Downton Abbey: Spinsters Get Up for Breakfast

Poor Edith. Jilted at the altar by Sir Anthony Strallan and left standing there in her fabulous dress, hurt and bewildered while he hastily escaped the church. (I hope you have all seen the episode by now or I just ruined everything.)

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Edith left stunned as Sir Anthony runs from the church.

I have no doubt that Edith loved Sir Anthony. But they are never, ever, ever getting back together (to quote Taylor Swift) and she has limited options. There is a good chance Edith will remain a spinster for the rest of her life:

– She is 27*. In the 1920s at that age, you are on your way to being the spinster aunt, taking care of your sister’s children and smiling good-naturedly when people whisper “spinster” when they think you are out of earshot.

– She is in the midst of a terrible marriage market for women. The demand for eligible bachelors is very high; the supply is quite low. A male deficit due to the war.

In Great Britain, the nation mourned the loss of their young men following the Great War. An entire generation of men wiped out, leaving the ladies all alone. It’s argued that the national sentiment exaggerated the losses, but loss of marriageable men was felt strongly in the upper and middle classes. The highest number of single men killed came from the officer classes (selected from the upper echelons of society). This put particular pressure on “childless spinsters from the upper and middle classes to marry and reproduce. They were not only pitied but could also at times be criticized for failing their duty…” (Holden, p. 394)

Edith was living in a time when there was the near-universal perception that women were groomed to marry and raise children, and nothing else. The men were the breadwinners, and they held the purse strings. They provided for the weaker sex. If Edith married Sir Andrew, and he then died (which the Dowager Countess felt sure he would at any moment), she would be able to receive his estate. She would remain a respected woman and comfortably cared for. As a spinster, she doesn’t get anything but pity.

But! Edith is a smart lady. I think she’ll figure out a way to provide for herself.

Some academics argue that every once in a while, society experiences a “crisis in gender” that dramatically changes the social landscape. Kate Bolick in her 2011 article, “All the Single Ladies,” uses the years following the US Civil War as an example. But Britain in the aftermath of the Great War is another excellent example of this phenomenon.

You see, the sad story of all the lonely hearts after the Great War gave these ladies an opportunity to cast off some of the spinster stigma of being “old maids who could not marry because they were pathetic, desperate, ugly, and frustrated” (Holden, p. 390). Their spinsterly fate couldn’t be helped. A whole generation of men gone – who were they to marry? Thus, single women became viewed as “unclaimed treasures”, because they might have married  had it not been for the untimely deaths of so many young men.

This new view, combined with the fact that women likely realized early on that they would not marry, provided an opportunity: to push past staid social boundaries and create careers for themselves. It became more acceptable for middle and upper class women to have a professional career. “[Women] were changed by war; in their turn they helped change society,” writes Virginia Nicholson in her book, Singled Out.

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Dry those tears, Edith. There is a silver lining to this.

Oh, if only Edith could flash forward to 2013 to see just how this “crisis in gender” got the ball rolling for women’s equality. As Kate Bolick reminds readers,  these days “a childless single woman of a certain age is no longer automatically perceived as a barren spinster.” (They do still get up for breakfast, Edith.)

First of all, women are choosing to marry later, if at all.  According to a PEW report, the median age for women getting married is 27 and only 51% of adults are married. Edith’s age would no longer be on the high end of the marriage spectrum. Furthermore, single ladies today aren’t that pressed to get married.  Hanna Rosin in her 2010 article, “The End of Men“,  argues that women have excelled in the post-industrial economy, leaving the men behind. For the first time in history the US workforce has a female majority, and economic power is shifting to women as they become more educated than their male counterparts. In many households, women are the breadwinners. Men need not provide for the ‘weaker sex’; women are taking care of themselves.

“Over the course of the past century, feminism has pushed women to do things once considered against their nature – first enter the workforce as singles, then continue to work while married, then work even with small children at home,” writes Hanna Rosin. Hopefully we’ll see Edith enter the workforce and start pushing those boundaries as Season 3 continues.

*according to the Downton Abbey Wiki, which provides a comprehensive background for each character. Be warned: it contains spoilers.

____

Further reading:

Bolick, Kate. “All the Single Ladies.” Atlantic Magazine. November 2011 issue.

Frank, Robert H. “Supply, Demand, and Marriage.” The New York Times. August 6, 2011.

Holden, Katherine. “Imaginary Widows: Spinsters, Marriage, and the ‘Lost Generation’ in Britain after the Great War.” Journal of Family History. October 2005.

Nicholson, Virginia. Singled Out: How Two Million British Women Survived without Men after the First World War. October 2008.

Rosin, Hanna. “The End of Men.” Atlantic Magazine. July/August 2010 issue.

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