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  • Never Married: Singlewomen in Early Modern England
  • Retha M. Warnicke
Amy M. Froide . Never Married: Singlewomen in Early Modern England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. x + 246 pp. index. tbls. bibl. $74. ISBN: 0-19-927060-0.

This book on never-married women is a major contribution to social history and women's history. For this study, which was well-conceived and clearly written and presented, Froide has culled evidence from several provincial town archives, numerous literary works, wills, diaries, religious treatises, and other kinds of material. Traditionally, as she points out, scholars have used nuclear families as their norms, ignoring the existence of single women. The first study devoted to them appeared only in 1999 although they formed a large social group, from 1574 to 1821 comprising on average about thirty percent of adult women. In Southampton in 1696, for example, 34.2 percent of women were single, 18.5 percent were widows, and 47.3 percent were wives.

Despite their smaller numbers, widows have attracted more scholarly attention than never-married women. During their lifetimes, widows also enjoyed better economic privileges and welfare assistance than other unwed women. Although, like widows, never-married females were also feme soles, town governments attempted to relegate them to dependant status in male households, making it illegal for them to live alone or to work independently. Viewing their singleness as a temporary premarital phase, civic leaders treated them as though they were all girls in need of male discipline. The officials were also concerned that unsupervised females, who were deemed naturally more lascivious than males, would commit illicit sexual acts.

Froide found extensive evidence to challenge the accepted social theory that kinship ties in early modern England were less important than neighborly relationships. Single women had significant, continuing interaction with relatives, [End Page 622] especially females: siblings, mothers, aunts, nieces, and cousins. Family members, widowed fathers, and single brothers, for example, who needed them for household assistance sometimes discouraged them from marrying. Geographical distances did not seem to diminish the depth of these contacts.

By the eighteenth century, economic opportunities were opening up for some single female adults. In 1702, a landmark year, the last recorded prosecution against an unwed woman attempting to trade independently occurred. The employment mostly associated with all single women was service, but as they aged, they were sometimes unable to manage the menial tasks. A few entered crafts, comprising from three to seven percent of total apprenticeships. They usually chose fields, such as those involving sewing, that were associated with women. Social status also determined their selections: the middling sort went into genteel trades such as mantua making and shopkeeping. Meanwhile, their wealthier counterparts were proving to be productive members of society, as property holders, taxpayers, moneylenders, benefactors, and officeholders, such as churchwardens.

Froide's chapter tracing the popular representations of these women is fascinating. In medieval literature, which privileged young maidens and virgins, they were mostly ignored. A negative view of them emerged after the Reformation, when Protestants taught it was better to marry than commit sexual sins. Administratively, officials began identifying them as single women or spinsters. By the mid-seventeenth century, aware that increasing numbers of adult women were not marrying, writers expressed sympathetic concerns about their plight publicly. Statements in fictional petitions, for example, blamed men for refusing to wed the women, who were treated as society's victims.

Meanwhile, the term old maids began replacing earlier terminology and the women's representation was eventually transformed. By the early eighteenth century, writers were characterizing them as "nasty, rank, rammy, filthy sluts" (175). Froide argues that this altered view was society's reaction to the success of some unmarried women in employment and as property holders. Critics feared others might follow the women's example and choose to remain single despite being needed to produce the next generation. This disparagement emerged a full century earlier in England, which lacked convents or Magdalen houses, than in the rest of Europe.

Finally, Froide attempted to discover why the women remained single. No simple answer emerges. Most became involved in courtship negotiations, but for various reasons did not marry. Consequently, they had to create places...


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Archived 2009
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