What Was Life Like for Single Women in the 1800s?

By Pam Goldberg Smith
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The 19th century is often referred to as the beginning of the women's civil rights movement. This dramatic change in women's role in society is much to the credit of the single women of the time. By taking the road less traveled, so to speak, these women availed themselves of opportunities to support themselves, push for equal rights and alter how society viewed their capabilities.

Early 1800s

The early 1800s continued the tradition where a woman's sole purpose was to marry so that she could stay home and cook, clean and rear the children. She could help out on the farm in more-rural communities or maintain the household in wealthier areas. Unmarried women were therefore seen as societal dependents and failures. Single women were left to live off their family's estate; serve as maids; help to raise another relative's children; or, if she were really unfortunate, live a life of poverty and prostitution.

Benefits of Singleness

As harsh as life could be for single women, they ironically possessed more rights than those who married. A single woman had her own legal identity, could enter into contracts and own property, allowing her to have some say over certain matters in her life. However, courts would often dissuade these women from practicing law because they claimed a woman's destiny was to become a wife and mother.

Industrialization

With the boom of new technology, innovation and ideas during the Industrial Revolution, there came a great need for additional workers in factories, retail establishments and offices. Who better to gain employment than a young woman without a husband and children to care for? Many also became teachers; however, they would have to give up their job if they ever wanted to marry. This proved a woman were able to earn money and work just as well as a man.

Success in Schools

In the second half of the 1800s, single women were pushing forward to become educated citizens. Institutions such as the Female Medical College in Pennsylvania, which opened in 1850, led to women making up 5 percent of all doctors in the United States by the end of the 19th century. By 1870, an estimated one-fifth of resident college and university students were women. While this does not seem like much compared to today, it was a great victory for women of the time, broadening the single woman's horizon.