For centuries of American history, marriage was both compulsory for women and tightly restricted. Socially, it was expected; and unless you were rich, it was an economic necessity. Yet marriage was also confined to heterosexual couples; and it wasn’t until the Supreme Court’s Loving v. Virginia ruling in 1967 that interracial marriages were legal all across the country.
Now, there’s a lot more freedom within marriage and without it. A life lived without marrying isn’t as unusual as it once was.
But we didn’t get here without other unmarried women paving the way. As Women’s History Month draws to a close, here are some accomplished and fascinating women who just happened to never legally tie the knot — proving that marriage isn’t absolutely essential to a full life.
As journalist Rebecca Traister points out in her book “All the Single Ladies,” our nation’s early unmarried women weren’t all without meaningful relationships or long-term companions. But for various reasons, they eschewed expectations by not entering “an institution built around male authority and female obeisance.” (Inspiration for this list comes from Traister’s book and my colleague Julia Carpenter’s A Woman to Know newsletter.)
Charity Bryant (1777-1851) and Sylvia Drake (1784-1868)
These two seamstresses met in Massachusetts in 1806 and were far more than spinsters: They started a tailoring business and apprenticed other young women. They were also incredibly close, living together in Vermont and becoming what historians consider to be the first record of a same-sex partnership.
Bryant’s nephew, William Cullen Bryant, describes the women’s relationship as resembling a marriage: “I would tell you how, in their youthful days, they took each other as companions for life, and how this union, no less sacred to them than the tie of marriage, has subsisted, in uninterrupted harmony, for more than forty years.”
Catharine Beecher (1800-1878)
Beecher (sister of abolitionist author Harriet Beecher Stowe) was engaged to Alexander M. Fisher, a professor at Yale University, but he died at sea before they could marry. After his death, she dedicated her life to teaching: She opened a private girls’ school in Connecticut in 1823 and was instrumental in establishing several women’s colleges in the Midwest. She also taught herself math, Latin and philosophy, subjects not commonly offered to women in her era.
Beecher believed that women were well-suited to be teachers, arguing that the job could ease the stigma of being a spinster. Her beliefs about women as natural teachers and mothers were so strong that she opposed giving women the right to vote. In 1871, Beecher said she was concerned that suffrage would cause “the humble labors of the family and school to be still more undervalued and shunned” in her “Address to the Christian Women of America.”
Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906)
Anthony was passionate about many things — abolition of slavery, workers’ rights and women’s rights — and getting married wasn’t one of them. She was part of the Underground Railroad; she organized anti-slavery meetings in Upstate New York and campaigned for a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery; and she laid the groundwork for women earning the right to vote, even though that milestone in American history came 14 years after her death.
That Anthony was unmarried made it easier for her to devote time to political action, and it also made her highly unusual. For Anthony, remaining single was closely aligned with her fight for women’s rights. In 1877, Anthony gave a speech called “The Homes of Single Women,” in which she argued that, as women gained more freedoms, it would be harder for them to submit to the inequalities inherent in marriage at that time.
“As young women become educated in the industries of the world, thereby learning the sweetness of independent bread, it will be more and more impossible for them to accept the … marriage limitation that ‘husband and wife are one, and that one the husband,'” she wrote. “Even when man’s intellectual convictions shall be sincerely and fully on the side of Freedom and equality to woman, the force of long existing customs and laws will compel him to exert authority over her, which will be distasteful to the self-sustained, self-respectful woman.”
Anthony wasn’t without companionship, however. She and fellow suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton had a strong friendship and working relationship that lasted more than 50 years. Anthony even helped care for Stanton’s seven children.
Clara Barton (1821-1912)
Barton found her calling as a health-care worker at age 10, when she nursed her brother David back to health after he fell off a roof. At age 17, she became a teacher; and later she became the first female clerk at the U.S. Patent Office, and the first female clerk there to be paid equal to a man’s salary.
She received three marriage proposals, and turned them all down. “Though she thought of different men as possible lovers, no one of them measured up to her ideal of a husband,” her nephew Stephen said of Barton’s decision to remain single. “She said to me that she could think of herself with satisfaction as a wife and mother, but that on the whole she felt that she had been more useful to the world by being free of matrimonial ties.”
During the Civil War, Barton served as a nurse to Union soldiers, earning her the nick names “American Florence Nightingale” and “Angel of the Battlefield.” After the war, she gave paid speeches about her nursing experience, alongside Frederick Douglass, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Mark Twain. In the late 1860s, she met Anthony and Stanton, and got involved with the suffrage movement. In 1881, at age 60, she founded the American Red Cross and also did international relief work in Turkey and Cuba.
Nannie Helen Burroughs (1879-1961)
Born to freed slaves in Virginia, Burroughs was an African American educator, religious leader and civil rights activist. When she was rejected in an attempt to become a public school teacher in Washington, D.C., she moved to Philadelphia, where she became an editor for a Baptist newspaper. In her 1900 speech, “How the Sisters Are Hindered From Helping,” she pushed the Baptist Church to involve women more in decision-making and remained active in church leadership for the rest of her life.
She eventually returned to D.C. to open a trade and professional school for women and girls, where the goal was for students to become self-sufficient wage earners and “expert homemakers.” She was also active in the National Association of Colored Women. Burroughs never married, instead devoting herself to being principal of her school.
Greta Garbo (1905-1990)
Twentieth-century Hollywood actresses are known more for their multiple marriages than for remaining single, but Garbo, often playing a sex symbol on screen, bucked that trend. Born in Sweden, Garbo began her career as a fashion model and then transitioned to acting. At age 20, she came over to the United States, starting in silent films and then sound movies. By the time she retired from acting in her 30s, she had been in more than 20 films, including “Grand Hotel,” “Queen Christina,” “Anna Karenina,” “Camille” and “Ninotchka.”
It was in “Grand Hotel” that Garbo spoke what a Washington Post obituary called “her most famous and enduring phrase”: ‘I vant to be alone.’” That sentiment seemed to apply to her off-screen life as well; after her retirement, she dropped out of public view. And while Garbo was linked romantically with several men, she never married.