Spinsters and single-women in the 1700s and beyond

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Sarah.  Abigail.  “Aunt Nabby.”  Lucy.  Mary.  Hannah.  Elizabeth.  These are the names of just a few of the Day family women residing as “single women” in Ipswich, Massachusetts in the 18th and early 19th centuries.  They clearly did not espouse the joys of marriage as depicted in the c. 1790 picture above.  What on earth would cause so many women of the Day family to remain single in an era where women could not easily support themselves, and opportunities for the unmarried female were scarce?

The obvious explanations could certainly justify a spinster or two in the family tree, but TEN?

Jeremiah Day's Children

Jeremiah Day had three daughters.  Two were known as “single women” at the time of probate.  No marriage records have been located for his third and youngest daughter, Elizabeth, who is also presumed to have died unmarried.  Jeremiah’s son Nathaniel had three daughters.  None of them married.  Jeremiah’s third son John had three daughters.  Two remained single, and no marriage records have been found for the third, who is also presumed to have remained single.

A summary of women’s history in early America is necessary before speculating on potential causes for their decision to refrain from marriage.

The Puritan Woman

Martha Saxton in her superb work, Being Good, describes the repressed Purtitan woman, who was both ruled by her husband and devoid of nearly any modern-day rights.  She states:

Puritans, whose faith was born in criticism, came simultaneously to celebrate and to constitute women in a vocabulary emphasizing modesty, timidity, obedience to authority, and self-doubt.  Within a moral system devised with many purposes in mind, from the glorification of God to the control and ordering of work and family life, men publicly assigned significance to behavior.  The result was a complex of beliefs designed to restrain women in a number of areas, including the expression of aggression, the assertion of sexuality, the pursuit of advanced intellectual activity, the independent acquisition of wealth, and the attainment of secular authority.  Although church and state enforcement varied over time, and much depended on the personality of individual fathers and husbands, women grew up in a society that could be both repressive and punitive. [i]

A Woman’s Role in Colonial America

In the colonial era, the family unit was integral to the welfare of the community.   Families were interdependent for support, and between 1650 and 1750 the relationships between a husband and wife were “far more crucial than most scholars have supported.”[ii]  Men assisted each other in the construction of houses, harvesting, and other tasks that required extensive manpower.  They toiled outside spring through fall on their farms, and typically enjoyed a respite from hard labor during the winter months.  Not so for the wife, whose chores were never ending.

Girls were prepared for their roles as wives at an early age.  In New England, spinning and sewing were some of the first tasks taught to colonial daughters.  Of course, cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing (by assisting with the care of younger siblings) came soon after.  Schooling or formal education beyond learning to read was thought to be unnecessary and, until 1789, was reserved for boys.  Furthermore, “unusual learning” was considered a “moral embarrassment” for women! [iii]

The colonial woman, regardless of her social position, was responsible for such tasks as cooking, sewing, washing and mending clothes, caring for the cows, chickens and swine, tending the family garden, and, of course, raising the children.  Many often had other specialties such as spinning wool, knitting, cheese making, or cultivating flax.  Sklar and Dublin provide the following additional details of the New England woman’s role:

In America, as in England, women might also be involved in a second broad category of work, tasks they performed as assistants to or surrogates for their husbands.  In northern New England, for example, women, on occasion, would plant corn, gather thatch, trade with the Indians, or fill orders for planks and staves…They show the persistence of a traditional obligation – to provide ‘meet help’ to one’s husband. [iv]

Sklar and Dublin also assert that a woman’s ability to supplement the family’s support through special skills such as raising fat hens or making tasty cheese or butter influenced not only her relationship with her husband but also impacted her reputation within her community.  That was not enough, however; a woman must also “establish herself as an ‘obedient wife’ and a ‘friendly neighbor.’”[v]    Women were interdependent, relying on each other and exchanging assistance in both household labors and tasks in the yard.

Pre-Victorian Changes

As in most countries, early American women faced marriages that were not made of love, but of economic and strategic necessity.  Men relied on women to maintain the household, bear children, and to advance in society.  A good wife positioned the husband well for future success, both in her contribution to the family unit as well as in social position, depending on the bride’s wealth and family privilege.  However, during the 1700s, this approach to selection of a marriage partner slowly began to change, and men and women began to view marriage as a union of two individuals who loved each other.

Buhle, Murphy and Gerhard (2015) write, “Journals of the time thus suggested that men look for wisdom and patience in a wife rather than beauty and wealth.  And women were urged to wed men who would treat them as friends.  These would be marriages in which men and women could share advice and contemplate problems….”[vi]

Abigail Adams promoted women's equality in marriage

Abigail Adams promoted women’s equality in marriage

Abigail Adams was quite outspoken about the need for marital reform, advocating for a redistribution of authority in families, and “curing absolute power over wives.” [vii]  She proposed that wives be elevated to a position of life partner and companion.  By the 1780s and 1790s, a new view of marriage had taken hold:  instead of a patriarchal and hierarchical model, the ideal marriage was one based on mutual esteem, friendship, affection and obligation.  Both reformers and feminists argued for this new marriage, based on love, and stressed that “training girls for marriage drove them into uncongenial unions, degrading both women and marriage.”[viii]

For the first time in history, marriage was elevated to a spiritual union based on love.  Zsuzsa Berend writes:

At the same time a religiously grounded morality informed the ideal of character, in the sense not simply of a ‘complex of mental and ethical traits” but also of “moral excellence.’ High ideals of love and marriage came together with high standards of character, and it became socially and personally acceptable not to marry if marriage involved compromising one’s moral standards.

She continues:

As a consequence of the above developments we see a strikingly novel portrayal of spinsters and spinsterhood: the image of the spinster as a highly moral and fully womanly creature. This implied a change in the conception of the purported reasons for remaining single–that spinsters could have married if they had chosen to compromise their moral principles for the sake of matrimony. They remained unmarried not because of individual shortcomings but because they didn’t find the one ‘who could be all things to the heart.’ Spinsterhood was increasingly viewed as an outcome of intricate choices and spinsters as champions of uncompromising morality.

Berend cautions 21st century readers that the spinsters of the 18th and 19th centuries were not seeking self-actualization.  Rather, they considered their autonomy as a duty, and were convinced they must use their lives to serve a higher purpose.  They sought a vocation that would allow them to help others, and in doing so, were fulfilling their God-given purpose.

Woloch writes:

In the colonial era, remaining a spinster had been a mark of opprobrium; it usually meant a dismal life of quasi-dependence, living in relatives’ homes.  But in the 1780s and 1790s, spinsterhood became an option – or at least more of a likelihood.  The increase of spinsters in eastern regions may have reflected a rise in the autonomy of daughters, who had gained the right to refuse proposals, or a paucity of eligible candidates, or, most likely, a combination of both factors.[ix]

Yes, spinsters or single women were likely affected by a multitude of factors that impacted their decision to remain unmarried.  In New England, young men often migrated west in search for land.  Subsequently, women outnumbered men 5 to 4.  The pool of potential suitors was dwindling.  Additionally, “with the separation of church and state after 1800 and the end of public support for ministerial salaries, ministers became dependent upon the laity for financial support, and since the majority of the laity were women, many ministers developed new respect for them, encouraging women to seek greater social influence.”[x]  Remaining single certainly allowed them to do so.

Singlehood was certainly an option for women who sought to protect any property or real estate they possessed, whose ownership otherwise would have been transferred to their husbands upon marriage.  A life as a spinster protected the woman from the risks of childbirth, which was a frequent cause of early mortality.

Day Family Spinsters

One can only speculate why so many of John Day’s aunts, sisters, daughters and nieces remained unmarried.   While the changing attitudes towards marriage may have played a significant role, the number of single women in the family was out of proportion to the population.  One thing is certain:  these women had supportive families and the means to remain unattached for life.

Take, for example, John’s daughters, Abigail, Sarah and Lucy, who in 1820, for the price of $1,  each received 1/4 portion of their father’s former residence, deeded to them by their brother Nathaniel, with the condition that they would forfeit their interest in the residence upon marriage.

deedThe Day family was close-knit, and the men were dedicated to the welfare of their female kinfolk.  They clearly had the means to assist their sisters, aunts, and nieces, who did not have to marry out of financial necessity.  In an era when marriage was still the norm, the Day family women weren’t afraid to break out of the mold.

[i] Saxton, Martha. Being Good. New York: Hill and Wang, 2003.

[ii] Sklar, Kathryh K., and Thomas Dublin. Women and Power in American History: A Reader, Vol. I to 1880. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1991.

[iii] Saxton, 2003.

[iv] Sklar and Dublin, 1991.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Buhle, Mari Jo, Terry Murphy, and Jane F. Gerhard. A Concise Women’s History. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, 2015.

[vii] Woloch, Nancy. Women and the American Experience, 5th ed. New York: Knopf, 1984.

[viii] Berend, Zsuzsa. 2000. ““The best or none!” Spinsterhood in nineteenth-century New England.” Journal Of Social History 33, no. 4: 935-957. Social Sciences Full Text (H.W. Wilson), EBSCOhost (accessed August 12, 2015).

[ix] Woloch, 1984

[x] Sklar and Dublin, 1991


2 responses to “Spinsters and single-women in the 1700s and beyond

  • jennyalogist

    What a fantastic, publication-worthy post! In my years as a professional genealogist, I have also learned that women from this era were as varied as women today. Namely, some were indeed as chaste, industrious, and thrifty as the Puritan ideal, while others were slatternly, crude, and mischievous. Still others could be found committing crimes, frauds, and other such debauchery. I even found men trying to divorce women who refused to get out of bed–women who wanted to sit in bed while eating and reading all day (sigh, don’t we all?). Microhistory delivers such delicious insights! 🙂

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