Title

A Life Course Study Of Never-Married And Ever-Married Elderly Women From The 1910 Birth Cohort (Syracuse; New York; Transitions, Marital Status)

Date of Award

1984

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

Child and Family Studies

Advisor(s)

Robert S. Pickett

Keywords

Families & family life, Personal relationships, Sociology

Subject Categories

Women's Studies

Abstract

This study investigated how women's lives unfold as they pursue different marital careers. Two patterns were compared: the atypical path of never-married, childless women and the more traditional path of marriage, motherhood, grandmotherhood, and widowhood.

The life course perspective guided this inquiry. An edited life history approach was utilized to obtain comparable data on a sample of 15 never-married women and 15 widows. Five life course careers were examined: family, friendship, work, health, and residence. Retrospective interviews placed subjects in the role of oral historian. A content analysis was used to code and interpret the data.

The 30 women were homogeneous in every respect except for their marital and parental statuses. They were white, working class, native-born women from the 1910 birth cohort. Their average age was 73. Subjects were recruited through senior citizen centers. They were typically healthy and active socially.

The data revealed "shared cohort memories" of growing up in the early part of the twentieth century. Their lives turned in two directions during adulthood. Marriage and motherhood were the predominant careers for the widowed group. Adult child-aging parent and extended kin careers dominated never-married women's lives. The occupational role was of secondary importance to the subjects; they often terminated employment to take care of family members. In old age, both sets of women shared the experience of being single.

The salience of lifelong caretaking roles was common for all women. Widows extended their roles of wife and mother to descending generations. Never-married womens' extensions were multidimensional: as bearers of the family history, caretakers for aging parents, and second mothers to siblings' children. Never-married women played pivotal and valued roles in maintaining their families of orientation. Their roles were interpreted as an adaptation of the nineteenth century familistic ideology. The status of being never-married was not valued, however. The discrepancy between the devalued "old maid" status and the essential, active, and valued roles of never-married women in this sample warrants further investigation.

Interdependence was suggested as a theme to understand variation in women's lives. Severed from the traditional association of women's roles as strictly wives and mothers, the wider context of caretaking roles and interdependence suggest ways in which individual and family time intersect over the life course.

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