Single Women in the 1960s

Cinemas are currently showing the trailer for Bridget Jones’s Baby, the third instalment in the franchise which will be released later this year. Renée Zellweger has reprised the role of Bridget Jones, the woman who popularised the term ‘singleton’. Before I read Helen Fielding’s novels, I can’t honestly say that I’d previously heard the term ‘singleton’. Without thinking about it too much, I’d accepted that the word was the linguistic creation of Fielding. So I was more than surprised when I recently read William B. Faherty’s 1965 book, Living Alone: a Guide for the Single Woman  and found ‘singleton’ listed as one of the terms used to describe unattached women.

In his introduction, Flaherty explained that he considered several terms, trying to determine which best encapsulated what he wanted to say. They included, spinster, career girl, bachelor girl, unmarried, reluctant virgin, the permanent miss, and, of course, singleton. He ultimately settled on ‘single woman’ and ‘single state’ for use throughout the book. The other terms, he felt, had negative connotations. It was an important consideration: the language used to describe women who were not married carried certain meanings.

A discussion had been running in the Pen to Paper section of Woman’s Way in 1963 about the appropriate name for a single woman, started by one woman who rejected the terms bachelorette and spinsters.  Similarly, in a letter to the Sunday Press in the mid-1960s, another woman took issue with society’s different linguistic treatment of single men and women. The former were described as ‘gay bachelors’, she noted, the latter as ‘old spinsters’. While singlehood for men, it seemed, was something to be enjoyed, women who were unattached, by this attribution, were on the shelf. Indeed, one character in I was Going Steady (1960) noted of Julia Gateson — twenty and unengaged — ‘why she’s practically on the shelf’.

Interviews with forty-two women born between 1912 and 1942 confirmed that marriage and motherhood were seen as the primary vocation of women.[1] Muriel recalled, ‘you always assumed a woman would get married, stay at home, have children, and that was the end, become a house-wife… you didn’t know anything else then’.

The women’s magazines from the 1960s that I have been reading contributed to the perception that marriage was the ultimate goal of womanhood. Covers regularly featured the topic, and the theme was extensively ellaborated on inside the cover. One of the cover stories in Woman’s View (May 1968) was ‘How to marry your daughter’.

It is difficult to locate the single woman in these magazines.  The teenager seeking guidance on her latest crush is a ubiquitous voice, and very occasionally a letter appears from a lonely widow.  But the woman of marrying age who is unattached is a rare occurrence. And in those instances when we do hear from her, the circumstances tend to be negative; they are often from the woman who has stayed at home to care for her elderly parents as others around her progressed through the various stages of life.

Louise Dennis’ response in Woman’s Way to the aforementioned discussion about the appropriate term to describe single women is revealing of the harsh view taken by society: she suggested that single women had wound up on the shelf because they had had their chance, but had turned men down in the (unfulfilled) hope that someone better would come along. Such an opinion fails to take into account the myriad of other reasons that can be pieced together from the occasional letters to the magazines: caring for a parent, helping to run the family farm, isolated by living in a remote area, and financial or social status.

Despite these obstacles to marriage, William B. Faherty observed that society saw a single woman in one of two ways: as someone who was missing out on life because she was not married, or as someone who would devote herself to a religious life. What makes his Living Alone so refreshing is that — in contrast to the magazines, novels and other popular culture at the time — he wrote of a third way. That is, a life of happiness was possible in the single state, and that single women were not missing out on life’s pleasures nor were they destined for the veil.

___________

[1] Elizabeth Kiely and Máire Leane, ‘Pre-baby boom women’s attitudes and responses to second wave feminism in Ireland’, Women’s Studies International Forum, 44 (May-June 2014).

 

Published by Dr Ciara Meehan

I am Head of History and Reader in History at the University of Hertfordshire. I am the author of 'The Cosgrave Party: a History of Cumann na nGaedheal, 1923-1933' (Royal Irish Academy, 2010) and 'A Just Society for Ireland? 1964-1987' (Palgrave, 2013). I also co-edited 'A Formative Decade: Ireland in the 1920s' (Irish Academic Press, 2015) and 'Perceptions of Pregnancy from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century' (Palgrave, 2017).

One thought on “Single Women in the 1960s

  1. Really interesting Ciara, I hadn’t heard of Faherty’s work. Like you, I don’t think I’d heard the word “singleton” before reading Bridget Jones either. I’m reading an interesting farm memoir at the moment, by Evelyn I Funda and she examines how her father would never have allowed her mother to work off-farm or to do certain tasks on the farm such as working in the fields, not because he was sexist but because he had standards to uphold and to slip below them would mean they had slid down the class scale. So was one of the reasons spinsters had less status than married women was because they were seen as not being able to afford the dowry, to afford the “luxury” of getting married / of getting a man. And if she had to work to earn enough to keep herself once she was past “marriageable age”, did that signify she was further down the social scale even if she was a teacher or nurse? Was it a class issue rather than being sexist or are the two so closely embroiled? Even the term “serving her time” suggested that young girls were only working in shops or offices until they were old enough to get married, the expectation was there that they would definitely get married.

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