A problem like Maria

I have always been amused by the sub-texts in The Sound of Music. It’s all motherhood and apple-pie stuff, reinforcing cultural conventions, right down to the white wedding. The wedding scene is beautiful, but if you listen to the music, you hear the melody of one of the first songs in the movie, “What do you do with a problem like Maria?” Maria is passionate and free spirited and determined, and the nuns who sing the song know that she is simply not suited to a quiet life in a convent. So, what do you do with a passionate, free spirited and determined woman? Marry her off, of course, and get her back under control.

But what if there are no men available? This is the topic which Virginia Nicholson examines, in Singled Out, a study of the spinsters whose potential partners fell in The Great War (reviewed in The Economist).

There had always been spinsters, but on this scale they were something else. Male reaction was hysterical. Marriage and motherhood were what women had always been for. Without them, the abyss opened. They must be shipped to the colonies. The Daily Mail deplored the situation and books on psychology gave warning that the single woman was a danger to society, morality and her own sanity. But the real nightmare was that she might learn to do without men altogether.

These men were right to be alarmed. By a cruel irony, the war was an opportunity, a challenge to the patriarchy. It opened up the job market and the professions, making economic independence possible. The book follows a path – gradual, faltering, uneven – away from the post-war sense of loss and hopelessness, through a process of self-reinvention for women, arriving at a point where work, public service, travel and friendship had created enough happy single women to justify men’s fear that life without a husband and children was not only possible, but could be fun.

The power dynamics here are fascinating. I don’t think that it’s single women per se that are threatening. It’s independent single women, who have property and income in their own right, and thus have power of their own. These women are a threat to the established order.

I have been turning a thought over in my mind for some time, that real citizenship is not linked to the formal structures of citizenship, but to the substantive exercise of power. If this is the case, unless you marry the problems off, and bring them under the control of their husbands, then powerful single women are citizens, and new citizens dilute the power that existing citizens hold. Hence the post-war anxiety of men.

The review concludes by describing these single women as spirited and stoical precursors of modern feminism. I’m not quite sure what is meant by that. Although feminism is a set of beliefs and theories about the fundamental equality of men and women, I think it can also be constructed as a way of living. Aristotle taught that the way to learn a virtue was to practise it, until it becomes part of your character. I think the spinsters of the post-war years weren’t precursors of feminism – they were feminists, simply by living the lives of independent, free standing women.

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