- The Single WomanSocial Problem or Social Solution?
In her autobiography, the unmarried feminist journalist, Frances Power Cobbe (1822–1904) begins a chapter ominously titled "Uprooted": "It is one of the many perversities of woman's destiny that she is, not only by hereditary instinct a home-making animal, but is encouraged to the uttermost to centre all her interests in her home; every pursuit which would give her anchorage elsewhere (always excepting marriage) is more or less under general disapproval…. then almost invariably comes to her the order to leave it all, tear herself out of it,—and go to make (if she can) some other home elsewhere."1 After serving as her widowed father's companion, hostess, house manager, and general caretaker for nearly twenty years, the thirty-four-year-old Cobbe decided she should not live with her oldest brother and his wife in the family home. The death of her father left her with a relatively modest annuity and the beginnings of a career as a writer. Over thirty years later she observed, "I was going also, it must be said, [End Page 191] not only from a family circle to entire solitude, but also from comparative wealth to poverty" (195). The lot of a single woman without even Cobbe's limited resources has seemed bleak, indeed, not only to Cobbe herself, but also to historians.
As the books under review document, the situation of single women was far more complicated. Many faced bitter changes following the death of a beloved parent. But even in deeply Protestant Britain and America, some women chose to remain unmarried, finding a life of emotional satisfaction in close friendships, care of family members, and charitable work or a job. Amy M. Froide, a pioneer in "single studies," reminds her readers, the percentage of never married or widowed women has always been quite high in England. In a sample of one hundred communities throughout England between 1574 and 1821, about 30 percent of the population were single women (3). Among the very poor, a percentage of women were surely cohabiting with men; nevertheless, the figure is a powerful reminder of a tradition of late marriage, high mortality rates, and the inability of many (especially servants) to marry without severe economic loss. Even as late as 1951, during an era of near full employment, low mortality and a strong public ethos to marry and rebuild the country, one in five English women between 25 and 34, and one in seven between 35 and 44 were unmarried; if the divorced and widowed are added, the figure rises to around 30 percent, or roughly the same as that in the early modern period (Holden, 44 and 46). Clearly local differences could be considerable. Christine Jacobson Carter documents the near-universal marriage of white rural women of the South in comparison with those living in the sophisticated port towns of Charleston and Savannah. But throughout the Anglo-American world to the present day, to be a single woman was simply far more common than most historians have previously noted.
How then might historians retrieve the lives of the unmarried, deserted, separated, divorced or widowed...