From spinsters to the persecution of witches women have and continue to struggle to live a good and happy life alone.
Despite being a single 27 year old woman living alone amid a global pandemic I don’t feel alone. This speaks most to a friendship forged with aloneness, perhaps cultivated since I bid farewell to a 20s defining long-term relationship last August. Yes, during lockdown I miss the clamour of Friday nights spent in London pubs; bodies pressed together; hands clutching warm pints, the air pregnant with hedonistic delight. However, compared to awakening in the night to roll over and caress the sleeping body next to yours, to brush your lips on the nape of their neck and smell their skin, this desire falls somewhat limp and pale. Certainly, months spent mourning the togetherness which used to define your life leaves you less vulnerable to a shock effect when the former becomes a state sanctioned activity.
I also miss the feeling of being alone and together. A solitary coffee in a bustling cafe full of strangers and the communal feeling and specificity of being alone-together. I wonder what it is to be alone if togetherness and aloneness can exist in one state. Not just in the cafe, but I felt alone for the latter half of my early 20s despite being in the most ‘together’ form of together there is in our society: a heterosexual couple. What is it to choose to be alone and not conform to the former? For straight women it is the ‘go-to’ icon of aloneness in popular culture: the notorious spinster figure to be avoided at all costs. Epitomised from Bridget Jones to Jane Austen’s Miss bates in Emma it is the archetype of a desperate woman whose salient identity is a lack not through want or will to secure the most coveted prize: a man. Yet, I feel less alone and more together than I ever have.
It is not only my experience (and I should hazard a guess there are many happy single late 20s women out there) that doesn’t add up. There are also very tangible expectations and burdens placed on women in relationships. Why is singlehood so commonly framed as unequivocally undesirable when relationships often act as a microcosm for the unfair societal expectations placed on women. I not only point to the expectations of domestic labour in relationships but the intangible and exhausting realm of expectation around emotional care. What the sociologist Elaine Rothschild has termed emotional labour involving the management of your partner’s emotions through caretaking and conflict management (my best friend and I often remind each other we are not rehabilitation centres for lost boys). It would be inaccurate to say the unequal distribution of domestic and emotional labour is true of all relationships, but the disparity in its distribution does speak to larger systemic issues around socialisation and gender, which both men and women fall victim to.
One answer is the undesirable financial implications of being single. From marriage allowance to reduced council tax, UK governmental policy makes a life spent alone increasingly more expensive- women being particularly affected, earning considerably less than men with a gender pay gap of 17.3%. From tying the knot equalling a miraculously decreased chance of traffic incidents and lower insurance premiums, the few extra hundred single people fork out on council tax, the loss of sharing bills, mortgage payments and perks such as joint gym memberships and travelcards, the extra cost of being single (which some have reported as much as £2,300 a year) makes being alone a luxury one simply cannot afford.
This demonstrates that the ability to be alone is often not a choice but first and foremost an economic privilege. Although primarily this is felt unevenly across the sexes, most importantly it is felt unevenly across ethnic minorities and class groups of the female population. The British Labour politician Dawn Butler reports BAME (Black Asian and Minority Ethnic) women are consistently hit hardest by austerity measures, and unemployed or low paid women stand to lose what has been estimated at around £5,030 a year through the implementation of universal credit. This has deathly ramifications when being alone is a life-saving measure for women. Harrowing figures demonstrate 1 in 2 women a week in the UK are murdered by current or former partners and 1 in 3 women will experience domestic abuse in their lifetimes. During lockdown there has been a massive upsurge in the threat of domestic violence towards women, on average the Guardian reports around a 100 arrests a day since the beginning of March.
Women’s struggle to be financially independent can ironically be traced to the etymological origins of the term spinster. The historian Olwen Hufton traces the term to single women in the 17th century who earned their income through spinning yarn. Being a single woman at the time was of dastardly financial consequence due to the low wages given for female work, which in turn necessitated women being together in new ways, aptly termed by Hufton as ‘spinster clusterings’. These clusters involved groups of women who banded together in new familial and kin structures to support one another and cut costs. Although these women were single they weren’t alone in any other sense aside from lacking a husband.
This points to an interesting paradox. Despite the term spinster being born from the economic activity of women and sustained through female ‘togetherness’ and ‘spinster clusters’ the salient representation of the latter remains as an inability to secure a man. In popular culture female aloneness is continually reduced to nothing more than a failure of heteronormative relationships. We can ask what purpose does this concept of female aloneness serve? It primarily hides a plethora of economic difficulties for women by circumscribing aloneness as mainly a white and middle class woman's desire to escape from loneliness. What hides within this seemingly innocuous - albeit annoying - narrative is the far more more sinister reality of women’s lives and the economic difficulties which make being alone a (sometimes lifesaving) privilege afforded only to certain women.
The seminal Marxist and feminist scholar Silvia Federici (and organiser of the Wages for housework campaign) demonstrates how the vilification of alone women is a political strategy that can be traced throughout history. The killing of up to 60,0000 single women in the most unrecognised genocide in history the early modern witchhunts. The witch hunts in Europe deepened the divisions between men and women through ingraining a deep fear of women’s power into men and redefining practices and belief of social reproduction in line with a new capitalist mode of production (replacing feudalism). The female victims were mostly always unmarried - widows or spinsters belonging to the peasant class - whilst their male accusers always belonged to the elite; the employers, landlords, and wealthy and prestigious members of the community
Federici writes it was no coincidence the witch hunts came at a time of hyperinflation where the lower classes were constantly under attack from the gentry through the privatization of land, taxation and increased state control. Magic could envision a world which was unpredictable, animated and representative of a decentralised power to heal and manage bodies in a natural and social environment outside of the constituted order. The witch hunts and the murder of alone women thus allowed the symbolic destruction of conceptions of female power and magic that was antithetical to individual responsibility and the capitalist work process.
Life for women continues to be difficult as they face the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. In a UK context the most economically disadvantaged women - normally on zero-hour contracts or in the hospitality sector - are most likely to be affected by social isolation measures, leaving them even more vulnerable to domestic violence and economic downturns. The increased burden of care is also reflected in women’s work lives, one example is in academia, whilst men are submitting up to fifty percent more academic papers women are submitting considerably less during the pandemic.
Ironically, just as women are increasingly relegated to the domestic sphere, their involvement in decision making is of the utmost importance. A recent Engender Briefing highlights the implications of a lack of female leadership roles in healthcare positions. Despite women providing the majority of social care making up 77% of the overall NHS workforce, this reduces to only 30.45% in senior healthcare NHS (National Health Service) roles in a UK Scottish context. The disparity between women and men in senior positions not only runs the risk of a gender blind approach and consequent exacerbation of already present gender inequalities in society, but it misses women's proven excellence in handling crises, evidenced in the overwhelming success of female headed states management of the pandemic.