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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #15 – Lanser 1999 "Singular Politics: The Rise of the British Nation and the Production of the Old Maid"

Full citation: 

Lanser, Susan S. 1999. “Singular Politics: The Rise of the British Nation and the Production of the Old Maid” 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.

Lanser, Susan S. “Singular Politics: The Rise of the British Nation and the Production of the Old Maid”

This finished up the articles in Bennett & Froide's collection about singlewomen with an odd dichotomy in English popular opinion of the 18th century when the toxic stereotype of the unwanted and sexually frustrated Old Maid arose. In an odd way, this stereotype may have provided cover for lesbians among the unmarried precisely because it overlooked the possibility of respectable women being sexually active outside marriage. To take that taste out of all our mouths, tomorrow I have a delightful romp of an 18th century novel in which our two heroines travel all over Europe together disguised as men, while engaging in a clearly passionate relationship with each other, and finally settle down to live happily ever after together after returning to women's dress. Tuesday, we'll return to Judith Bennett for a look at the article that might well be considered the fairy godmother of this project.

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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.

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