This episode of The Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast is all about Swinging Singles and Lesbian Opportunities
Episode 36d with Heather Rose Jones
A consideration of how the study of single women’s lives is relevant to the writing of lesbian historical fiction.
Listen to the podcast here
In this episode we talk about:
- Some of the myths about women’s lives in the past
- How geography, class, and circumstance affected women’s likelihood of remaining single
- Some specific strategies for keeping your fictional characters single without the need for special pleading
- Useful books on singlewomen studies
- Bennett, Judith M. & Amy M. Froide eds. 1999. Singlewomen in the European Past 1250-1800. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia. ISBN 0-8122-1668- 7
- Beattie, Cordelia. 2007. Medieval Single Women: The Politics of Social Classification in Late Medieval England. Oxford University Press, Oxford. ISBN 978-0-19-928341-5
- Froide, Amy. 2005. Never Married: Singlewomen in Early Modern England. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Amtower, Laurel and Dorothea Kehler (eds). 2003. The Single Woman in Medieval and Early Modern England: Her Life and Representation. Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Tempe. ISBN 0-06698-306-6
- Staples, Kate Kelsey. 2011. Daughters of London: Inheriting Opportunity in the Late Middle Ages. Brill, Leiden. ISBN 978- 9004203112
- This topic is discussed in one or more entries of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project here: Singlewomen
- A transcript of this podcast is available here.
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
please note this transcript has not been edited and is automatically generated meaning certain words will be incorrect
[Music] this is Heather Rose Jones with a lesbian historic motif podcast this weekly podcast looks at lesbian themes in history and literature and historic research into gender and sexuality we talk about current historical fiction with queer female characters including fantastic versions of the past and have interviews with authors who write those stories and in months when we have a fifth show we’re proud to present new original lesbian historical fiction for your enjoyment when imagining the lives of lesbian characters in pre-modern Western history one false idea that regularly comes up is that women had no viable alternatives to marriage not without becoming complete social outcasts both authors and readers of historical fiction often have a misunderstanding that women living autonomous lives outside of marriage are unhistorical or anomalous the not being married to a man was viewed as inherently suspect unless one had a special exemption such as a religious vocation this misconception has obvious consequences for imagining the historic spaces in which lesbian characters might exist it means they are imagined as being socially transgressive in refusing or avoiding marriage to a man that their lives and domestic arrangements will be scrutinized that they will be considered an anomaly within their societies if imagining one woman living in life independent of men is made difficult by this error imagining two who also find their lives entwined is thought to strain credulity and to be sure many women in history who engaged in same-sex relationships did so within the context of a heterosexual marriage and there’s a place in historical fiction to tell those stories as well but the truth is that single women women who had not married or declined to marry or had been married but now lived single lives as widows were extremely common in pre-modern Europe while the proportions varied depending on time and place on class occupation and family situation demographic studies of specific communities in medieval Europe show that anywhere between a fifth to a half of the adult women in a community might be unmarried at any given time in the 17th and 18th centuries studies show that anywhere between 10 to 20% of women in their 40s and 50s had never married and at that age were unlikely ever to do so of course not all these single or never married women were in that position because they weren’t sexually interested in men likely women with same sex interests made up only a small percentage of single women but any situation that applies to one woman in five can’t be considered a new or remarkable it might be treated as falling outside the ideal model of womanhood but it couldn’t be viewed as inherently suspicious in the context of sexuality and that’s why the study of single women is highly relevant to the writing of lesbian historical fiction because if you want to write female characters who are not married to men and yet are ordinary and unremarkable members of society you have a vast scope of models to choose from and that’s what we’re going to talk about today the show notes are going to include several excellent books that address this topic but a great introduction in one stop shop is the collection edited by Judith M Bennett and Amy M Freud titled single women in the European past twelve fifty to eighteen hundred check out the blog entries for its articles in the lesbian historic motif project today’s episode will primarily look at Western European cultures in the Middle Ages through the 19th century but the questions that are raised can be applied to other cultures the first thing to keep in mind is that different cultures have different patterns of family life and marriage pre-modern Europe wasn’t a monolith one of the large scale patterns that affects the expectations for a woman’s life is divided very roughly into a southern European pattern and a northern European pattern characteristics of the southern pattern not absolute rules but trends include older men marrying younger women often women in their mid to late teens women were expected to be sexually inexperienced at marriage women generally did not live or work outside the family household before marriage marriages were typically arranged by the parents and seen as a contract between families rather than between individuals and there was a very low rate of never married women in part due to a high rate of unmarried women joining religious orders but the northern pattern is a polar opposite in many ways marriages tended to be between spouses of the same age and were usually delayed until both had a chance to earn money towards setting up a household for women this often included working outside the home whether in domestic service in apprenticeships or in agricultural labor the average age at first marriage tended to be in the mid to later 20s spouses typically had more input into their choice of marriage partner and more ability to refuse marriage and it was typical for spouses to have engaged in sexual activity before marriage even though it was officially disapproved rates have never married women among those women of marriage will age could be anywhere between ten to thirty percent and even higher in some specific communities and after the Reformation the largely Protestant cultures of Northern Europe no longer had convents as a way of absorbing surplus single women these cultural patterns mean that if you want your fictional characters to be unmarried their general geographic location is going to affect how typical or atypical that state is and whether personal choice is likely to be a factor as opposed to sheer luck it’s going to affect what their options are for life circumstances and how their family and community will view their unmarried state within a given culture social class also affected life expectations as a general rule of thumb the daughters of the aristocracy or the land owning elite tended to marry younger if they did marry and with less choice of partner but there were also overall more likely to remain single the reasons were varied including lack of approved partners the expectation for a large dowry without the ability to contribute to their own economic resources but also to some extent a greater acceptance of unmarried women as valuable within the family economy at the other end of the social scale different factors were more important for marriage rates and ages one major influence was whether you lived in rural agricultural community or an urban community with the rise of urban centers men and women had different migration patterns that affected marriage options women who migrated from the countryside to work in towns either as domestic workers or in crafts typically married later than their rural sisters but they also married later than the women who were born in those towns one can imagine several contributing reasons if your goal in moving to a town is to build up a nest egg towards establishing a household you aren’t going to plunge into a marriage that would cut that path short and women who were already established members of the community with family connections probably had a leg up on marriage opportunities but urban centers often had a relative shortage of men due to being tapped for military service and foreign opportunities conversely in rural areas agent marriage tended to be a bit younger migration is one factor they can affect marriage rates due to changing the distribution of the sexes across the landscape but there are other more drastic events that can reduce women’s rate of marriage war almost always has a higher mortality for men than for women as the scope and intensity of warfare increased in the early modern period the results could affect sex ratios for an entire generation the English Civil War in the 17th century the Napoleonic Wars around the turn of the 19th century the American Civil War in the later 19th century all of them left in their wake a period of severe gender imbalance in which many women never had the opportunity to marry and in among them no doubt were a fair sprinkling of women who were relieved about that with the beginning of the colonial era larger numbers of men than women emigrated from Europe contributing to a relative surplus of women back home in North America the Western expansion always began with more men than women setting out for parts unknown even disease affected marriage rates studies of plague mortality in early modern England indicate that men were more likely to fall ill and even still more likely to die from the plague than women it’s hard to estimate the gender ratios affected by the black death in the 14th century but in its wake with the overall labor force reduced women found themselves with more opportunities to work outside the domestic sphere and their greater economic independence resulted in lower marriage rates and more women choosing not to marry at all [Music] the lesbian talk-show relies on support the support of you our listeners the support of those who like and review our show on their favorite podcast app the support of our patrons on patreon and the support of our sponsors we hope you’ll continue to enjoy and support the lesbian talk show so what are some specific strategies for creating plausible female characters in history who opted out of the heterosexual marriage economy with no fuss no muss and no need to live extraordinary lives for one give her money let her inherit income-producing property or be given an inheritance by a relative probably her family would expect her to use it as a dowry but maybe the right man just never happens to come along no reason for her to pine away in the meantime the details will depend on the local land owning laws but in many many contexts certain women were perfectly able to inherit real estate and as long as she didn’t marry she retained full control over that property in its profits give her a craft a profession apprentice her in a trade there were professions that were dominated by women different professions at different times and places in medieval England have her be a brewer or a baker in medieval France a silk worker in most pre-industrial societies have her spin for living there’s a reason why spinster came to meet an unmarried woman it was a profession thoroughly dominated by women that could be engaged in with little overhead often in informal cooperatives as discussed in one of the Articles I’ll be blogging about shortly once legal restrictions on money lending were lifted it became a popular side business for single women with the same nest egg that could get you a good marriage you could bring in interest equivalent to what you’d make in wages there are plenty of options to have your single heroine earn her living oh and it really helps to have her live in a town not out in the country the next one is more restrictive set your story in a culture that followed the northern European marriage pattern the pattern where women were expected to leave the mental home and perform wage labor to accumulate a nest egg for marriage where they generally married in their mid to late 20s where they were expected to have veto power over a choice of spouse and then just have them failed to marry for any of many possible reasons alternately have your hero ins meet in a convent it happened often enough that the convents felt the need to warn against it or in the times and places where it was appropriate have them join al a religious order like the begins who required women to be unmarried place one of your heroines in service in a household outside the family may be she fails to marry because she becomes so devoted to her mistress that she couldn’t think of leaving maybe she makes a special friend among one of the other young women in service there for that matter in some eras people complained of how domestic servants chose to have separate homes of their own and only come in to work on a daily basis if people were complaining about it someone was doing it or from the other side have your heroine be the daughter of an aristocratic family they had a lower marriage rate for their daughters than almost any other class such women wouldn’t have the option of leaving home to take up a profession but they might spend an extended period living in another household as a companion a housekeeper or simply from family ties giving them an opportunity to form other relationships the essential thing to keep in mind is that regardless of what the normative life pattern was for women in a given time in place the actual lives of women varied across a continuum and unless your heroines are standing out a street corner proclaiming their sexuality no one is going to be able to tell the difference between a heterosexual single woman and a single woman whose friendships with women cross the line into romance so in any context where you can find straight women living happy productive and unremarked lives without the benefit of marriage it’s just as plausible to insert a lesbian character living that same life without the need to create a hateful and oppressive social environment look for the women who failed to marry who chose not to marry or who simply somehow forgot to marry and you’ll find the spaces in which your fictional can thrive I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode of the lesbian historic motif podcast if you want to follow up on anything we’ve covered see the show notes for links and to contact me with questions book announcements or topic suggestions if you enjoyed this podcast please rate it and subscribe on iTunes stitcher or pod bean and consider supporting our patreon and if you’re on Facebook check out the lesbian talk show chat group [Music]