February 2020

The Fate of Single Women: Startling Examples from World History

Author: Michele Roldán-Shaw

Liberty is a better husband than love to many of us,” wrote Louisa May Alcott, author of the great American novel Little Women, in her journal entry for Valentine’s Day 1868. Alcott remained single all her life, as did Susan B. Anthony (social reformer and suffragette), Clara Barton (founder of the Red Cross), and Coco Chanel (iconic fashion designer). For most of human history, there has been little scope for women who don’t occupy the traditional role. But our modern era has seen the rise of a powerful new demographic as women are marrying less and later, giving them freedom to focus on things like career, creativity and activism, which they ordinarily would not have time for because they’d be too busy popping out babies.

If you are single—even suddenly single—be glad that this decision or circumstance is less likely than ever to get you burned alive, accused of witchcraft, or simply shamed out of existence. You don’t even have to become a nun! Instead you can live any sort of life you want (theoretically at least) and even become president. Read on to discover the good, the bad and the brutal of single women’s history.

India: ritual suicide and shaven-head nuns
The notorious practice of sati involves widows perishing on their husbands’ funeral pyres. India’s ancient and complex culture places great value on a woman’s devotion to her husband, and following him into the afterlife was thought to be the ultimate expression of this. Intense religious belief further sanctified the act as ensuring a favorable rebirth. But the fact that single women were reviled as useless burdens to society, condemning them to miserable lives of poverty, might also have been a strong incentive to end one’s life. History indicates that what began as a largely voluntary practice was all too often coerced. Today, the custom has mostly died out, and in 1987 the Prevention of Sati Act made it illegal to commit, support or glorify it.

In contrast to this, a wonderful phenomenon of Indian culture is that the ascetic tradition—renouncing household life to pursue meditation, yoga and other spiritual practices—has always been equally open to women as men. This is seen both in ancient texts and modern times. From the dreadlocked, ash-smeared Hindu sadhvis to shaven-head, ochre-robed Buddhist nuns, women are recognized as having just as much right and potential to reach the ultimate spiritual attainment as men.

Rome’s Vestal virgins
One of the most honored members of the ancient Roman Empire was the Vestal priestess. Selected at a young age, she was led away from her family to lead a life of holy chastity supported by the state. Released from the normal duties of marriage and childbearing, Vestals functioned as ritual caregivers of all Roman society by tending the sacred fire—which couldn’t go out or calamity was sure to follow—and by presiding over important religious and social occasions. Draped in flowing white robes, Vestals were symbols of divinity and purity; they went about with grand escorts, and harming them entailed the death penalty. They could even free prisoners and slaves by merely touching them. The downside? If they let the sacred fire go out or broke their vows of chastity—or perhaps were falsely accused as scapegoats in times of crisis—they got buried alive in special chambers equipped with couch, lamp and a few days’ worth of food, which was the only way to execute them without “harming” their person. At least one historic Vestal cleared herself from charges of fornication by carrying water in a sieve, a miracle that proved the gods were witness to her virtue.

Viking warriors and heiresses
In the 1880s, an excavation was done on the tenth-century grave of a high-ranking warrior found at the Birka Viking settlement in Sweden. The unique grave contained superior weaponry, the bones of two horses, fancy uniform and a gaming set that suggested a command role. Even the grave’s placement, marked by a large boulder and visible both from the town and the sea, suggested a person of great significance. Quite naturally it was assumed to be a man. But a century later, a scientist analyzing the bones—a woman, of course—realized the pelvis looked distinctly female. Her findings generated skepticism and backlash, but later it was proved conclusively that this renowned warrior was indeed a woman. We’ll never know her marital status, but perhaps she was a baugrygr: an unmarried woman in the Viking era who succeeded her father or brother as head of family, exercising all the rights, privileges and duties of that position. Though most women in ancient Scandinavia occupied the traditional role of mothers and farmwives, they had considerably more legal rights than their contemporaries, even when single.

Wise women or witches?
Women have been shamans, folk magicians and healers throughout human history. Recent studies of prehistoric cave paintings found that three-quarters of the stenciled handprints were feminine, leading researchers to wonder about the role of the artists—were they using magic to ensure a good hunt? Archeological evidence and living tradition alike show that female spiritual figures have existed in tribal societies around the world, from Korea to Africa, the Amazon to Siberia. Native Americans particularly honored their medicine women as healers and communicators with the Great Spirit, letting them live alone and gather herbs in peace without the stigma that unfortunately has surrounded so many women who don’t conform to “normal” family roles.

By contrast, the connection between women and the supernatural took its ugliest turn in the horrors of the Inquisition and Salem Witch Trials. Women were thought to have an inherent moral weakness that made them more easily tempted—think Eve plucking the forbidden fruit—so they could be persecuted, even executed, on the mere whisper that they were in league with the devil. All too often, the ones targeted were widows, spinsters and those marginalized by poverty.

All hail the baby-momma: single mothers in office
Jacinta Ardern is the third woman to become prime minister of New Zealand (take note America!) and she’s the first ever to become pregnant in office. Moreover, she remains unmarried, though she and her long-time partner Clarke Gayford recently got engaged. When Ardern had a baby girl on June 21, 2018, she became only the second elected head of government to give birth while in office (the other was Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto in 1990).

As remarkable and inspiring as this is, a single mother in Iceland actually became the world’s first female president back in 1980! Vigdis Finnbogadóttir was a divorcee who nonetheless desired children and insisted on her right to adopt despite initially being rejected because she was single. We can only imagine how the little girl who became her daughter must have felt so proud of her mother’s strength, and the Icelandic populace was pleased with Vigdis too—she got reelected three times. 

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