Being an old maid is like death by drowning, a really delightful sensation after you cease to struggle.
– Edna Ferber
In 1861 fifty ladies of the first Church of Milford in New York formed a society of old maids. It cost five dollars to join the group and members had to vow never to marry. The interest earned from the money paid for the annual dinner, with the principal going to the woman who remained unmarried the longest.
According to an article in the New York Times thirty years later in 1891 all but fifteen of the original fifty had married. By then the prize money had risen to a thousand dollars. I’ve not been able to find the winner’s name—and I sincerely hope there wasn’t one— but the best part of being a writer is where real life fails, inspiration takes over. That’s how the idea for my new series The Brides of Last Chance Ranch was born. The first book Dawn Comes Early will be out in March.
My heroine Kate is a disgraced dime novelist who has the chance to inherit a cattle ranch in Arizona territory. However, she must first sign a legal document forbidding her to marry—ever!
Before I could write the book I wanted to find out why anyone—and especially a group of church women—would choose not to marry? In the 1800s such a decision would be considered unnatural and even shameful.
There would be more spinsters marrying if other women didn’t marry so much!
I wasn’t able to track down information on the Milford church ladies but I did learn some interesting facts. In the 1800s a woman was considered a spinster if she was still unmarried at age 25 and in some cases, younger. The word spinster literally means one who spins. In Dutch households no woman was fit to wed until she had spun table and bed linens. Thus the task of spinning was relegated to unmarried women.
So why were there so many Victorian Spinsters?
Some women balked at the idea of losing ownership of assets. When a woman wed land, money–everything, even patents–had to be put in her husband’s name. (Elias Howe credited his wife with inventing the sewing machine but of course the patent was in his name.)
Some professions such as teaching required a woman to remain single. During the early 1900s British telephone operators were not allowed to marry. And we’ve all heard stories of the spinster librarian deemed to love only her books.
College educated women had a difficult time finding men with similar educations. In Dawn Comes Early Kate Tenney is a college educated woman and Luke Adams a “simple blacksmith.” It makes for an interesting conflict as he doesn’t even know what she’s talking about half the time.
Many women lost fiancés or beaus during the Civil War. More than 62,000 men died and this created a generation of southern women doomed to spinsterhood.
Women entering the paid workforce in the 1860s became more independent. No longer did a woman have to marry for financial security. There was little possibility of combining motherhood with a career and a woman who couldn’t be a mother was considered to be no woman at all.
The war on suffragettes: Newspapers were filled with disparaging remarks about the Spinster Suffragette. “Her clothes and physical appearance emphasize that she is a failed woman and wannabe man. The lady wants to vote because she couldn’t get a date.”
Family responsibilities sometimes prevented marriage. Some women (usually the oldest daughter) were so burdened with caring for parents or siblings there was no time for a private life.
The Glorified Spinster: This movement was called a new model for the Old Maid which allowed women to pursue independence through voluntary (gasp!) spinsterhood.