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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #5 – Bennett & Froide 1999, “A Singular Past”

Full citation: 

Bennett, Judith M. & Amy M. Froide. 1999. “A Singular Past” 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.

Bennett, Judith M. & Amy M. Froide. “A Singular Past”

In this entry, I summarize the introductory section by the volume's editors. In following entries I will cover the other 10 papers in the volume -- all of which speak to particular times and places or social circumstances.

* * *

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.

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