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One of my favourite kinds of reading material is social history that concerns the lives of women in the first half of the Twentieth Century. Whether they’re debutantes, Girl Guides, flappers or – in this case – the ‘surplus women’ – it’s fascinating to learn about the lives of women who lived in a time that is close enough to my own to recognise yet at the same time utterly alien. It’s also sobering to realise how, despite huge leaps forward, many things remain the same.
The ‘surplus’ women (to use a snide term coined by the popular press) were the generation of women who were destined to remain unmarried after their male contemporaries were slaughtered in WW1. They were born roughly between 1885 and 1905 and their experiences form the subject of Virginia Nicholson’s book, Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived Without Men after the First World War.
The lives of spinsters is one of my pet subjects (what do you mean I need to get out more?) – for some reason I am drawn to fiction and non-fiction about these women who occupy a liminal space in society – from Jane Eyre to Tabitha Bramble to Bridget Jones – and wonder why they have such a subversive role that leaves them as objects of ridicule, derision or fear.
With the women of the post-war generation, it wasn’t their ‘fault’. There simply weren’t enough men to marry and this was a particular problem for middle class girls who had been groomed from birth to make an advantageous match and have a family – and nothing more. They had no skills to earn their own living and so faced a future of dependency on their families, or, if they didn’t have relatives willing to take them in, of poverty and destitution.
Were those women sexually frustrated? Undoubtedly many were, and the newspapers of the time were perversely fascinated by the ‘sex-starved’ aspect of the ‘spinster problem’ – where would all that pent up energy that would normally have been channelled into husband and children go? Oh, y’know, most probably riot, revolution and the downfall of the human race (according to the good ol’ Daily Mail, which really hasn’t changed its tune since.)
Some found solace in close female friendships which may have had their origins in necessity – pooling resources to survive – but evolved into something deeper. Those who’d always known that they would rather have a relationship with a woman than a man were able to set up home with their partners and society just had to lump it.
Nicholson points out another, poignant loss which affected many even more deeply than the lack of a romantic or sexual relationship – the fact that they would never have children. That deep, maternal yearning for a baby would never be experienced by thousands who craved it and that’s as big a tragedy in its way. Many went into teaching or nursing or became nannies or governess and poured all their love into children that way.
But the story isn’t all bleak - there’s another group for whom the lack of men to marry proved liberating, rather than restricting. These women enjoyed fulfilling careers, full of adventure and critical acclaim and it has to be said if they had married and had a family, they might not have had the opportunities to develop that circumstances afforded them.
Today, women who are single and child-free can as easily be assumed to have made those choices deliberately, as to have had them thrust upon them. The single life is a liberating, fulfilling one and it’s increasing in popularity. The women of the post-war generation found themselves facing a future that they had not anticipated and they faced it bravely, imaginatively and energetically.
By stepping up and taking their place in every part of society from finance to art to medicine, and shrugging off the shame and derision that was directed at them by those who were threatened by the concept of the single, independent woman, they set a vital precedent for us.
*Great song, love Lush.