I have just put up a page on Ethel Birks and Dora Painter.
These two single women lived and worked much of their lives together. Both teachers, they ran a small school in Portsea. Family histories often fail to note these types of relationships – most trees do not have the capacity to include them. But they are deeply important – and reflect the diverse ways that our ancestors lived. Just like modern people, they did not all conform to the ‘happy family’ structure, and often found different ways to live.
That two women, both unmarried, lived together was not so unusual in the early 20th century. A couple of decades earlier the novelist George Gissing had written The Odd Women. This novel explores the lives of those women who never married – simply because there were more women in the population than men.
By the late 1920s a far more radical novel looked at the sexual choices that women could make – Radcliffe Hall’s Well of Loneliness. This novel outraged the establishment of the time, and the publisher, Jonathan Cape, was prosecuted for obscene libel. It was legally published in 1949.
A modern novel exploring the lives of single women in the earlier part of the 20th century is Singled Out