Among the familiar characters in 19th century novels are the spinsters – the “spinster aunts” who lived with a brother or sister’s family; also the “spinster daughters” who stayed home with their elderly parent(s). These characters seem to have decamped from modern fiction. No wonder, there are a lot fewer of them in modern life. To be sure, many adult American women today remain unmarried for life, but they rarely inhabit either of these two classic spinster roles.
Some of the disappearance can be credited to demographic changes, but more to other developments that have allowed women once destined to be such spinsters to avoid that fate. American women’s escape from these roles, like most other social changes, came with a price.
The spinsters who inhabit our fuzzy images of the past often seem to be either sour or sorry characters. With some exceptions, 19th-century spinster or “maiden” aunts appear as silly, crabby, or even evil – “dried up” is a common term of derision. Even if they mustered all the good cheer they could, such women were in difficult positions. They were unmarried and childless in a society that expected all women — or at least, all middle-class women — to be fully engaged in marriage and motherhood. They were often the fifth wheel in the family. Few tried to live alone, for such a woman was suspect, assumed to be disreputable. She could remain reputably unmarried if she clearly devoted herself, just as married women did, to caring for others, such as helping with housework and the raising of nieces and nephews. (See, e.g., here.) Understandably, this could be an embittering situation.
Spinster daughters, by virtue of being the oldest, or the youngest, or the only girl in the family, inherited the role of designated caretaker for aging parents. Sarah Gillespie, for example, was a bright young Iowa woman in the 1880s who had undertaken to become a teacher. Repeatedly, however, she – like many other young women – had to interrupt that career to return home and care for her ill mother. The career never happened (see here). Much more recently, I recall from a survey we conducted in the 1970s a middle-aged woman who broke down in tears recounting her social isolation; she had given over her life to caring for a shut-in parent.
As the 19th turned into the early and then the mid-20th century, proportionally many fewer women held either of these spinster roles. The drop in the birthrate was part of the story: fewer daughters were born who could become either “old maid” aunts or caregivers. Perhaps more critically, fewer women failed to marry. A growing economy provided more men the wherewithal to get married, rescuing more women from permanent spinsterhood. (The struggle of the suitor to have an income sufficient to wed the heroine is a standard motif in 19th-century romances.) At the same time, the dwindling number of women who did remain unmarried – technically still spinsters – increasingly lived in their own households or with roommates rather than with family. The early feminist movement celebrated the freedom of (some) women to resist marriage or to demand high, perhaps idealized, standards for marriage and to stay single much longer (see, e.g., here). Women could never marry and yet avoid becoming classic “old maids.”
Another factor, surely, was the decreasing need to have a daughter give up marriage or forgo an independent life, as Sarah Gillespie did, in order to care for elderly parents. With the coming of pensions, of Social Security, and then of Medicare, Americans could assume with little guilt that their aging parents would do well on their own – an independence, by the way, that most American elders wanted. (It has been said that it was middle-aged Americans who most welcomed these programs for the elderly, precisely because it freed up the money and time they had to spend on their parents.)
This story is, thus, essentially part of the larger tale of American women’s growing self-determination and autonomy, specifically their freedom from duties to the families they grew up in. There is a cost to social change (there always is). Siblings who once could rely on a maiden aunt to provide household and child care have to scramble for paid help instead. Aged parents who could just call out for a daughter to help them with some task now have to telephone instead or make do on their own. Perhaps some of the liberated, never-married women themselves have moments of nostalgia or guilt about their emancipation. But probably not that often.