After all the glittery madness of Valentine's Day, we all need a day to appreciate those among us who aren't currently experiencing the wonders of wilted roses and mortgages. It's Singles Awareness Day, which seems like a slightly peculiar holiday, given that our society resolutely refuses to stop being aware of singles, particularly female ones, and how on earth it is they're not married yet, haven't tried Bumble, or a new haircut, Sharon from down the road met her husband at a spin class, have you considered freezing your eggs you're not getting any younger.
OK. Deep breath. As we contemplate our awareness of singledom, though, it can be useful to remind ourselves of the more welcome legal aspects of being unmarried in today's America. Namely, you can own your own place, go out on your own, marry the person of your choice, and nobody's going to condemn you to death by enraged horse or cut off your ears for wearing the wrong hat. Hurrah!
History can be enlightening like that. A lot of the focus on single women's legal status throughout history has been about their rights to inherit, own property, take part in various industries, and manage their own affairs. (The law could actually run counter to public expectations of gender freedom: in Victorian England, for instance, remaining unmarried as a woman actually preserved your rights as an owner of property. It was becoming a wife that took away your power.) But unmarried women have often been seen as threatening and unnatural (not that different to today, really), and societies have taken some quite extreme lengths in law to control them and curtail their rights. Let's all be aware of that while street sweepers put eight tons of crumpled petals into landfill.
In Ancient Rome, Having Sex With An Unmarried Woman Was A Crime
The Romans placed a lot of investment in the idea of an unmarried woman's chastity: she would, of course, one day be marrying, and therefore had to be a virgin for her eventual dude. To that end, they had a specific legal category for those unmarried ladies who dared to have sex before any rings went on any fingers. The Roman Empire under Augustus had two specific sexual crimes: adulterium, adultery, and stuprum, generally defined as "criminal fornication."
Adultery was confined to people having sex with married women. Stuprum, however, was an offense that often meant you'd had sex with an unmarried respectable woman (not a prostitute, in other words). It was a word that implies some pretty serious judgement, too: it can refer to everything from dishonor to disgust to incest, and one scholar traces it back to the huge disgrace of deserting the Roman army.
In Ancient Greece, You Could Sell One Of Your Unmarried Daughters Into Slavery
The 7th and 6th centuries in Athens in Greece brought a lot of legal change. First, the legislator Drakon put a lot of extremely harsh laws on the table (he's where we get the adjective "draconian," and probably where Draco Malfoy comes from); then his successor Solon repealed a ton of them. One thing they did have in common, though, was giving a father right to punish their unmarried daughter if she had sex before marriage.
Drakon's version was lethal: he allowed the dad to put the daughter to death, and records show one father walling up his daughter with a horse which would trample her alive. Solon repealed that, but did allow fathers to sell their unmarried, non-virgin daughters into slavery. Unmarried, "disgraced" girls in Athens were the only citizens who could be sold as slaves. Charming.
In The Middle Assyrian Empire, Unmarried Women Were Grouped With Sex Workers
The Middle Assyrian Empire had two separate classes of women, and woe betide you if you wore the wrong headdress while belonging to one of them. According to a legal tablet from the time, married women and publicly acknowledged concubines were allowed to wear a particular thing on their heads in public (though we have no idea what it was; it may have been a veil, or some kind of elaborate hat). Unmarried women were grouped among the girls who weren't allowed the hat, which also included sex workers and slaves. That tells you all you really need to know about their social status at the time. We're not told what happened if an unmarried woman ventured out with the head covering, but we do know that slaves who dared to don it had their ears cut off.
In The Tang Dynasty's China, A Single Dead Woman Had To Be "Married" As A Ghost
This practice first really emerged in Tang dynasty China, but persisted through the 20th century, though it's now pretty rare. In traditional Chinese law, unmarried women who die were not allowed to be remembered alongside her paternal ancestors, as she was basically "not part of the family" and couldn't be worshipped on a husband's altar instead. No place on the family altar, no protection by her ancestors, no nothing. Ghost marriages were conceived as a way of solving that issue: a woman's ghost would be "married," sometimes to a living groom, or to an unmarried man who had died at about the same time. Without that marriage, her spirit would be abandoned. It's noted, though, that Tang dynasty stories about ghost marriages often end with the living man dying to join his ghost wife, so they weren't exactly seen as thoroughly healthy practices.
In 1660s Salem, Single Women Were Granted Property — And Had It Taken Away
This is just a frustrating case of an exciting legal gain for women that was then taken away because it was thought to be "absurd." In his period as governor of Salem, Massachusetts, Governor Winthrop made a law in the 1630s to lure marriageable young ladies to the area: he designated "maid lotts," parcels of land that would be given to unmarried women who arrived in the area (bachelor lots already existed). It worked, and women turned up in droves to get the property, marry, and hand it down to their descendants. Irritatingly, though, Winthrop's successor Governor Endecott recommended that the idea be abandoned, saying that the practice encouraged "evil events" and "absurdities." He gave a young woman who applied for her land a bushel of corn instead. Helpful.
In 16th Century Europe, Single Women Couldn't Move To Cities
Unmarried women with status were actually legally permitted to hold certain powers in medieval Europe: they could own property, sell and bequeath it, and sue people in court. It was when they were single and poor that things became more legally difficult. In Women & Gender In Early Modern Europe, historian Mary Wiesner details a set of laws brought in by 16th century city governments around Europe because of their alarm about the amount of single ladies running around. Some forbade any woman who wasn't married to move to the city at all, while others were informed they had to leave the houses of their widowed mothers and find some kind of situation where they were under a male's control. Single women who worked as servants in cities weren't allowed to stay there if they quit.
If you're single in a city today, be glad that nobody's chucking you out to live in a village because you can't get married.