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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #11 – Wiesner 1999 "Having Her Own Smoke: Employment and Independence for Singlewomen in Germany 1400-1750"

Full citation: 

Wiesner, Merry E. 1999. “Having Her Own Smoke: Employment and Independence for Singlewomen in Germany 1400-1750” 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.

Wiesner, Merry E. “Having Her Own Smoke: Employment and Independence for Singlewomen in Germany 1400-1750”

Back to the lives of real, not literary, women now. This is a focused study of singlewomen in German, and particularly the ongoing struggle of male institutions to control their independence and means of livelihood.

* * *

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.


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