Who says childless, unmarried women of the past could not support themselves? The recent collection Women and Work in Eighteenth-Century France contains evidence of working singlewomen with thriving professional lives.
Louise Le Mace, mistress tailor, lived and worked in Quimper, a town in Brittany on the furthest outstretched arm of northwestern France. Le Mace worked as a tailor, a member of the guild in her own right, with the training and accomplishments that earned her the title. She could have settled for the less-skilled “seamstress,” or worked for someone else. Instead, Le Mace completed a formal apprenticeship and fulfilled the requirements of her trade, and in later years, she took on apprentices of her own. From at least 1734, when Le Mace’s parents legally authorized her control over some of their property, through at least 1763, the final time that she figured on the tax rolls, Le Mace was always listed as a mistress tailor. And she was never listed with a husband or a child.
In other words, Le Mace earned her place in the guild not because of a husband or father but because of her skills, training, and professional success. She could pay her guild dues and was entrusted by others with training their children. She developed an identity distinct from her parents, even though she lived in their household. Her father, a shoemaker, kept a different trade. Le Mace paid heftier taxes as a mistress tailor than she would have if she had accepted a tax declaration as a daughter with no declared occupation. While we don’t have access to her own words or ideas about her life—she left none—we can glean a strong sense of a professional identity honored by her town and guild.
To be sure, Le Mace lived in a place that offered women the chance to join the tailor’s guild on the same basis as men, an unusual situation. And in Brittany, the long-standing tradition of partible inheritance (rather than primogeniture) meant that women were accustomed to inheriting property from their parents and heading households; the fact that Le Mace was listed as the head of household after her parents’ deaths was not unusual in a province in which 1 in 4 households in villages and towns large and small were headed by women. Yet such unusual situations are more common than we might think. Historians of France are continually locating women who defy the notion of women’s work as piecemeal, impermanent, ancillary and dependent. By the 1660s, the French government, too, recognized the importance of women’s work, and taxed them accordingly.
While it is true that many wives worked alongside their husbands, many others worked independently in a wide variety of professions as “tax collectors, managers, shopkeepers, food sellers, innkeepers, landladies, small-goods vendors, teachers, decorators, dancing mistresses, actresses, scholars, translators, billiard hall proprietors—the list could go on for lines.” These exceptions, in other words, are becoming so common that we need to start seeing them as part of the structure of the economy and of the story of women’s lives in centuries past.
All citations from Women and Work in Eighteenth-Century France, ed. Daryl M. Hafter and Nina Kushner (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2015).
 Nancy Locklin, "Women and Work Identity," 33-35, 37-38.  Kushner and Hafter, "Introduction," 7.  James Collins, "Modern Consumer Capitalism," 169.  Kushner and Hafter, "Introduction," 8.