Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 36d - Swinging Singles and Lesbian Opportunities - transcript
(Originally aired 2019/07/27 - listen here)
Why Study Singlewomen?
When imagining the lives of lesbian characters in pre-modern western history, one false idea that regularly comes up is that women had no viable alternatives to marriage--not without becoming complete social outcasts. Both authors and readers of historical fiction often have a misunderstanding that women living autonomous lives outside of marriage are unhistorical or anomalous. That not being married to a man was view as inherently suspect unless one had a special exemption such as a religious vocation.
This misconception has obvious consequences for imagining the historic spaces in which lesbian characters might exist. It means they are imagined as being socially transgressive in refusing or avoiding marriage to a man. That their lives and domestic arrangements will be scrutinized. That they will be considered an anomaly within their societies. If imagining one woman living a life independent of men is made difficult by this error, imagining two--who also find their lives entwined--is thought to strain credulity.
And--to be sure--many women in history who engaged in same-sex relationships did so within the context of a heterosexual marriage. And there's a place in historical fiction to tell those stories as well. But the truth is that singlewomen--women who had not married, or declined to marry, or had been married but now lived single lives as widows--were extremely common in pre-modern Europe.
While the proportions varied depending on time and place, on class, occupation, and family situation, demographic studies of specific communities in medieval Europe show that anywhere between a fifth to a half of the adult women in a community might be unmarried at any given time. In the 17th and 18th centuries, studies show that anywhere between 10 to 20% of women in their 40s and 50s had never married. (And at that age, were unlikely ever to do so.)
Of course, not all those single or never-married women were in that position because they weren't sexually interested in men. Likely women with same-sex interests made up only a small percentage of singlewomen. But any situation that applies to one woman in five can't be considered unusual or remarkable. It might be treated as falling outside the ideal model of womanhood, but it couldn't be viewed as inherently suspicious in the context of sexuality.
And that's why the study of singlewomen is highly relevant to the writing of lesbian historical fiction. Because if you want to write female characters who are not married to men and yet are ordinary and unremarkable members of society, you have a vast scope of models to choose from. That's what we're going to talk about today.
The show notes are going to include several excellent books that address this topic, but a great introduction and one-stop-shop is the collection edited by Judith M. Bennett and Amy M. Froide titled Singlewomen in the European Past: 1250-1800. Check out the blog entries for its articles in the Lesbian Historic Motif Project. Today's episode will primarily look at western European cultures of the middle ages through the 19th century, but the questions that are raised can be applied to other cultures.
The influence of culture
The first thing to keep in mind is that different cultures have different patterns of family life and marriage. Pre-modern Europe wasn't a monolith. One of the large-scale patterns that affects the expectations for a woman's life is divided very roughly into a southern European pattern and a northern European pattern.
Characteristics of the southern pattern--not absolute rules, but trends--include older men marrying younger women, often women in their mid to late teens. Women were expected to be sexually inexperienced at marriage. Women generally did not live or work outside the family household before marriage. Marriages were typically arranged by the parents and seen as a contract between families rather than between individuals. And there was a very low rate of never-married women, in part due to a high rate of unmarried women joining religious orders.
But the northern pattern is a polar opposite in many ways. Marriages tended to be between spouses of the same age and were usually delayed until both had a chance to earn money towards setting up a household. For women, this often included working outside the home, whether in domestic service, in apprenticeships, or in agricultural labor. The average age at first marriage tended to be in the mid to later 20s. Spouses typically had more input into their choice of marriage partner and more ability to refuse marriage. And it was typical for spouses to have engaged in sexual activity before marriage, even though it was officially disapproved. Rates of never-married women (among those women of marriageable age) could be anywhere between 10 to 30%, and even higher in some specific communities. And after the Reformation, the largely-Protestant cultures of northern Europe no longer had convents as a way of absorbing "surplus" singlewomen.
These cultural patterns mean that if you want your fictional characters to be unmarried, their general geographic location is going to affect how typical or atypical that state is, and whether personal choice is likely to be a factor, as opposed to sheer luck. It's going to affect what their options are for life circumstances and how their family and community will view their unmarried state.
The influence of class
Within a given culture, social class also affected life expectations. As a general rule of thumb, the daughters of the aristocracy or the land-owning elite tended to marry younger if they did marry, and with less choice of partner. But they were also, overall, more likely to remain single. The reasons were varied, including lack of approved partners, the expectation for a large dowry without the ability to contribute to their own economic resources, but also to some extent a greater acceptance of unmarried women as valuable within the family economy. At the other end of the social scale, different factors were more important for marriage rates and ages
The influence of location
One major influence was whether you lived in a rural agricultural community or an urban community. With the rise of urban centers, men and women had different migration patterns that affected marriage options. Women who migrated from the countryside to work in towns, either as domestic workers or in crafts, typically married later than their rural sisters. But they also married later than the women who were born in those towns. One can imagine several contributing reasons. If your goal in moving to a town is to build up a nest egg toward establishing a household, you aren't going to plunge into a marriage that would cut that path short. And women who were already established members of the community, with family connections, probably had a leg up on marriage opportunities. But urban centers often had a relative shortage of men due to being tapped for military service and foreign opportunities. Conversely, in rural areas, age at marriage tended to be a bit younger.
The influence of demographics
Migration is one factor that can affect marriage rates, due to changing the distribution of the sexes across the landscape. But there are other more drastic events that can reduce women's rate of marriage. War almost always has a higher mortality for men than for women. As the scope and intensity of warfare increased in the early modern period, the results could affect sex ratios for an entire generation. The English Civil War in the 17th century, the Napoleonic wars around the turn of the 19th century, the American Civil War in the later 19th century -- all of them left in their wake a period of severe gender imbalance in which many women never had the opportunity to marry. And in among them, no doubt, were a fair sprinkling of women who were relieved about that.
With the beginning of the colonial era, larger numbers of men than women emigrated from Europe, contributing to a relative surplus of women back home. In North America, the western expansion always began with more men than women setting out for parts unknown.
Even disease affected marriage rates. Studies of plague mortality in early modern England indicate that men were more likely to fall ill and even still more likely to die from the plague than women. It's hard to estimate the gender ratios affected by the Black Death in the 14th century, but in its wake, with the overall labor force reduced, women found themselves with more opportunities to work outside the domestic sphere, and their greater economic independence resulted in lower marriage rates and more women choosing not to marry at all.
So what are some specific strategies for creating plausible female characters in history who opt out of the heterosexual marriage economy with no fuss, no muss, and no need to live extraordinary lives?
For one, give her money. Let her inherit income-producing property, or be given a an inheritance by a relative. Probably her family would expect her to use it as a dowry, but maybe the "right man" just never happens to come along. No reason for her to pine away in the mean time. The details will depend on the local land-owning laws, but in many many contexts, certain women were perfectly able to inherit real estate. And as long as she didn't marry, she retained full control over that property and its profits.
Give her a craft, a profession. Apprentice her in a trade. There were professions that were dominated by women. Different professions at different times and places. In medieval England, have her be a brewer or baker. In medieval France, a silk-worker. In most pre-industrial societies, have her spin for a living. There's a reason why "spinster" came to mean an unmarried woman. It was a profession thoroughly dominated by women and that could be engaged in with little overhead, often in informal cooperatives.
As discussed in one of the articles I'll be blogging about shortly, once legal restrictions on moneylending were lifted, it became a popular side business for single women. With the same nest egg that could get you a good marriage, you could bring in interest equivalent to what you'd make in wages. There are plenty of options to have your single heroine earn her living. Oh, and it really helps to have her live in a town, not out in the country.
This next one is more restrictive: set your story in a culture that followed the "northern European marriage pattern"--the pattern where women were expected to leave the parental home and perform wage labor to accumulate a nest egg for marriage. Where they generally married in their mid to late 20s. Where they expected to have veto power over a choice of spouse. And then...just have them fail to marry. For any of many possible reasons.
Alternately, have your heroines meet in a convent. It happened often enough that the convents felt the need to warn against it. Or in the times and places where it was appropriate, have them join a lay religious order like the Beguines who required women to be unmarried.
Place one of your heroines in service in a household outside the family. Maybe she fails to marry because she becomes so devoted to her mistress that she couldn't think of leaving. Maybe she makes a special friend among one of the other young women in service there. For that matter, in some eras, people complained of how domestic servants chose to have separate homes of their own and only come in to work on a daily basis. If people were complaining about it, someone was doing it.
Or from the other side, have your heroine be the daughter of an aristocratic family. They had a lower marriage rate for their daughters than almost any other class. Such women wouldn't have the option of leaving home to take up a profession, but they might spend an extended period living in another household as a companion, housekeeper, or simply from family ties, giving them an opportunity to form other relationships.
How do you identify spaces for singlewomen?
The essential thing to keep in mind is that regardless of what the "nomative" life pattern was for women in a given time and place, the actual lives of women varied across a continuum. And unless your heroines are standing on a streetcorner proclaiming their sexuality, no one is going to be able to tell the difference between a heterosexual singlewoman and a singlewoman whose friendships with women cross the line into romance. So in any context where you can find straight women living happy, productive, and unremarked lives without the benefit of marriage, it's just as plausible to insert a lesbian character living that same life without the need to create a hateful and oppressive social environment.
Look for the women who failed to marry, who chose not to marry, or who simply somehow forgot to marry, and you'll find the spaces in which your fictional lesbians can thrive.
Useful books on singlewomen studies
This topic is discussed in one or more entries of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project here: Singlewomen