A Choice Not to Wed? Unmarried Women in Eighteenth-Century France

Article excerpt

Ever since the conceptualization of the "Western European Marriage Pattern," historians have been aware of the fact that a sizeable minority of the population remained unmarried in early modern and modern Western Europe, possibly between fifteen and twenty percent of the population.(1) In the case of France, the evidence suggests that several million men and women - especially women - of each generational cohort never married in the eighteenth century. And yet, women's historians have focused almost exclusively on married women in early modern times, perhaps influenced by a legal and social system in which "All women are thought of as either married or to be married."(2) The common perception is that the majority of Catholic French women who did not marry entered the convent, despite clear evidence that the majority of unmarried women did not take up the veil or cloister.(3)

This study is an attempt to remedy this neglect of unmarried lay women in pre-revolutionary France.(4) It examines the special case of two unmarried sisters, Marie and Marianne de Lamothe, in an effort to shed some light on the experiences of single women in eighteenth-century Europe. In doing so, it will address several important questions, including: what were the lives of these unmarried women like? Why did they make the choices they did? Where did they fit into their family's household structure and strategies? What were their own goals and aspirations?

One might ask: why is it so important to study single women as a separate group? The short answer is that the experiences of single women were very different from those of married women. To an extent much more dramatic than in the case of men, marital status determined the social, economic, and legal condition of women in early modern times.(5)

Assessment of the quality of spinster life in times past has generally been harshly negative, despite some revision of this view in recent years.(6) Olwen Hufton notes that the unattractive portrait of the spinster was already starting to take shape in the literature of the eighteenth century.(7) But it was in the nineteenth century that the caricature of the spinster was firmly set. The stereotype of the spinster was of an unattractive, slightly hysterical, and often unhealthy female. This image was due at least in part to the perception by the early nineteenth century that the number of unmarried females was growing, even exploding, and that the decision of women not to marry (or their inability to do so) constituted a major societal problem.(8)

The spinster was clearly a social anomaly. Lacking a husband, a man to support and protect her, she was usually dependent upon parents or siblings for her livelihood. Or, if lacking familial assistance, she was forced to support herself on an inadequate salary, garnered through textiles or domestic work if she came from the working class, or as a governess if she was of genteel social origins.(9) Women, generally denied fruitful employment outside the family, were valued primarily as members of the family economy, preferably as mistress of the household. The spinster could seldom achieve this more desirable position, ceding it to either her mother or her sister-in-law. According to Miriam Slater, "Spinsterhood condemned one to a lifetime of peripheral existence: it was a functionless role played out at the margins of other people's lives without even that minimal raison d'etre - the possibility of bearing children - which was supposed to comfort and sustain the married woman."(10)

This is the stereotype. However, few studies have been done that actually explore the lives and choices of the spinster in early modern European society.(11) It seems possible that at least some women may have embraced the single life - whether due to dislike of the idea of marriage or due to a feeling of satisfaction and fulfillment in their roles as sister and daughter. However, to regard this decision as an unproblematic "choice" is risky. …