Living as a single person, as a single female person in particular, has historically not been easy. In many countries, including America, women were not allowed to live alone – a tradition that still exists in parts of the world today. There have been studies that single people don’t live as long as married ones, adding fuel to the idea that those who choose the single life are less well. Certain employers were wary of hiring single people – male or female – because the unattached were seen as less trustworthy and reliable.
Even in the most modern of societies, those who remain single are looked at with caution. While single men face few criticisms for their decision to remain unattached, aside from the periodic gay rumor, single women are rarely held in high regard. When women venture outside of societal norms, even when married, their choices are criticized and accomplishments diminished, often based on their refusal to adhere to societal pressure to remain in the home, raising children and standing behind a man.
Historically for a woman to remain single, she would risk financial insecurity, physical safety, homelessness and societal scorn. Nevertheless, women either through choice or through circumstance remained single. In spite of the odds, single women have thrived and made their mark in ways both large and small.
Some ruled the world.
Whether Queen Elizabeth I remained single by choice or circumstance remains up for debate. Taking the throne in 1558 at age 25, she seemed to have little interest in sharing power with a spouse, in spite of concerns of succession of the thrown. Perhaps she was wary of her father’s, King Henry VIII marital history, which included the killing of her mother. Nicknamed the Virgin Queen (a misnomer if rumors of the time are true), she reigned for 44 years, a period of which would be known as the Elizabethan era. She is remembered as a favorite of the people and ruling over a golden age of England’s history.
To remain unmarried at 18 in the late 1800s in America was a definite sign of spinsterhood. To do so and be black didn’t make life easier. Still, Mary Eliza Mahoney chose work over marriage when she chose to pursue a career in nursing at the age of 18 at the New England Hospital for Women and Children in 1863. Fifteen years later, she became one of 42 women accepted into the hospital’s nursing program, the first professional nursing program in the country. She was one of only four students who made it through the 12 month program, making her the first black professional nurse. By the time never-married Mahoney died in 1926 from breast cancer at the age of 81, she had been the first black member of the American Nurses Associations, fought to increase the number of black women in nursing and was a strong supporter in the women’s suffrage movement. At age 76, she was one of the first women to register to vote in Boston.
Perhaps not surprisingly, one of the pioneers of the women’s suffrage movement was also a single woman.
Susan B. Anthony grew up as part of a large Quaker family and was an early advocate of social justice. In her fights for women’s rights, she was accused of trying to destroy the institution of marriage. While her social justice fights included fights against slavery and unfair labor practices, it was her work towards women’s suffrage that gave her the greatest political and social power. In fact, there is some belief that the movement could only succeed because she was single. At the time, married women were not allowed to sign contracts as they were now under the authority of their husbands. As a single woman, Miss Anthony was free to enter into business arrangements that helped fund and support suffrage activities. It is rather fitting that Susan B. Anthony was the first American woman to be featured on money when the dollar coin with her image was produced in 1979.
Today, single women are less hindered by their unmarried status, though complete social acceptance remains elusive. As single women continue to reach heights in areas ranging from politics to business to science, whether it’s the highly accomplished Dr. Condoleezza Rice, or media mogul Oprah Winfrey (who has been in a more than 20 year partnership but never married), questions of why they never marry inevitably surface. Unlike men, women who remain unmarried are somehow seen as sacrificing a key part of what it means to be a woman by choosing to be single. Many still believe that women can not be happy if they are single.
Susan B. Anthony would disagree.
“I think the girl who is able to earn her own living and pay her own way should be as happy as anybody on earth. The sense of independence and security is very sweet,” she once said.