The Single Woman in U.S. History

Susan Elliott, 2018-19 DAR Teacher Fellow


For much of American History, single women have been treated as a dangerous exception to the norm. Single women fall into several categories including: unmarried, divorced, separated, or widowed. Regardless, as Simone de Beauvoir observed, women “are married, or have been, or plan to be, or suffer from not being.” For a long time, the stereotypical perception was that a woman without a man was waiting for her life to begin, instead of just living her life. If a woman did not actively pursue marriage, then she unnerved, threatened, or even angered many people. This was due to the belief that the ultimate spiritual and moral goal for a woman was marriage. Family, popular culture, and the wider community routinely bombarded women with messages of the need to marry. The clear message in these contexts was that women pursuing single life were pitiful, or worse, selfish, and should be treated with disdain. As a result, single women reported societal pressure to find husbands.

Economically, communities viewed unmarried women as burdens. This was especially prevalent whenever a single woman was not self-sufficient and had no family to support her. In these cases, many of which are stereotypical and even cultural myths that persist today, women had to rely on welfare programs at the expense of the community. The community burden was further complicated if a single woman had a child. If women became self-sufficient, they were still considered threatening because people believed they took jobs from more “deserving” men. Due to the economic constraints on women, some desperate women sought assistance from public welfare programs, or even turned to prostitution.

This digital collection explores several occurrences of the “single woman” in American cultural history. Using primary sources from the Newberry Library, it depicts the various ways in which single women—and their often controversial social roles—have been represented throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Essential Questions

  • Why have single women been seen as dangerous in history?

  • What methods did society use to pressure women to marry?

  • What economically limits independent women’s lives?

  • What tactics have single women used to assert their independence?

The Pressure on Women to Marry

Women were subjected to tremendous societal pressure to marry. Marriage was considered the key passage to adulthood for women. Women who chose not to marry or were unable to find a mate, however, were often shamed and ridiculed. Women who waited too long to find a husband were strongly cautioned, as exemplified by the song, “The Old Maid: When I was a Girl of Eighteen Years Old.”

During the nineteenth century, the idea that dominated women’s lives was the idea of separate spheres for men and women. The idea of separate spheres was articulated most famously by Catherine Beecher in 1841 in A Treatise on Domestic Economy. Men pursued life in the public sphere, whereas women asserted control and leadership in the private sphere of home and family. The idea of treating one’s home as a haven—and one’s role within it as a vocation—is often termed the “cult of domesticity,” or the “cult of true womanhood.” Beecher was a proponent of the values associated with the women’s sphere. If a woman had no husband or family, they had no means by which to assert this traditional form of control in the home, and no economic provider outside of the home. The cult of true womanhood largely applied to white middle and upper class American women, and revolved around their role in the home, and the virtues a “True” woman was to possess; piety, purity, submission, and domesticity.

It was in this environment that Sarah Josepha Hale came to prominence. She is perhaps best known for penning the nursery rhythm “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” but she was also an important author and editor of publications for young women. For many in the United States, Hale was considered the primary commenter on lifestyle, taste, and good manners for young women. She published her book, Traits of an American Life as a collection of short stories. One story, entitled “The Old Maid,” introduces readers to Miss Atherton, a single woman, and her friends Mr. and Mrs. Carvill. Although Miss Atherton has many admirable qualities, it is hard for Mr. Carvill to see beyond her lack of a husband.

The popular nineteenth century author and tastemaker, Timothy Shay Arthur addressed a woman’s need to marry in his book, Advice to Young Ladies on Their Duties and Conduct in Life. Shay’s writing emphasized that the issue was not equality between men and women, but instead a woman should not consider herself complete as a human being without a man.

When Arthur was writing, in 1858, people all over the country had been debating the equality of the sexes due to the historic meeting for women’s rights in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848, organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and Susan B. Anthony. Although the Seneca Falls Convention is most remembered for the call for the right to vote, initially the Convention focused on the quest for equality before the law in property ownership, divorce, and child custody.

The early nineteenth century was a period of movement; movements to reform society but also movement to settle the West. Throughout this century, many men were seeking their fortune on the western frontier. Many who had migrated west were interested in attracting single women to become their wives. Men, (and in some cases, women) would advertise for a spouse in papers such as The Matrimonial News. The advertisements reveal a lot about how marriage and singledom was viewed on the western frontier.

Many members of society continued to view single women with pity and suspicion throughout the twentieth century. By the 1950s, single women had helped the US achieve victory in two world wars, but most men still believed the ultimate goal for a woman should be married life. A renewed pressure to marry emerged in the 1950s, after the chaos of WWII led to a renewed interest and investment in the traditional “nuclear family” (wife/husband/children), family values, domestic and economic stability, and traditional gender roles. At this time, Elizabeth Ogg was hired by the Public Affairs Committee to write and research how single women could find a man and what factors could be holding them back from finding a partner.

Questions to Consider:

  1. In Traits of An American Life, Advice to Young Ladies and Why Some Women Stay Single, what are the terms used to describe single women? Are these terms complimentary? Why or why not?

  2. What are the benefits of marriage for a young woman, as articulated by these documents?

  3. Study the advertisements in Matrimonial News. How much do the men try to sell themselves and how much do they articulate what they are looking for in a woman? Is there any correlation between how far West they are and how much more men try to market themselves? What do these advertisements indicate about single women’s power in the West, when compared to the rest of the country?

  4. In the Public Affairs Brochure by Elizabeth Ogg, what is suggested about an educated woman and marriage?

  5. Why would society put so much pressure on women to marry? According to these various documents, what is the danger of a single woman in society?

Why Some Women Stay Single Public Affairs Pamphlet No 177

Elizabeth Ogg. From Public Affairs Pamphlets, by Public Affairs Committee. 0.

Image of Why Some Women Stay Single Public Affairs Pamphlet No 177
Image of Why Some Women Stay Single Public Affairs Pamphlet No 177
Metadata Details
Item Type Pamphlet
Title Why Some Women Stay Single Public Affairs Pamphlet No 177
Publication Title Public Affairs Pamphlets
Creator Elizabeth Ogg
Publication Creator Public Affairs Committee
Publication Date 0
Call Number H 31837 .715
Location General Collections

Return to Top

The Economics of Being a Single Woman

With the industrial revolution came new employment opportunities for women in mill towns, factories, and paid domestic work. Paid less than men, and working in dangerous conditions, such as those that led to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, wage work also provided working single women with an opportunity to live independently. Even with these new opportunities, the life of a single woman could be economically precarious without the financial support of a spouse or parents. As with anyone without a means of economic support, single women with no resources sometimes sought help from locally funded social welfare institutions like poorhouses. This concern about single women as an economic burden persisted throughout much of American history. One individual who sought to examine the atmosphere of the poorhouses of the North in mid-1850s was the Congregational Minister Samuel Elliot.

By the turn of the twentieth century, the country was going through a period of reform known as the Progressive Era. Progressive reformers were concerned about the plight of the poor because they believed government had a responsibility to help. They also believed that a professional and logic-based approach to social problems could solve society’s ills. A turn to statistics and data analysis was celebrated. It was in this context that the Census Bureau did a deep analysis of who was ending up in the poorhouses. The data was broken into many categories, including marital status, and in doing so illustrates many single women’s poverty.

Questions to Consider:

  1. According to Samuel Elliot, why has Mag Davis ended up in the poorhouse – is it her character, life choices, or the situation that society has created?

  2. What are the categories the Census Bureau chooses to break down the data into? What do those categories tell us about the prevailing national view of the poor at the time? Are single women more likely to end up in the poorhouse than single men? Geographically, where were there the fewest impoverished single women?

Paupers in almshouses 1904

United States Bureau of the Census.. From Department of commerce and labor. Bureau of the census., 1906.

Image of Paupers in almshouses 1904
Image of Paupers in almshouses 1904
Metadata Details
Item Type Book
Title Paupers in almshouses 1904
Publication Title Department of commerce and labor. Bureau of the census.
Creator United States Bureau of the Census.
Publication Date 1906
Call Number Govt. C 3.5 :P28
Location General Collections

Return to Top

Living Alone and Liking It

A woman’s class, race, and financial resources impacted how she experienced singledom. During the Great Depression, middle-class couples often delayed marriage. Those who were married struggled to cope with financial hardships. Many women, for one reason or another, found themselves living the single life, and they had to make the best of it. In spite of the view that a working woman was taking a job from a man who needed one to support a family, women’s employment during the Great Depression actually increased. This was a byproduct of the reality that financially struggling employers could pay women less than men. In urban centers like New York City, women’s employment, particularly in an office setting, allowed some women to live as independent single women.

Marjorie Hills Roulston, a contributor to Vogue Magazine, saw an opportunity to help single women when she wrote her bestselling nonfiction book, Live Alone and Like It in 1936. This book aimed to teach single women how to build a fulfilling life.

Questions to Consider:

  1. One dollar in 1936 would be the equivalent of $18.00 today. After doing the conversions, what expenses surprise you by their rate (either low or high)?

  2. Who do you think was the audience for Roulston’s book? What evidence indicates that target audience?

Return to Top

Single Women and Politics

The fight for women to achieve the right to vote in the United States was long and arduous; and in many respects, single women were ignored in the fight. The quest for women’s suffrage began in earnest in 1848 and resulted in legislative action in 1920. The debate gained prominence after the Civil War, when Congress was considering the 15th Amendment granting black men the vote. Women wanted to be included in the 15th Amendment, but in the end they were excluded. The debates surrounding whether or not to grant women the right to vote were often tied up with the institution of marriage. The belief was that there was no reason to grant women the right to vote because they would just vote with their husbands, thus doubling the vote needlessly. Conversely, if a woman voted opposite to her husband the married couple would thus cancel out each other’s vote. Not all women were in favor of women’s suffrage. Gail Hamilton, the pen name for American writer and essayist Mary Abigail Dodge, wrote a book arguing that the vote would do little for women.

Godey’s Lady’s Book, a popular fashion magazine published from 1830 to 1878, included an excerpt from her book. Although Godey’s would in many ways resemble a modern fashion magazine, it also included poetry, sheet music, patterns, short stories, letters to the editor, and essays that were meant to appeal to women throughout the country. This magazine prided itself on proper topics for lady readers, though it didn’t necessarily shy away from debates like suffrage. At the back of Godey’s Lady’s Book, the editors would highlight controversial books of interest to young women such as Gail Hamilton’s A Woman’s Wrongs, A Counter Irritant.

Questions to Consider:

  1. How were women’s voting rights interpreted through their relationship to men? What does this mean for single women?

  2. In the Godey’s Lady’s Book excerpt, what are Gail Hamilton’s arguments around suffrage? Why might these views be considered controversial?

"A Word about Woman Suffrage"

Gail Hamilton. From Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine, by Luis A Godey and Sarah J. Hale. 1868.

Image of "A Word about Woman Suffrage"
Image of "A Word about Woman Suffrage"
Metadata Details
Item Type Magazine
Title "A Word about Woman Suffrage"
Publication Title Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine
Creator Gail Hamilton
Publication Creator Luis A Godey and Sarah J. Hale
Publication Date 1868
Call Number Case A 5 .375
Location Special Collections

Return to Top

Selected Sources

Beecher, Catherine. A Treatise on Domestic Economy: For the Use of Young Ladies At Home and At School. Boston: Thomas H. Webb & Co, 1843.

Castledine, Jacqueline. Cold War Progressives. University of Illinois Press, 2012.

Costello, Jane. All the Single Ladies. Simon & Schuster, 2012.

Cott, Nancy F. Public Vows: a History of Marriage and the Nation. Harvard Univ. Press, 2002.

Craves, Hamilton, ed. Great Depression: People and Perspectives. Santa Barbara: ABC Clio, 2009.

Grayzel, Susan R and Tammy M. Proctor. Gender and the Great War. Oxford University Press, 2017.

Hamlin, Kimberly A. From Eve to Evolution: Darwin, Science and Women’s Rights in Gilded Age America. University of Chicago Press, 2014.

Knight, Louise. Jane Addams: Spirit in Action. W.W. Norton & Co, 2010.

MacBride, Roger Lea. Bachelor Girl. HarperCollins World, 2000.

Mansbridge, Jane J. Why We Lost the ERA. University of Chicago Press, 1986.

O'Brien, Michael. An Evening When Alone: Four Journals of Single Women in the South, 1827-67. Published for the Southern Texts Society by the University Press of Virginia, 1997.

Ranta, Judith A. The Life and Writings of Betsey Chamberlain: Native American Mill Worker. Northeastern University Press, 2003.

Rogers, Martha, and Marilyn J. Easton. Passionate Spinster: the Diary of Patty Rogers, 1785. Exeter Historical Society, 2001.

Wood, Forrest G. Black Scare. Univ. California, 1968.

Return to Top

Classroom Activities

Return to Top

This collection was last updated