Ah, Victorian women. So delicate and genteel in their long, feminine gowns with cinched waists and petticoats. Prim and polite, morning to night. Right?
Well, no. Apparently not, as one magazine discovered when some man thought it was a good idea to ask single women why they’re not married.
I don’t say “some man” in a feminist snark manner. The editor of said magazine was George Newnes, Sherlock Holmes fan and son of a Congregational minister.
Despite that he was not born into a publishing family, Newnes inaugurated what would become known as “New Journalism,” an editorial strategy that included much less focus on political and parliamentary reporting and a strong focus on humor and human interest stories.
Tit-bits was a British weekly magazine. That’s how Brits say tidbits.
Basically, it was a rag-mag.
The kind of magazine that’s churned out every week on the cheapest newsprint available and filled with humor and “human interest” stories. It quickly surged to 400,000 and then 600,000 readers.
Like a mini-encyclopedia it presented a diverse range of tit-bits of information in an easy-to-read format, with the emphasis on human interest stories [Wikipedia]
It also featured short stories by Isaac Asimov and P. G. Wodehouse. Lest you think it was just a Victorian thing — nope. It launched in 1881, true enough, but it was in print until July 1984. In the 50’s it was big on pin-up girls.
Why are you a spinster?
In 1889, the editor asked single women to write in and explain why they aren’t married. The lady with the best response would win a prize and have her reply featured in the paper.
It was a goose/gander thing. The editor had run a similar “Why are you a bachelor?” feature in a previous issue. He thought he’d try it again with the ladies. Dude had no idea what he was in for.
Mostly, much hilarity and a little snark from a lot of single women and a great response from an editor that actually had a sense of humor.
First, he didn’t feature the best response. He ran a full page of them.
Waiting for Mr. Darcy?
Some weren’t spinsters by choice and confessed as much. They just couldn’t find “the one” and didn’t have the luck of Jane Austen’s Bennett sisters.
Because I am like the Rifle Volunteers: always ready, but not yet wanted.
Miss Annie Thompson, No 2A, Belmont Street
Because (like a piece of rare china) I am breakable, and mendable, but difficult to match. — Miss S. A. Roberts, The Poplars
My reason for being a spinster is answered in a quotation from the “Taming of the Shrew”: “Of all the men alive I never yet beheld that special face which I could fancy more than any other.” — Miss Lizzie Moore, 12 Foulser Road
(Yup. That one’s definitely looking for Mr. Darcy.)
The rest? We moderns did not invent the burn…
Most of them, though? We did not invent the burn. Nope. We learned it from them. We’ll start with the tame one who says she can’t be tamed.
Like the wild mustang of the prairie that roams unfettered, tossing his head in utter disdain at the approach of the lasso which, if once round his neck, proclaims him captive, so I find it more delightful to tread on the verge of freedom and captivity, than to allow the snarer to cast around me the matrimonial lasso. — Miss Sarah Kennerly, Newton Road
Wasn’t that polite? Poetic, almost?
Some of them, not so much…lol
Because I have other professions open to me in which the hours are shorter, the work more agreeable, and the pay possibly better.
— Miss Florence Watts, 29 High Street
Because I do not care to enlarge my menagerie of pets, and I find the animal man less docile than a dog, less affectionate than a cat, and less amusing than a monkey. — Miss Sparrow, 9 Manor Place
Because matrimony is like an electric battery, when you once join hands you can’t let go, however much it hurts; and, as when embarked on a toboggan slide, you must to to the bitter end, however much it bumps.
— Miss Laura Bax, 29 Pelham Road
Because men, like three-cornered tarts, are deceitful. They are very pleasing to the eye, but on closer acquaintanceship prove hollow and stale, consisting chiefly of puff, with a minimum of sweetness, and an unconquerable propensity to disagree with one. — Miss Emaline Lawrence, 8 Abbey Gardens
Also? Too much work!
Statistics tell us that women do most of the housework. Even if they work. Matter of fact, when the woman out-earns the man, it gets worse, not better. Trust me, this was not better in 1889. Women didn’t do “most of” the housework. They did “all of” the housework. Some women had a problem with that. As in, it hardly seemed worth the extra work.
Because being a wife is too much work! I am now only a dairymaid. If married, I should be wife, mother, nurse, housekeeper, chambermaid, seamstress, laundress, dairymaid, and scrub generally.
A Miss A. Wood-Smith wrote in to say her desire to be single stemmed from a want ad written by a man in search of a wife. The ad sought…
“A woman who can handle a broom, to brush down the cobwebs and sweep up the room. To make decent bread that a fellow can eat, not the horrible compound you often meet. A woman who can cook, brew a proper cup of tea, clean, sew her husband’s britches, iron and make clothes, to boot. It concluded that she should be, “a sort of angel and housewife combined.”
Wood-Smith wrote to Tit-Bits to say having read that ad, she decided she couldn’t even think to apply for the role of an angel.
The sarcasm — stellar!
Wait! What? They paid women less?
A Miss Jones wrote to lament that she lost her love because of a thorny little thing like gender pay disparity.
John, whom I loved, was supplanted in his office by a girl, who is doing the same amount of work he did for half the salary he received. He could not earn sufficient to keep a home, so went abroad; consequently, I am still a spinster.
— Miss E. Jones, 32 St. Peter’s Street
Earning money was relatively new to women…
In 1898, a women who worked would get paid half what a man did. Being able to earn money, at least legally, was a novelty in itself. Before the Married Women’s Property Act (passed in 1870) married women were not allowed to keep their earnings. If she worked, her wages were paid to her husband.
And until 1882, a woman wasn’t allowed to own property, she was property. Immediately upon getting married, everything she might have owned as a single woman passed to her husband. Blink. That fast.
Fathers did not bother to include daughters in there will. There was no point. It would just pass to her husband, anyway.
So, when the “Why are You A Spinster” contest ran, being legally able to earn and keep money was a relatively new concept to women.
21 winners got 5 shillings each…
The editor couldn’t pick a winner, so he printed the top 21 responses, and divided the promised cash prize 21 ways. Each women earned 5 shillings, which is about $25 USD today.
We have decided to divide this prize as we did the Bachelors’. Amongst a number of competitions which are of about the same merit it is very invidious to pick out one and give all the money to the sender. We, therefore, publish the best twenty-one that have come to hand, and send five shillings for each. We may add that the competitions by the spinsters have been better than those which we received from the bachelors, besides being considerably more numerous.
A nod to independent women…
According to Dr. Bob Nicholson, who runs @Digivictorian, the following snippet appeared on the font page of Tit-Bits a few days later.
Three Really Old Books That Will Change Your Life
What you do depends on what you see. Change your perspective, and you change your life.