In Praise of Old Maids

T. R. Malthus is infamous for his Essay on Population (originally published in 1798), in which he cautioned against overpopulation and controversially urged the poor not to marry. In an early edition, he included the following praise of old maids and childless women. After his own marriage in 1804, he cut this passage out.

"The merits of the childless, and of those who have brought up large families, should be compared without prejudice, and their different influence on the general happiness of society justly appreciated.

The matron who has reared a family of ten or twelve children, and whose sons, perhaps, may be fighting the battles of their country, is apt to think that society owes her much; and this imaginary debt society is, in general, fully inclined to acknowledge. But if the subject be fairly considered, and the respected matron weighted in the scales of justice against the neglected old maid, it is possible that the matron might kick the beam. She will appear rather in the character of a monopolist than of a great benefactor of the state. If she had not married and had so many children, other members of society which have enjoyed this satisfaction; and there is no particular reason for supposing that her sons would fight better for their country than the sons of other women. She has therefore rather subtracted from, than added to, the happiness of the other parts of society. The old maid, on the contrary, has exalted others by depressing herself. Her self-denial has made room for another marriage, without any additional distress; and she has not, like the generalityof men, in avoiding one error, fallen into its opposite...

There are very few women who might not have married in some way or other. The old maid, who has either never formed an attachment, or has been disappointed in the object of it, has, under the circumstances in which she has been placed, conducted herself with the most perfect propriety; and has acted in a much more virtuous and honourable part in society than those women who marry without a proper degree of love, or at least of esteem, for their husbands; a species of immorality which is not reprobated as it deserves...

Our object should be merely to correct the prevailing opinions with regard to the duty of marriage; and, without positively discouraging it, to prevent any persons from being attracted or driven into this state by the respect and honour which await the married dame, and the neglect and inconveniences attendant on the single woman.

It is perfectly absurd, as well as unjust, that a giddy girl of sixteen should, because she is married, be considered by the forms of society as the protector of women of thirty, should come first into the room, should be assigned the highest place at table, and be the prominent figure to whom the attentions of the company are particularly addressed. Those who believe that these distinctions (added to the very long confinement of single women to the parental roof, and their being compelled on all occasions to occupy the background of the picture) have not an influence in impelling many young women into the married state against their natural inclinations, and without a proper degree of regard for their intended husbands, do not as I conceive reason with much knowledge of human nature. And till these customs are changed, as far as circumstances will admit, and with respect and liberty which women enjoy are made to depend more upon personal character and propriety of conduct, than upon their situation as married or single; it must be acknowledged that among the higher ranks of life we encourage marriage by considerable premiums."

T.R. Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population, ed. Donald Winch (Cambridge University Press, 1992), 271-273.

#Malthus #UK #oldmaids

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© 2016 by Rachel Chrastil