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singlewomen

 

The study of the lives of non-married women, regardless of their affectional preferences, identifies contexts in which women who preferred not to marry men would be unremarkable.

LHMP entry

McLaughlin traces the history and internal politics of a planned women’s community in Ferrara in the first half of the 15th century. Although the community eventually shifted (through several branchings) into a traditional religious order, it had started as a secular (though devotional) community and maintained that status for almost 50 years, largely due to the determined and forceful personalities of its successive leaders.

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.

This article looks at the legal case brought in 1613 by Frances Harding for annulment of her marriage, based on the claim that her husband was unable to have sexual intercourse with her. Her argument was that, as she desired to become a mother, she needed the marriage annulled so that she could marry a more capable husband. The testimony and questioning in the case largely centered around physical “proof” of her virginity, as her husband was known to be sexually active with other women.

This article examines the social and legal background of a sensationalized “marvel tale” about an unmarried woman hanged for murdering her newborh child and then discovered to be still alive. The article largely centers on attitudes towards infanticide, especially of children born outside marriage. There isn’t much that’s relevant to the Project.

Despite their statistical commonness, singlewomen were treated as an anomaly without a recognized role in society, especially after the Reformation removed the option of convents as a marriage-alternative in Protestant countries. The feminist historians’ goal of recovering women’s identities has leaned on two assumptions: that “single” women were rarely actually alone, and that unmarried women’s identities can be revealed in their relations to other women.

This article concerns the visual genre of “widow portraits” created as a symbolic representation of the widow’s status and a depiction of her mourning. These were not typically painted at the widow’s direction after her husband’s death, but rather were commissioned by the living husband to ensure that he was properly mourned...at least symbolically. Ironically, in some cases, they represent women who predeceased their husbands. Thus, they are not representations of the woman herself as an individual, but as defined in relation to her marriage and her husband.

The Wife of Bath gets a lot of exercise as the archetype of the “lusty widow” in Middle English literature. She is the only pilgrim in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales who is identified by marital status rather than by occupation. (Though ”wife” could also simply mean “woman” at this time.) But she operates, not as a wife, but as an independent singlewoman. Being a widow gives her the freedom to travel that a never-married woman might not have had. She represents an independent woman with agency and power, despite the references in her story to her various husbands.

Medieval widowhood was a strongly gendered concept. Only in the 14th century was a parallel term applied to men whose wives had died. The legal status and protections for female widows differed from those for male widowers. Widows occupied an ambiguous status as a sexualized, but uncontrolled, woman, and as an independent legal/social entity who had “paid her dues” to earn that status. Widows were entitled to 1/3-1/2 of their late husband’s estate and in many cases could continue his business, guild membership, and other economic functions.

Comic drama traditionally relies on and enforces the stereotypes and norms of heterosexual marriage. Most Elizabethan comedies do not present female singlehood and independence as a viable option, even when used as a transitional motif in the plot. Comedic resolutions overwhelmingly require the pairing off of single women into heterosexual marriages. Female resistance raises the questions: Must women marry? And must women marry men? Rarely are those questions answered in the negative. John Lyly stands out in offering a negative response.

This is a fairly extensive research paper in two parts. The first looks at the demographics of singlewomen in Late Tudor and Stuart England, along with some of the social forces that affected women’s inclination and ability to avoid marriage. The second part looks specifically at the occupation of money-lender as an option for women to support themselves or to supplement other forms of income.

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