggests that the lack of an accepted social niche for single middle-class women in this transitional era was a driving cause of this social fragmentation (though I wonder if she’s generalizing too much from a specific set of women). And yet, though rejecting the idea of participating in a formal female community, they were able to produce their best work specifically because of the support of that informal community.

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