Women in relationships with younger men is a hot-button topic that has come up more and more in the past ten years, from Demi and Ashton to the recent TLC special Extreme Cougar Wives. But new research of Victorian-era census records shows that there may have been more May-December relationships back then than now.
Couples with 10 or more years between them today comprise one in 12 households – or 8 per cent – but in the 1800s the figure was 16 per cent.
Whereas the trend today does not reveal either gender as the older spouse, the woman in 61 per cent of cases was the older, according to a study of the 1841 Census by family history website ancestry.co.uk.
While you might have a vision of some lusty Victorian Kirstie Alley type ogling young dudes in slim-cut breeches and going for randy rides through the park in a phaeton, the truth sounds a lot less fun. From the Daily Mail:
But while the modern day cougar might prey on younger men for sport, the Victorian lady had little choice in the matter.
In the 1800s high mortality rates, particularly in the workplace, resulted in a greater number of widows, who needed to remarry, often to younger partners, to support families.
The study also revealed a prevalence of single-parent households during Victorian times.
In other words, the older woman/younger man phenomenon was not about preference or an older woman's virtues: It was about availability. Of course, these census records focus on marriage and official household data and do not include affairs of the heart; there were, most likely, plenty of dating/courting and secret relationships we don't know about. At least, that's what I learned from watching period movies.