By the end of World War I, 700,000 British men had been killed, exacerbating an already unequal distribution of men to women in the population. The 1921 census revealed that there were 1.75 million more women than men in the United Kingdom. The press had a field day with these results:

“Two millions of surplus womanfolk create a question so immense and so far-reaching that few have yet realized its import” –The Times

“The superfluous women are a disaster to the human race.” –The Daily Mail

Responses by the public to the news of the 1921 Census ranged from “Send the surplus women to Canada” to this choice letter: “No need to be alarmed...the women probably filled in the Census forms wrong.”

Many women who might have married remained single, in a society where marriage was assumed to be every woman’s goal. These “surplus women” were patronized, and treated as if their predicament was of their own making. “Spinster” and “old maid” were some of the more benign labels used. Harsher included “man-hater,” “militant,” “warped,” “shrew,” and – my personal favourite – “cigarette-smoking hoydens.”

Unmarried middle-class women like my heroine Violet Speedwell had few options in the 1920s and 1930s for a fulfilling life. Higher education was still rare for women, apart from secretarial college and teacher training. They could work as clerks, secretaries, teachers, nurses, governesses – all professions that were poorly paid compared to men. If they did marry, they were expected to quit their jobs immediately.

Single women often lived at home with their parents or married siblings, with little accommodation available to them. They became what is often referred to in literature, plays, and films as “maiden aunts” – retiring, powerless, naïve, and desperate to be kind and useful so that they can retain their precarious toehold in the household.

Attempts were made to encourage single women to become a cheerful “bachelor girl.” Manuals such as Live Alone and Like It and The Bachelor Girls’ Cookery Book tried to help them make the best of their situation. However, as Virginia Nicholson memorably describes it in Singled Out (a book I am indebted to for information about surplus women):

“The reality that emerges from the Bachelor Girl books is one of economic stringency and drab loneliness, of lunches on trays – a Marmite sandwich and a cigarette – of washing your hair under the tap and using the leftover shampoo to clean out the basin, of sitting in the park on Sundays.”

It was possibly the above passage more than anything that made me want Violet Speedwell to rebel against such a life.

photo © IWM (Q 28281)