Bennett, Judith M. & Amy M. Froide eds. 1999. Singlewomen in the European Past 1250-1800. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia. ISBN 0-8122-1668-7
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.
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. These systems included not only women who were single life-long, but those who lived single for an extended period before marriage (and especially outside the parental home), or those who became newly single after being widowed, although this volume focuses specifically on the never-married, though including those who might later. Religious concerns motivated some of these women.
It’s estimated that during the period covered by this book, 10-20% of adult women were lifelong singlewomen and this number was increased at any given moment by those who had simply delayed marriage. Some sample proportions for singlewomen in specific areas at particular dates:
England 1377 - ca. 33%
Florence early 14th c. - ca. 20%
Zurich late 14th c. - ca. 50%
In most places, proportions were event higher in the 16th century. Singlewomen were often poorer than married ones and for that and other reasons were less likely to leave documentary traces, however tax records, censuses and the like often treated them in distinctive ways, making them countable. There were a number of general trends: they were more common in northern Europe than the south, more common in the 17-18th centuries than earlier, and more common in cities than rural areas.
These patterns have some clear cultural bases. Northern and southern Europe followed different general patterns for marriage with the north having a later age of marriage (typically mid-20s for both husband and wife), relatively similar ages for both parties, and a higher proportion of unmarried people. The Mediterranean area, in contrast, tended towards early marriage for women which was typically to older men, and with a much smaller number of unmarried women. The differences between rural and urban proportions can be accounted for by a number of factors. Young urban women were more often apprentices or in service or were recent migrants, which would delay marriage, and towns tended to have larger numbers of women than men. It’s noted above that singlewomen tended to be poorer than marred ones, but the causation might go both ways with a poor woman finding it harder (or less attractive) to marry, as well as singlehood being a source of hardship. The expense of marriage -- whether in setting up an independent household, or in the prevailing expectations for dowries -- also could delay or prevent marriage. From the other side, when the occupations available to unmarried women were plentiful and well-compensated, marriage rates declined (at least in England where one study was done).
Within the broad category of singlewomen, their specific experiences could depend on a number of factors: wealth, age, sexual activity, nationality, and religion. (The discussion then surveys these various axes, but as these topics will be covered in more detail in the individual papers, I’ll skip the duplication.)
The ability of lifelong singlewomen to enjoy social and economic power was more limited than that of widows (who often might deputize for sons or for late husbands). Living arrangements also affected the degree to which an unmarried woman enjoyed the benefits or endured the hardships of the single state, e.g., a woman living with a sibling might have more in common with partnered women.
In addition to not having the legal protections of a husband, singlewomen were often viewed with suspicion due to not having a man to “control” her behavior and this could lead to their scapegoating, as in the witch-crazes of the 15-17th centuries. On the economic front, while singlewomen often occupied the lowest and most precarious jobs, they might also be quick to take advantage of new categories of profession. With the rise of proto-feminist sentiments, singlewomen were often at the forefront due to the magnified effects that sexism and misogyny had on their lives.
Representations of singlewomen in literature tended to be polarized -- either ridicule or praise -- when they were recognized as existing at all. Old French courtly narratives tend to treat singlewomen very positively, emphasizing female friendships and support systems and the solving of problems by intellect. In contrast, 16th century English popular song tended to focus on elderly singlewomen with ridicule. (These are not the only relevant genres, of course, but the ones studied in this volume.)
While lifelong singleness was not always a deliberate choice, and when chosen might be influenced by general social factors and trends, there is a clear strain of some women preferring not to marry as a positive option, whether from piety, from the love of liberty, or -- as can be clearly demonstrated in some cases -- due to a preference for the company, companionship, and love of women.
Singlehood did not mean a complete lack of personal relationships. Singlewomen often maintained strong relationships with parents, siblings, and the descendants of their siblings. Lack of marriage did not always mean lack of romantic or sexual partners (of either sex), and children (whether from lovers or from adoption) could also be part of their households. Singlewomen might also band together in households for mutual support and companionship (apart from romantic companionship), whether as an individual arrangement or in formal communities such as beguinages.
Included for completeness’ sake as the collection in general is relevant. However as this article concerns itself with women who are “single” due to slavery, it provides essentially no useful information relevant to economic and social independence.
The article looks at enslaved women as an “unmarried” class. Some did marry, but in general their legal status made them undesirable as wives. There was some persistence of slavery from classical times, particularly in the Mediterranean region, which increased in the late 13th century as gains by the propertied classes created a need/desire for additional household servants. These were overwhelmingly women (90%) and young, typically from the Crimea and Balken areas up to the 15th century. After that, increasingly from Africa (both northern and sub-Saharan). After 1500 slavery expanded greatly into the New World.
Included for completeness’ sake as the collection in general is relevant. However as this article concerns itself with the heterosexual activities of singlewomen it has little relevance to the project.
Women who did not fit the categories of virgin, wife, or widow were labeled prostitutes regardless of the nature of their sexual activity (i.e., whether commercial or not). This label was not typically applied to sexual activity between women unless a male role were being assumed/usurped, e.g., with “devices”. The article only mentions lesbian activity to exclude it from the following discussion.
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 ideal is to study entire populations, not just anecdotal cases which tend to focus on the elite. Comparative quantitative data is best, but little extensive data of this sort is available before the Black Death, which--on the basis of what is available--seems to mark a turning point in various trends. (Just for reference for those not familiar with the details: the Black Death hit in the mid 14th century and is estimated to have killed 20-60% of Europe’s population.) Legal documents such as censuses and tax records are useful for demographics but difficult to interpret for the purpose of identifying singlewomen. Even evidence for the age of marriage can be confusing and give wildly varying conclusions. By the late Middle Ages, data improves. Italian data is particularly valuable, e.g., the Florentine Catasto of 1427 (60,000 households) and other similar sources. In the absence of detailed demographic data, family patterns can also give evidence. A count of married women and households can provide evidence for who isn’t being counted, using basic assumptions of population structure.
Analyzing singlewomen in the population rests on two factors: the age at first marriage, and the proportion of the population who married. Together these determine fertility levels of the population. Interpretations can be complicated by different treatments of widows and nuns. Fertility-based analyses excludes widows (as having already reproduced) and nuns (as having taken themselves out of the game), so this type of focus on reproductive potential undercounts single women.
In analyzing the relationship between personal behavior and historic trends, there can be wide variation in the identification of cause and effect. E.g., some historians attribute the “Italian pattern” (see below) to plague mortality driving the pressure to reproduce and creating a shortage of marriagable men, whereby competition among women for hubands lowered what was considered the ideal female age for marriage. But to what extent is there a difference between “pressure to marry young and reproduce” versus “disincentives to marry young, thus secondarily reducing reproduction”? Many analyses seem to erase personal decision-making.
In looking at variation along the multiple variable axes, it can help to start off with a vastly oversimplified model of two polarized patterns. (With the understanding that even within specific cultures at specific times, there can be exceptions to the general pattern.)
One model is commonly referred to as the “European marriage pattern” (although, in context, it would seem better to identify it as the “northern European marriage pattern”). Characteristics are: relatively late age at first marriage (mid 20s) for both women and men, with the delay typically involving employment outside the parental home (e.g., as servants or apprentices), in part to accumulate sufficient wealth to establish an independent household at marriage. Marriage partners are generally of similar age and both have significant autonomy in choosing a partner. There is also a relatively high proportion of never-married women (10-20%) living secular lives.
The “Mediterranean” marriage pattern typically involved women in their late teens who had never left the parental household marrying older men (typically 6-13 years older) and typically with little input in the choice. Never-married women in wealthier families generally entered religious life so the rate of secular lifelong singlewomen was lower (ca. 5%) and typically poorer, though if religious women are counted as “single” the overall rate is similar to the north.
In addition to these polarized models, there are a number of overall patterns. Singlewomen are more common in urban than rural areas. (Towns typically had skewed sex ratios favoring women, many of whom were servants and many of whome were recent migrants from rural communities.) Becoming married was an expense (whether due to dowry customs or the need to establish a new household) so lack of money could delay marriage (e.g., spending time earning money) or prevent it entirely. Depressed levels of real wages increased the number of lifelong singlewomen. Cultural attitudes towards female chastity affected marriage patterns. The Mediterranean pattern correlates with a focus on “honor culture” and female chastity which prioritizes early marriage for women and would tend to preclude a period of economic independence for women before marriage. Upper class and wealthy women tended to marry younger and in general those groups tended to have lower rates of lifelong singlewomen, though influences like dowry inflation or the restriction of potential marriage partners to those of similar class could counter the trend. In general, age at first marriage and the proportion of singlewomen increased across the timeperiod covered by the study in all geographic areas.
As described in the oversimplified models above, there was a general pattern of earlier marriage and fewer singlewomen in the south of Europe and the reverse in the north. These patterns are various attributed to geographic and cultural factors, but with complex interaction. E.g., one approach to the Italian pattern looks at lowered marriage age for women from increased competative pressure on dowries, where “excess” women were bled off to a religious life rather than being left single. Poor women who couldn't compete with dowries and couldn't afford to enter a convent increasingly were in service. But some historians instead point more strongly to "honor" issues in marriage. Women's honor was virginity and marriage with no honorable place for single women. Younger women were associated with greater marriage potential.
This North/South contrast can be mapped in more detail as better data starts being available in the late 16th century. Here we see the extremes of later marriage in Denmark, Sweden, and England with first marriage typically around 26 or later. France shows a mixed pattern along north/south lines. By in the 18th century the distinction starts eroding with women in the Mediterranean areas shifting first marriage age to the mid to late 20s and the never-married rate can be as high as 10-15%.
Across other patterns, there is a tendency for rural areas to have women marrying earlier and leaving a smaller percentage of unmarried. For example, data from Northern England in the late middle ages suggests rural women married in the late teens but urban women in their mid 20s. Although the article doesn’t necessarily address it from this angle, my impression is that this works in synergy with other factors. E.g., the greater economic opportunities for singlewomen in urban areas led to migration resulting not only in large numbers of “lifecycle singlewomen” in towns working on their nest eggs, but in an urban gender imbalance that then resulted in fewer local marriage opportunities. One suspects (although I saw this nowhere addressed) that rural economies may have had fewer opportunities for lifelong singlewomen than towns did, resulting either a required choice between marriage or migration. And there are some intersectionalities (especially among the very poor) where lifelong singlehood was more common in rural areas.
When comparative data is available, there is a clear trend for women from upper class and wealthy families to marry earlier and to remain unmarried at lower rates. This can skew the overall understanding in the earlier period under study, as records for the elites are often all that is available. This contrast is often overlooked by historians. For example, one study of Reims in 1422 suggests women married at 15-16, but the same data includes a large number of singlewomen as servants around the age of 24 at the same time who are clearly not being considered in this “age of marriage” statistic.
This tendency for noble/wealthy women to marry younger could be countered by other factors peculiar to their class. Dowry inflaction or closed-class marriage (i.e., inability for women to “marry down”) could leave women single. E.g., among the English peerage the percentage of lifelong singlewomen in the 16th century was 5-9%, but in the 17 th century it rose to 13-15%, and by the 18 th century it was around 26%. In comparison, the rates for never-married women of the French nobility were consistently ca. 5-10%. But this statistic evens out if nuns are courted as “single” as this option was lost in England after the Reformation.
Change Over Time
As noted above, there was a general trend for age of marriage and percentage of lifelong singlewomen to increase over the timeperiod studied here (14-18th c), even when other factors are accounted for. As always, there are exceptions and variations on the trend. This shift is perhaps most dramatic in the “Mediterranean pattern” cultures.
Economics and Opportunities
One of the interesting factors in studying singlewomen is the question of how unmarried women survived economically and socially. What circumstances enabled them to remain single or pressured them into doing so? If they were unmarried not by choice, what options existed for them? In the “southern pattern” cultures, unmarried women were pushed into a religious life, but this was only available to families with money. Poor lifelong singlewomen in those cultures typically became servants or less acceptable professions as there was not a general acceptance of “respectable” independent unmarried women. In contrast, the “northern pattern” included an expectation of economic independence before marriage (though being in service couldn’t be considered entirely “independent”), creating a greater social acceptance of continuing this state permanently. Pre-marriage independence in crafts or professions could also be extended if marriage never occurred. In the north, singlewomen were prevalent in urban areas due to migration related to greater opportunities for these jobs. But social changes in the availability of certain job classes, or in the acceptability of women performing certain jobs could affect the status of singlewomen who depended on them long term. Evidence in post-Black Death York shows not only higher numbers and proportions of women servants but more women-headed households and women testators, indicating open opportunities for female independence. But this changed for the worse in the late 15th century as economic changes pushed women out of crafts and into service. Sex-specific economic opportunities in particular locations might drive migration that created skewed sex ratios (in either direction) leaving many unmarried.
As noted previously, when a religious life was an option for unmarried women, this could “bleed off” large numers of lifelong singlewomen, reducing social pressures especially in regions where other social or economic opportunities were limited. The Reformation removed this option in Protestant regions. Also, although not included generally with the data above, some studies show that Jewish women generally married relatively early, and proportionately fewer remained single. There is no discussion of how different social and legal pressures affected this statistic.
The actual demographics are hard to reconstruct (see previous entry), in part because attitudes towards singlewomen affected how records were compiled. The belief that women should be "under men" led to ignoring those that weren't. Tax records didn't list wage-earners so entire classes of single employed women might be absent. Marital status is not always retrievable from how names were recorded. A woman recorded as “X wife of Y” is clearly married, but “X the Occupation” might or might not be. Singlewomen can be identified most clearly when the record identifies her as the daughter, sister, or niece of a man whose identity is irrelevant in context. (E.g., in a list of members of the embroiderer’s guild, an entry for “Jehanne the daughter of Giles the mercer” makes it clear that she is unmarried (or she’d be identified as her husband’s wife) and that she has an independent economic existence (as her father has a different occupation). Rich or noble singlewomen typically entered convents so those remaining single were more often artisan or working class. Some singlewomen were members of all-female guilds (a concept found only in records for three cities in this era). Other mixed-gender guilds included women, such as the poulterer's guild which explicitly gave singlewomen full membership rights. Other guilds with significant membership: Embroiderers, alms-purse makers. Singlewomen were also active in textile professions outside the guild structure e.g., wool combers, spinners. Many singlewomen were domestic servants, including those with this as a life-long career. There is anecdotal evidence for groups of singlewomen migrating together to the city and co-habiting and providing continued mutual support in times of illness or disability. Tax records include evidence of specific pairs or groups of unrelated singlewomen living together across many years. These could include beguines (semi-religious women who took no formal vows and who might or might not live in designated “beguinages” under supervision).
Clerical responses to singlewomen were either to ignore them or to try to put them under male control based on Biblical principles of the "purpose" of women with respect to men (procreation, helpmeet). Religious women were "married" to Christ, eliminating this problem. Guidelines for topics for moralizing sermons directed at specific groups of people classified men by class and occupation, but women by marital and sexual status. Suggested sermon topics for female servants (who by definition would be singlewomen) focused on sexual sins, as did sermons aimed at prostitutes and peasant women. Servant women were viewed as a sexually promiscuous destabilizing force in the household.
Charitable responses to singlewomen focused on widows, nubile girls, and women under male authority. These responses were expressed in the form of residential foundations. Reformed prostitutes were also also a focus of charity.
A survey of unmarried female characters in medieval French courtly romances. The article begins with a consideration of the character of Silence (see Roche-Mahdi 1999) who, having been raised as a boy for inheritance purposes, debates whether to retain the social privileges of a male role. The focus of Silence’s story is on her exploits in a male role and her eventual return to a female role at the resolution is perfunctory. Using this as a starting point, Krueger explores representative scenarios involving characters who have adventures as women. Their single state may be temporary--most of the characters end up wed and in most cases their adventures while single are focused on the goal of obtaining their desired marriage partner. But the stories themselves focus on the single period. The article begins with a consideration of characters in the Lais of Marie de France, compares them with women in Chretien de Troyes and the Vulgate cycle, and then looks at a sampling of other stories with strong independent women having adventures.
The unmarried women in Marie’s stories are typically young, poor, or otherworldly, Marie herself stands in the literary tradition as an independent woman (whether she was unmarried or not) and her work often focuses on women's stories. The stories often revolve around barriers to marriage or the resolution of a blocked or nullified marriage, thus focusing on the actions of a woman who is single, whether in truth or functionally. The maidens typically employ strategy and alliances with other female characters to solve their problems, rather than focusing on martial exploits. These stories may involve transgressive sexuality, most often in the form of pre-marital sex which must then be resolved by marriage. Female allies along the way typically include powerful independent women.
The romances of Chretien de Troyes are typically more hostile to the female characters, who have less power and autonomy than Marie’s. While they do include some female “clever ally” roles, most female roles are secondary to the action (helping or interfering with the hero’s quest). In the Vulgate Cycle stories (Arthurian tradition) the only strong singlewomen tend to be fairy/otherworldly characters, such as Lady of the Lake or Morgan, who represent maternal support and dangerous sexuality respectively. There is an abundance of unattached "damsels" serving roles as helpers, damsels in distress, victims requiring justice, guides, etc. These are not their stories; they only serve as props in the men’s stories.
Outside the preceding collections, there are several “roman réalise" stories with an adventurous woman as protagonist. Those considered here are L'Escoufle, Roman de la Rose ou de Guillaume de Dole, Galeran de Bretagne [Note: this “Roman de la Rose” is an entirely different tale from the more commonly-known work of that title.]
These tales focus on the stories of young women who overcome great obstacles to achieve their goal (in the end, marriage, but more immediately survival and social status), by virtue and cleverness and hard work. These characters enjoy even more autonomy than Marie's. The characters enjoy strong support from and form attachments to female allies. These are very much “quest" stories but with female protagonists.
L'Escoufle (the kite, in reference to the falcon-like bird, not the toy) - Aelis, an emperor's daughter, is forsaken by her lover Guillaume who leaves her sleeping to pursue a kite (escoufle) that has stolen his purse. Left to her own devices, Aelis takes up work as a seamstress, forges a series of close mutually-supportive relationships with women of various classes, and engages in physically affectionate activities with some of them in the course of this. Aelis and her primary companion transform business success into something approximating a social salon, attracting the attention and affection of a noblewoman who aids her cause. Aelis is eventually reunited with Guillaume and takes her rightful social place again but this resolution is oddly disjointed from the meat of the story.
Lienor in Roman de la Rose is less interesting in the present context, lacking the motifs of female allies, households, and physical affection.
Galeran de Bretagne expands on Marie's tale of Frene, involving separated twin sisters. Frene, like Aelis, forges her own way in the world, forming an alliance and household with two other singlewomen to their mutual benefit and achieves her goals through creativity and industry.
Common motifs among the three stories are the loss of parental protection, the exploration of new spaces and activities, and success via virtue, creativity, and intellect. Female alliances and households are a strong theme but not always present.
There’s a rich amount of data on singlewomen and female-headed households in medieval Germany. Tax records for selected cities in the 14-15th centuries show between 17-25% of tax-paying households headed by women. Widows were often labeled as such in the records but it isn’t alway possible to clearly distinguish never-married women, though estimates suggest they may have been as many as half of these households. This continued in the 16th century with tax records indicating that 20-25% of tax-paying urban households were headed by women. Widows and singlewomen are more clearly labeled in theses records with about a quarter of the women being never married.
Rural tax records are not available for the earlier centuries, but in the 18th century2-6% of rural households were headed by singlewomen and 8-21% were composed of unmarried brothers and sisters living together.
As further background for these statistics, marriage records indicate that in the 18th century rural women were first marrying around 25-28 and urban women around 21-25. (Note that this differs from the rural/urban trends observed in earlier centuries in Kowaleski 1999.) Records indicate that about 10% of women never married at this period.
In addition to heads of households, 5-15% of women were domestic servants (and therefore unmarried). [I think this is still the 18th century data.]
Given this context, what were women’s occupations and how did these change? The article now goes into a methodological discussion of what we’re defining as “Germany” and what we’re defining as “single”. There were a number of categories of women who, while technically not “married”, were not really available for marriage either, being in long-term cohabitation arrangements or in religious living arrangements of various sorts. In the 16th century a sharper distinction between married and single arose, as well as a stronger emphasis on marriage as the desired state. Although driven by Protestant attitudes, this affected all regions. While this resulted in hostility to both men and women who remained single, women were more vulnerable and their work considered less essential. Cities discouraged migration except for domestic service and there were restrictions on housing for singlewomen.
Centers of wage labor, especially textile trades where women were common, were the target of legislation discouraging independent female households. In addition to social issues of the control of women, there were economic concerns as “freelance” workers drove up prices. Legislation in the 16-17th centuries often focused on restricting singlewomen’s living arrangements and controlling pricing for their work. Legal complaints also note women preferring to make a bare living at independent work than to enter domestic service, leading to a shortage of servants. Among the occupations mentioned for these women, spinning predominates but also included are sewing, washing, and lace-making.
Women in domestic service were generally paid half of what men were, even when engaged in industrial work in the home. Although the age range for servants (15-29) suggests a “life-cycle” phenomenon, it does not seem to be the case that all young people engaged in it, typically only those with disrupted families or from poor rural families. On some estates, domestic service from young women was still part of tenant contracts. The placement of unmarried women in male-headed households was viewed on one side as positive (being under male control), but alternately as encouraging vice.
Women’s wage labor is documented as part of the German economy as early as the 14th century. In rural areas, certain agricultural tasks were considered women’s work, especially those relating to livestock. In urban areas, as noted, textile-related crafts were common. Other female occupations included laundry, care for the sick, aged, or children, bathhouse attendants. And, of course, prostitution was a given, whether freelance or as part of institutions.
Craft guilds often worked to marginalize women’s participation and to discourage independent female workers. Manufacturing of minor items, or the collection or production of foodstuffs -- if in fields not regulated by guilds -- were still fields where independent female production remained.
As is often the case, the social and legal commentary on independent women in Germany in this era indicates that there was a great deal of social unease around their existence -- but that the continuance of that unease across the centuries indicate the continuance of their existence. Economically independent women were constantly having to defend their right to exist and to make a decent living and it was generally to the benefit of the established powers to keep their place marginal and to bring them under male authority whenever possible.
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.
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.
Male-centric views of sexuality frame singlewomen either as lonely and frustrated (spinsters) or as dangerously promiscuous (whores), but this dichotomy ignores the possibility of the sexual desires of singlewomen being satisfied by other women. There is an idealized image of pre-modern lesbian that finds its epitome in the Ladies of Llangollen type from the late 18th century. This image involves women who were always at odds with female sex and gender roles who overcome societal and personal difficulties to find a partner, and who then settle into a quasi-married state, typically in a rural setting. This romantic ideal is not the only historic model for early modern lesbian relationships. This idealized pastoral seclusion was only possible for comfortably upper class women and statistically speaking most 18th c. lesbians would have been poor or middle class. Our image is skewed by the greater documentation (and thus visibility) of upper class lesbians. But most would have been unobtrusive and integrated in urban society.
Private accounts of sexual activity are rare but telling. The diaries of Anne Lister (1791-1840) are explicit regarding her sexual encounters and show that she found no lack of willing partners. While the popular image of women’s roles reflects the idea of pervasive patriarchy and female submission, anecdotal stories show the gaps and weaknesses in this image. Records of legal persecution and punishment indicate disapproval but they also imply more pervasive resistance than what might be documented directly. There is plentiful evidence from 17-18th c. England that ordinary people were aware of erotic attraction and activity between women. Several 18th c. treatises on sex explicitly discuss lesbian activity, though sometimes framed as “preparation” for heterosexual sex. The word “lesbian” was used in literary contexts with a near-modern sense. Classical texts using the term “lesbian” were available to those with a scholarly bent. Anne Lister quotes Juvenal in this context in correspondence as a coded way of sounding out a potential partner.
Lesbian sexual activity was not necessarily tied to a concept of identity. The overt evidence tends to focus on upper class, literate women: the Ladies of Llangollen, Anne Lister, the circle of women around Mary Astell, Sarah Fielding, and Anne Conway Damer. Hunt’s article focuses more on the possibilities for lower and middle class women. Cross-class sexual activity may have spurred a more hostile (and thus documented) response than within-class activity. An early 18th c. treatise on masturbation describes a long-term sexual relationship between an adolescent girl and one of her mother’s servants who shared her bed. While the legal account that is quoted stops short of discussing specific sexual practices, it’s clear that mutual genital stimulation is involved. At a different level of cross-class relationships, the rumored sexual relationship between Queen Anne (early 18th c.) and one of her women caused consternation despite both women being married. There are commonly suggestions of an intimate relationship when a singlewoman had a specific long- term female companion, especially when that companion was left an inheritance appropriate for a family relationship. Girls in boarding schools (which were only beginning to be popular) were notorious for forming romantic relationships, and Anne Lester had her first sexual encounter in one.
Clear documentation is also found when women clearly transgressed gender boundaries, such as women who disguised themselves as men to live with or even to marry other women, e.g, Anne Poulter who had been married to a man but took up the male persona James Howard to court and marry a woman.
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. In contrast, feminist literature of the time was largely a product of singlewomen but avoided the question of sexual fulfillment rather thoroughly. The article provides a survey of feminist literature focusing on singlehood as a positive state, e.g., the novel Millenium Hall. Lanser suggests that the context for this hostility includes a combination of peaking singlehood rates in the late 17th c. along with the rise of a “complementary “ view of gender difference (i.e., women are not “lesser men” but a different species entirely) along with the irritation of the beginnings of feminist thought. But these factors existed across Europe and while singlehood was nowhere considered desirable, other countries did not exhibit the same derisive hostility. Lanser identifies in the English rhetoric a strong and specifically English thread of failure to reproduce as “treason” to the nation. Literary hostility to lesbianism occurs during this same period, but anti-old maid literature avoids this trope, perhaps because it would undermine the image of sexual frustration that was an inherent part of the motif.