Quaker Studies

‘I have no Horror of Being an Old-Maid’:* Single Women in the Religious Society of Friends 1780–1860

Quaker Studies (2011), 16, (1), 85–104.

Abstract

This paper aims to examine the position of single women within the Religious Society of Friends during the period 1780–1860, suggesting that they had a considerable amount of self-government and choice in the way they organised their lives. In a period in which remaining an unmarried woman was portrayed as being undesirable, it is surprising how many Quaker women apparently chose to remain unmarried. It has to be recognised that demographics played a part in this and they show that in this period it was likely that the Religious Society of Friends had a higher than average percentage of single women. Recent research is questioning the assumption that to be a single woman in this period was undesirable. It is being suggested that for many women, remaining single had advantages both for themselves and for their families. Rather than being a burden, frequently they were essential members of the family enterprise and it was choice rather than the inability to find a husband that was an element in their remaining unmarried. This paper suggests that the ethos of the Religious Society of Friends and the structure of its organisation offered Quaker women opportunities for involvement in a range of activities, both within their own and within the wider community, which encouraged them not to see marriage as being the ultimate achievement of their lives. In choosing to remain single, many Quaker women sought to preserve their autonomy and self-will, allowing them to follow their own path to self-fulfilment and happiness.

‘I have no Horror of Being an Old-Maid’:* Single Women in the Religious Society of Friends 1780–1860

Abstract

This paper aims to examine the position of single women within the Religious Society of Friends during the period 1780–1860, suggesting that they had a considerable amount of self-government and choice in the way they organised their lives. In a period in which remaining an unmarried woman was portrayed as being undesirable, it is surprising how many Quaker women apparently chose to remain unmarried. It has to be recognised that demographics played a part in this and they show that in this period it was likely that the Religious Society of Friends had a higher than average percentage of single women. Recent research is questioning the assumption that to be a single woman in this period was undesirable. It is being suggested that for many women, remaining single had advantages both for themselves and for their families. Rather than being a burden, frequently they were essential members of the family enterprise and it was choice rather than the inability to find a husband that was an element in their remaining unmarried. This paper suggests that the ethos of the Religious Society of Friends and the structure of its organisation offered Quaker women opportunities for involvement in a range of activities, both within their own and within the wider community, which encouraged them not to see marriage as being the ultimate achievement of their lives. In choosing to remain single, many Quaker women sought to preserve their autonomy and self-will, allowing them to follow their own path to self-fulfilment and happiness.


Details

Author details

Wright, Sheila