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The ‘surplus woman’

March 9, 20219:01 amLeave a Comment

Archivist, Sara Downs considers the single woman question, emigration and the 1851 census…

The data from the 1851 census highlighted that there were approximately 500,000 more women than men and there were two and half million unmarried women. Single women had always existed in the population, but for the first time the census provided statistical data to confirm what had been a vague concern. Shropshire born physician, statistician and epidemiologist, William Farr was instrumental in having the marital status question added to the 1851 census. The results started a long debate about the ‘surplus woman’ problem that would last throughout the nineteenth century.  

teacher at Coton Hill PH/S/13/C/26/154

People worried about how single women, especially those of the middle classes, would survive economically. More importantly, people were concerned that unmarried women did not fit with the social ideology of the day that supported the moral family life, with women having the clearly defined roles of wife, child rearing and household management. William Farr stated in the 1851 Census Report, that an ideal family consisted of a husband, wife, children and servants but more commonly found were families consisting of husband, wife and children.  Unmarried women did not conform to the ideal. Poor women always worked, often fulfilling the essential role of domestic servant. Unmarried, middle class women’s occupations were restricted to governess, teacher or companion. Many unmarried women were unpaid labour within the households of extended family. 

The ‘surplus woman’ problem was highly debated in the newspapers with people suggesting female emigration to the colonies, women’s access to a better education and a share in the professional job market. Essayist, William Rathbone Greg, wrote a famous article entitled ‘Why are Women Redundant’ in which he outlined a scheme for the mass emigration of 500,000 unmarried women to the colonies requiring 10,000 ships. Women’s emigration was not just a theoretical debate, societies were formed to promote unmarried women’s employment and enable them to emigrate. One example of activities of the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women was reported in Eddowes Salopian Journal 6 December 1861. The article outlines a scheme for unmarried women to emigrate and gain employment as teachers and governesses in South Africa, Australia and Canada. 

References and suggested reading: 

Written by sarahd

2 thoughts on “The ‘surplus woman’”

  1. Mark Stewart says:

    Fascinating. Did the following censuses (including 1911) show the same imbalance of women and me?

    1. sarahd says:

      The Vision of Britain website has some useful statistics on this at
      In 1911, it was 1,068 females to every 1,000 males. This was partly due to a greater mortality rate in males, also some men were serving abroad as soldiers and a greater number of men emigrated.

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