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

By Adams, Christine | Journal of Social History, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

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


Adams, Christine, Journal of Social History


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.