Seeks Rich Young Lady

A review in The Economist of a history of the lonely-hearts ad informed me, to my surprise, that practically no women ever advertised between its first appearance in 1695 and about 1850. Female advertising did not take off until the demographic catastrophe of the Great War. Even more to my surprise, I learned that the male advertisers of the early 19th century (that is, the Jane Austen era) invariably sought matches with “young women of fortune”. The predicament of the Bennett daughters was not in fact typical. When I decided to repair some holes in my education and read Moll Flanders, I discovered exactly the same thing; ‘twas the women who had the money. Or at least, the idea was to achieve synergy by marrying two complimentary fortunes.

My surprise was probably an artefact of the way the feminists of my own time have succeeded in back-projecting the twentieth-century paradigm, to the extent that the true reproductive economics of the preceding periods have, at least in popular consciousness, been lost and forgotten.

That twentieth-century paradigm, of course, was that the man had and/or earned the wealth and the woman managed it for him and helped him spend it. That is, it is tacitly assumed that the woman brought nothing to the table except her reproductive services in the widest sense. This paradigm, however, is entirely the product of industrialisation, in which labour was alienated and remunerated only in wages and salaries. Since in those days women were not offered these new-fangled “jobs”, they were dependent upon male earnings for their subsistence, and the complaint of early feminism was that this meant various degrees of selling their bodies.

That view was not wrong for its time, but would have surprised many women of the 19th century and earlier, for whom the greatest danger was not having to cuddle up to a man to keep body and soul together, but losing their financial assets to a fortune-hunter – that is, a man who was dependent on cuddling up to them. Of course this was mostly the predicament of the aristocracy and the rentier classes, but not entirely; further down the scale, in countries where the farm went to the oldest child regardless of gender, a peasant woman might control a productive asset. In that case, just like the noble or bourgeois heiress, she had to watch out for wastrels on the make. Similarly among the artisans and shopkeepers, for whenever men married considerably older than their wives, they naturally tended to predecease them, and then the woman would be left owning a business. Such widows would then often marry the hired help, whose form they already knew. Throughout much of human history, whole economic sectors have been in female hands, and it was then the men who had to sell their marital services. We might also add the vast numbers of domestic servants to the list of women economically independent of a husband. Housekeepers, cooks and maids were recruited as and for themselves.

It may be surprising for some, but there were plenty of beefy women in 19th-century factories, though admittedly not in management or supervisory positions. At any rate in the United States, their absence from productive industry thereafter was due not to any metaphysical aversion to their gender but to the “Weaker Sex” legislation of the early twentieth century, which prohibited them from putting in the appallingly long hours worked by men.

What the twentieth century brought us, therefore, was a sharp increase in the proportion of full-time economic activities that were open only to men, followed a little later by the decline of domestic service. There would come a time when the new factories, corporations, professions and government bureaucracies were opened to women, thus enabling them to recover what they had lost and a good deal more besides. It was the decades in between, however, that represented a distasteful dependency on the earnings of husbands working outside the home, whether for the proletarian or for the suburban middle-class housewife. If this was a black hole for women’s dignity, then it was a relatively brief one, and not something that existed uninterrupted between the expulsion from Eden and Betty Freidan.

Returning to the lonely-hearts ads, the very title is a back-projection; it is clear that the men seeking a wife with a fortune were not necessarily lonely, nor necessarily had a heart, and of course the advertisements were not called that at the time. The older word, matrimonials, survives in our own time in e.g. the newspapers of India, where it is by no means the case that marriage means the purchase of an impecunious wife by a richer husband. (Often au contraire, but that is a story for another day.)

Straight off the top of my head, I can think of three very famous men who married wives decades older than themselves: Muhammad, Dr. Johnson and Disraeli. When this happens nowadays, there is much merriment regarding “toyboys”, but in truth, Demi Moore and her Ashton Kutcher would not have been out of place in most of human history.

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