The responses give an amusing insight into the psyche of the Victorian-era woman, commonly believed to have been prudish and reserved.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on February 2, 2022
Historian Dr. Bob Nicholson, who runs a blog called The Digital Victorianist, was studying an 1889 edition of Tit-Bits Magazine a few years ago when he stumbled on an interesting segment titled "The Spinsters' Prize." It was a competition that offered a reward to unmarried women who could provide the best answer as to why they were yet to find themselves a husband. The page-full of responses published on April 27, 1889, made one thing abundantly clear: Women in Victorian England had a badass sense of humor.
"I'm a historian who specializes in the history of Victorian pop culture," Dr. Nicholson told Bored Panda. "I was searching through old issues of Tit-Bits magazine in search of nineteenth-century jokes, and I happened across the 'Why am I a Spinster?' competition by accident. I love finding evidence that challenges our assumptions about life in the nineteenth century. Some people imagine Victorian women to have been prudish, reserved, and submissive to men—but many of the 'spinsters' who entered that competition were anything but. They were witty, irreverent, and proudly independent. I thought that was worth sharing."
Dr. Nicholson shared his findings in a Twitter thread that soon went viral since 21st-century women could relate to their Victorian-era sisters on a deeply personal level. "I'm not sure I'd go so far as to call the article progressive, but it does a good job of subverting the jokes that were usually told at women's expense," the historian added, explaining that 'spinster' jokes of the time typically presented unmarried women as either desperate to find a man or spiteful that they'd been left on the shelf. "There are hints of these misogynistic stereotypes in the Tit-Bits' article, but they also give a voice to women who comically assert their happiness at being single, and use the chance to mock men. This wasn't unheard of in Victorian humor, but it does go against the grain."
One of the reasons I enjoyed the witty, self-confident responses to Tit-Bits’ competition is that Victorian depictions of spinsters were usually the exact opposite. Take this joke from Answers magazine (1891), for instance... pic.twitter.com/EcA02fZqAE— Dr Bob Nicholson (@DigiVictorian) August 30, 2018
"Tit-Bits ran their competition at a time when the so-called 'woman question' was becoming increasingly debated in Victorian society," Dr. Nicholson said. "Many women were beginning to push for more rights and opportunities, including the right to be defined by more than just their marriage. I think the responses Tit-Bits received—and the fact that they printed them—hints at these changing attitudes."