Chapter One: The Meaning of Singleness
Singleness in Society
My upcoming book, The Meaning of Singleness, will be published by InterVarsity Press on May 9, 2023. In the lead up to its release I’m sharing a short weekly excerpt, chapter by chapter.
You can pre-order or see more information about the book (including its full contents page, endorsements & a free sample chapter) here.
Chapter One: Singleness in Society
“In the space of just a couple of centuries, England’s single women had gone from being the romanticized subject of ballads, to women of some economic independence, to inert victims of circumstance, and finally to objects of public ridicule, derision, and even hatred. The dominant discourse which led to this changing narrative was substantially nationalistic in form. As Susan Lanser argues, “The English construction of the old maid is connected to an urgent perceived interest in increasing the British population . . . [and therefore] a dramatic discrediting of the female body that did not reproduce.”An artifact of this sentiment is found in the eighteenth-century proverb,
“In ancient sayings we hear tell, of maidens leading apes in hell. But younger maidens it is said, lead puppies to their wedding bed.”
(Image © The Trustees of the British Museum)
Though bizarre to modern ears, within its own historical context this rhyme allied the fruitless old maid with the ape, an animal who was likewise considered to be a pitifully unproductive species (and all of this in contrast to the ripe fertility of dogs and younger maidens!). So it was that “Ape Leader” developed as an alternative designation of scorn for the older unmarried woman. British leadership of that era considered several schemes to decrease the number of its citizens who remained unmarried. These included the proposal of a tax on single individuals, the public auctioning of unmarried women, directories of eligible spinsters and bachelors, and the institution of marital lotteries such as the 1709 Love Lottery: Or, A Woman the Prize.By the close of the eighteenth century, Britain’s unmarried, and particularly her never-married women, had truly become problematic and even contemptible figures.
As the societal status of the unmarried woman continued to decline into abject marginality, the standing of her married counterpart enjoyed an opposite fate. In her landmark book Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy or How Love Conquered Marriage, Stephanie Coontz observes how, prior to the industrial revolution, the marital relationship “was not primarily about the individual needs and desires of a man and woman and the children that they produced.”Throughout most of European history, the domestic household comprised an inclusive grouping of individuals including husband, wife, and children, but also extended family members, apprentices, servants, orphans, and other adults (most notably, spinsters and widows). Furthermore, the family home principally operated as the arena in which outward facing economic and social activity was to be cultivated. All members of the family (including children) were expected to play an important functional role in the domestic production of goods. It was this which secured the family’s place within society while also reciprocally contributing to the well-being of that same society. As a result, spouses within Protestant-influenced Europe “were warned not to love one another too much, and parents prepared themselves and their children for separation . . . [The] family’s image of itself was thin and insubstantial.” However, the industrial revolution of the late-eighteenth century brought with it a period of radical change, and this not least in the fostering of an inward facing character of the domestic household…”
Pssst. This full chapter is available for free download here.
Taken from The Meaning of Singleness by Danielle Treweek. Copyright © 2023 by Danielle Elizabeth Treweek. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com.
Susan S. Lanser, “The Rise of the British Nation and the Production of the Old Maid,” in Singlewomen in the European Past 1250–1800, ed. Judith M. Bennett and Amy Froide (Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 1999), 309.
Amy M. Froide, Never Married: Singlewomen in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 17.
Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy or How Love Conquered Marriage (New York: Viking, 2005), 6.
John R Gillis, A World of Their Own Making: Myth, Ritual and the Quest for Family Values (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 63.