All the single ladies? Reading single women in early America

All the single ladies? Reading Single Women in Early America

Earlier this year I made the decision to read more books by and about women. While this was meant to apply to my selection of fiction for the year, it has also sparked interest in reading more nonfiction by women–both for work and for relaxation. Besides, women also know history!

Last weekend I began reading Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016). It’s a departure from what I would normally read in my spare time and I’m enjoying Traister’s perspective. After all, I am a single woman myself.

Traister begins by discussing a few well known single ladies from history, namely Susan B. Anthony, whose “The Homes of Single Women” speech from 1877 prophetically declared:

As young women become educated in the industries of the world, thereby learning the sweetness of independent bread, it will be more and more impossible for them to accept the . . . marriage limitation that ‘husband and wife are one, and that one the husband’ Even the side of Freedom and equality to woman, the force long existing customs and laws will impel him to exert authority over her, which will be distasteful to the self-sustained, self-respectful woman. . . . [leading] inevitably, to an epoch of single women.

– – Susan B. Anthony, “The Homes of Single Women” (1877)

The research presented in All the Single Ladies states that, today, only about 20 percent of young Americans (ages 18-29) are married. A stark contrast, Traister writes, to the 60-some percent of 1960. While I will still have to read on to learn how this shift happened, my initial reading of Traister’s work sparked some thought about single women in early America.

The first full study I probably read on single women in early America was Karin Wulf’s Not All Wives: Women of Colonial Philadelphia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000). Wulf points out the problem of conflating women’s history with the history of women in marriage (p. 6)–a problem I think is still true for much of the literature on women and gender in history. Not All Wives brilliantly show how single women in the early modern era reminded their superiors that, while they might be women, they weren’t all wives!

Certainly the actions of single women in early America were constrained by the patriarchal gender norms of their time. Only specific styles of education, and perhaps occupation, were appropriate for middling and elite women. Their behavior was prescribed in the pages of the Spectator and curtailed in parlors and courtrooms. Lower class single women were also targets for rigid legal restraints on their behavior. We also have to acknowledge the constraints placed on enslaved women regarding marriage and independence. If anything, this has reminded me that we still have a lot to learn about that group of women in early America who were not all wives.

For Further Reading:

  • Karin Wulf, Not All Wives: Women of Colonial Philadelphia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000).
  • Kathleen M. Brown, Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996).
  • Joan Jensen, Loosening the Bonds: Mid-Atlantic Farm Women, 1750-1850 (New Haven: Yale, 1986)
  • Lee Virginia Chambers-Schiller, Liberty, a Better Husband: Single Women in America: the generations of 1780-1840 (New Haven: Yale, 1984).
  • Kirsten Fischer, Suspect Relations: Sex, Race, and Resistance in Colonial North Carolina (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001).
  • Nancy Cott, The Bonds of Womanhood: “woman’s sphere” in New England, 1780-1835 (New Haven: Yale, 1977).

For the original article in New York magazine by Rebecca Traister that inspired her research for All the Single Ladies, see: “The Single American Woman” (22 February 2016).


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