Decorated initial T

he 1851 British census revealed a striking statistic — there were approximately 500,000 more women than men in Britain, and there were nearly 2.5 million unmarried women. Victorian sociologists asked: What do all these women do, and what do we do with all these women? One radical idea came from essayist William Rathbone Greg, who advocated in Why are Women Redundant? that half a million unmarried women emigrate to the colonies rather than "wasting life and soul" as workers. But not everyone depicted such women, or their lives, as wasteful. Other transatlantic fiction and prose offered nuanced accounts of these unmarried women — what they did with their lives and how they might thrive in a culture skeptical of that independence.

This panel discusses representations of real and fictional "surplus" women in the long nineteenth century: the unmarried women who lived and worked outside the markets of marriage. The panel particularly considers how scales of surplus and scarcity regarding women often tip along the axes of class, wealth, and race. Elizabeth Gaskell's female community in Cranford (1853) thrives in its abundance of "genteel" spinsters in a world in which "gentlemen were scarce," for example. But myriad industrial novels detail the tragic excess of girl "hands," and slave narratives show the dearth and dehumanization in the lives of female slaves. Transatlantic representations of women in the above roles and as unmarried widows, governesses, teachers, activists, writers, workers, etc. are welcome, as are how they might show the promise and/or precarity of the independent woman in the period.

Abstracts should be 250-300 words and include a brief bio. Please submit at the NeMLA site:

Last modified 28 June 2023