Spinsterhood During the The Victorian Era


The reign of Queen Victoria in Great Britain, 1837 to 1901, was a period in which Britain rose to powerful heights. It built a great colonial empire, realized tremendous domestic industrial expansion, and the British people gained a new respect for their monarchy due to the hard work and genuine concern Victoria showed them. This period in history has come to be called the Victorian Era and it became a turning point in British and American social history, ushering in new moral attitudes along with the steady growth and emergence of society’s newest economic group, the Middle Class.

Struggling to positively distinguish itself from the lower working classes and feeling itself to be hereditarily inferior to the aristocratic upper classes, the Middle Class began to form it’s own structure, and that foundation rested mainly upon the women of the group. Based on high moral standards, strict rules of conduct in marriage and courtship, and a public lifestyle that would reflect pious dignity, women of the Middle Class were carefully conditioned and expected to live up to a specific code of behavior. The ultimate goal of which was marriage. It became the duty of every woman of the Middle Class to marry and produce children, preferably boys to inherit the newfound status and wealth of the class.

In America, the years of the Victorian Era were years of upward mobility and economic advancement, but only for men. Women were forced into one of 2 roles, those of the lower classes went into low-paying, dead-end jobs in the fledging factories, such as spinsters, or sought employment as governess’ and various other domestic jobs. While women of the middle and upper middle classes were taught not to work outside the home and schooled as genteel ladies of fashion, confined to a strict and narrow role in the home as wife, mother, and hostess, subject always to their father’s, brother’s, or husband’s approval and control. Because of the new status the middle classes were compelled to create, there was a fiercely competitive aspect to the perceived moral differences. It shouldn’t be surprising then that here is when the stereotype of the Spinster solidified, gained momentum, and spread throughout all aspects of society and life. Countless manuals on ethics, hygiene, and etiquette were written and circulated as well as religious pamphlets and medical articles stressing to women the ideals of virtue and chastity and that Love proceeded according to an established set of natural laws. As long as women followed these specific guidelines, they preserved their sobriety, propriety, modesty, and conformity, and health; and, of course, fulfilled their purpose which was to ensure the comfort, support, and continuation of the male population. But what were some of those guidelines?

The purity authors of the day, Sylvester Graham, William Acton, and Mary Wood-Allen, advised girls and young women to always leave the matters of courtship in the hands of the young men and to play a completely passive role. A lady was to maintain at all times a strict modesty, never show the slightest evidence that a young man’s love was reciprocated until he had officially declared honorable (matrimonial) intentions to her father, and never to allow herself to be led into situations where she could be kissed. Even if all the rules were followed, there was always a real possibility that her father might reject the advances of the young man, finding him an unsuitable match for his daughter, or the young man could die before he acquired the necessary business, property, or wealth he would need to economically support himself and a wife. Too many factors, most of them economic, worked against young ladies in the 19th Century for them to be comfortable or confident in their passive position. Purity leaders, however, encouraged women to accept their destined role with grace and dignity, while at the same time condemning those who were not dutifully married by the time they reached 25 years of age. Should intelligent young women question their so called destiny, they were generally reprimanded and shown carefully chosen examples by their elders to bring them back into line. One such example is that of the Spinster.

Unmarried women of the lower classes, mostly uneducated in the ways of genteel ladies and generally employed as spinsters in American textile factories, were held in contempt or pitied by the women of the Middle Classes. While there was as much pressure on girls in the working classes to be “good girls” and marry, they were not drilled with or held to the same rules of aloofness, passiveness, or false-modesty that confined Middle Class women. Nor were they schooled in the popular medical belief that young men were unable to control their “animal urges” and that it was a woman’s responsibility to be physically uninterested so that the male “urges” would be tamed and manageable. More often than not, they were subjected to ruthless use and/or abuses during the duration of their mill employment, which could begin at 8 years of age and continue until the girl reached 25 years of age. This put their reputations as “good girls” into constant question, reducing their marriage ability potential.

The economic situation of the Spinsters did not allow for most of the conventions that restrained young men and women of the upper class, such as requiring chaperones in public, thus the spinsters seemed more free to show their emotions, reciprocate the love of a young man, or allow themselves to be kissed on occasion in order to obtain a beau. Unfortunately, this freedom was easily taken advantage of by unscrupulous Middle Class young men who professed affection freely without any intentions of marriage. Countless stories were told of naive young spinsters who gave their affection to young men of the upper classes only to be rejected by him later and told of his upcoming marriage to a lady from a good, and wealthier, family. A young Spinster’s, and her relatively poor family’s, outrage, hurt, and protests of such insensitive and indiscreet behavior would usually be disregarded by the young man’s family and denied by the young man himself.

She asked for it, they would say, and deserves nothing for her efforts to catch a rich husband like my son. Watch out, those spinsters are always doing things to trap our wealthy unsuspecting young men into marriage. And this is only one example of how the Middle Class morality justified its actions.

These justifications became, in a relatively short amount of time, facts of life. Spinster became synonymous with all unmarried women, whether they had never been married or they were widowed and chose not to remarry, despite their socio-economic position. As more opportunities in the Nursing and Teaching professions opened to women, they were filled by a large percentage of unmarried women who were pressured by their patriarchal families, and some by their own sense of independence, to contribute economic support. By the turn of the 20th Century, the image of the Spinster that we have today was firmly ingrained in the minds of the American people.

by Susan Kuhl









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