A spinster is an unmarried woman who is past the usual age for marrying and is considered unlikely to marry.
An 18-year-old single woman would not be considered a spinster in contemporary language, but a single, 40-year-old woman may be considered a spinster. The term is synonymous with "old maid". Several dictionaries flag it as a derogatory term. (See Current use and social stigma.)
Etymology and history
The Online Etymological Dictionary says of the word origin and history:
spinster: mid-14c., "female spinner of thread," from M.E. spinnen (see spin) + -stere, feminine suffix. Spinning commonly done by unmarried women, hence the word came to denote "an unmarried woman" in legal documents from 1600s to early 1900s, and by 1719 was being used generically for "woman still unmarried and beyond the usual age for it."
The Oxford American Dictionary discussion of the word's etymology that "spinster" took on its meaning of a never-married woman in the early 18th century: "Origin late Middle English (in the sense 'woman who spins'): from the verb spin + -ster; in early use the term was appended to names of women to denote their occupation. The current sense dates from the early 18th century."
The term originally identified girls and women who spun wool, long before the Industrial Age. In medieval times, this was one of the few livelihoods available to a woman to bring in wages to contribute to the household's income or to live independently of a male wage. "Spinster" also evolved into a legal term to describe an unmarried female, commonly heard in the banns of marriage of the Church of England when the prospective bride is formally described as a "spinster of this parish".
From its start as a word to describe a woman with a specific occupation, spinster came to indicate a woman or girl of marriageable age or past it who was not married and never had been married, in societies where being married was generally the first social goal for a woman.
Merriam Webster's Dictionary (1913 and 1828) once defined spinster in two main senses: "1. A woman who spins, or whose occupation is to spin. 2. Law: An unmarried or single woman."
By the 19th century, the term evolved to include women who were so finicky that they refused to marry. During that century
middle-class spinsters, as well as their married peers, took ideals of love and marriage very seriously, and ... spinsterhood was indeed often a consequence of their adherence to those ideals. ... They remained unmarried not because of individual shortcomings but because they didn't find the one "who could be all things to the heart".
During that same century, one editorial in the fashion publication Peterson's Magazine encouraged women to remain choosy in selecting a mate — even at the price of never marrying. The editorial, titled "Honorable Often to Be an Old Maid," advised women: "Marry for a home! Marry to escape the ridicule of being called an old maid? How dare you, then, pervert the most sacred institution of the Almighty, by becoming the wife of a man for whom you can feel no emotions of love, or respect even?"
The Oxford American English Dictionary defines spinster as "an unmarried woman, typically an older woman beyond the usual age for marriage". It adds: "In modern everyday English, however, spinster cannot be used to mean simply ‘unmarried woman’; as such, it is a derogatory term, referring or alluding to a stereotype of an older woman who is unmarried, childless, prissy, and repressed."
Age is a crucial part of the definition. "If someone is a spinster, by implication she is not eligible [to marry]; she has had her chance, and been passed by," explains Robin Lakoff in Language and Woman's Place. "Hence, a girl of twenty cannot be properly called a spinster: she still has a chance to be married." "In modern everyday English," the New Oxford American Dictionary says, "spinster cannot be used to mean simply 'unmarried woman'; it is now always a derogatory term, referring or alluding to a stereotype of an older woman who is unmarried, childless, prissy, and repressed." Yet other sources on terms describing a never-married woman indicate that the term applies to a woman as soon as she is of legal age or age of majority (see bachelorette, single).
Currently, Merriam-Webster's Dictionary defines spinster in these three ways:
- 1: a woman whose occupation is to spin
- 2a archaic: an unmarried woman of gentle family
- 2b: an unmarried woman and especially one past the common age for marrying
- 3: a woman who seems unlikely to marry
Similarly, Dictionary.com describes "spinster" as an unmarried woman beyond the usual age of marriage, along with some other, less common definitions:
- 1. Disparaging and Offensive. a woman still unmarried beyond the usual age of marrying.
- 2. Chiefly Law. a woman who has never married.
- 3. a woman whose occupation is spinning.
- Usage note The meaning "a woman beyond the usual marriageable age" is used with disparaging intent and perceived as insulting. It implies negative qualities such as being fussy or undesirable.
The title "spinster" has been embraced by feminists like Sheila Jeffreys, whose book The Spinster and Her Enemies (1985) defines spinsters simply as women who have chosen to reject sexual relationships with men.
At least one study found that modern spinsters feel a social stigma attached to their status, and a sense of both heightened visibility and invisibility. "Heightened visibility came from feelings of exposure, and invisibility came from assumptions made by others."
In this first sense, the term is, or has been, used in legal documents in English-speaking nations, and once identified any unmarried woman, as "bachelor" was used to identify men. However, a "spinster" may also connote not simply a never-married woman, but a woman who has not formed a human pair bond by the time she is approaching or has reached menopause and the end of her reproductive lifespan.
The term was once "the official legal description of an unmarried woman....In modern everyday English ... spinster cannot be used to mean simply 'unmarried woman'; as such, it is a derogatory term, referring or alluding to a stereotype of an older woman who is unmarried, childless, prissy, and repressed."
The term once described any single woman. However, it has since evolved to only refer to older, unmarried women. As a result, in England and Wales, the term was abolished in favour of "single" for the purpose of marriage registration in 2005.
Reasons women do not marry
Women may not marry for a variety of reasons, including the available pool of men or women, which can decrease dramatically during wartime and the economic structure of society (that is, the existence of occupations for women that earn money). For long centuries, work done by women was part of a household. With industrialization, jobs that paid women money arose - but it was often expected that once married, the woman would give up such work and care for her husband / for the household. Thus marrying involved giving up independence and even legal freedoms.
For instance, the First World War prevented many within a generation of women from experiencing romance and marriage, or having children. The image of the old spinster with a fading photo of her dead World War I soldier boyfriend on her fireplace mantel was common in films of the 1950s and 1960s. Likewise, in the American classic novel Gone with the Wind (1936) about the Civil War, numerous references are made to grieving fiancées, women who were "wanted, if not wed", and to the shortage of single, able-bodied (and thus "marriageable") men at war's end.
In modern peacetime societies with wide opportunities for romance, marriage and children, there are other reasons that available women remain single as they approach old age. Psychologist Erik Erikson postulated that during young adulthood (ages 18 to 39), individuals experience an inner conflict between a desire for intimacy (i.e., a committed relationship leading to marriage) and a desire for isolation (i.e., fear of commitment).
Spinsters have been the focus of attention from the media and mainstream culture for centuries. They are the "Aanissat" in Arabic," Spinsters" in English, "Vieilles filles" in French, "Alte Jungfer" in German or "Dakhtar torsheedeh" in Persian.
In Australia, parties are held for young single people to meet and socialize (particularly in the rural areas). These events are known as Bachelor and Spinster Balls or colloquially "B and S Balls". There is also a philanthropic group called the Spinsters of San Francisco who organize events.
There has been recent (2010s) interest in this word as a form of reappropriation from third-wave feminists. Recent examples include several blogs/videos, such as: reclaimingthepejorative, a Bitch Magazine article, and the Spinster House YouTube channel.
Many classic and modern films have depicted stereotypical spinster characters. In the classic Now, Voyager (1942), Bette Davis portrayed Charlotte Vale, an unattractive, overweight, repressed spinster whose life is dominated by her dictatorial mother, an aristocratic Boston dowager whose verbal and emotional abuse of her daughter has contributed to the woman's complete lack of self-confidence. She played another spinster named Charlotte in Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). Katharine Hepburn specialized in playing spinsters in the 1950s such as Rosie in The African Queen (1951), Jane Hudson in Summertime (1955), and Lizzie in The Rainmaker (1956). The fictional character Bridget Jones often refers to herself as a spinster in the film Bridget Jones's Diary (1996). The documentary Cat Ladies (2009) spins a tale of four spinsters whose lives have become dedicated to their cats.
In both The Taming of the Shrew (early 1590s) and Much Ado About Nothing (late 1590s), William Shakespeare referred to a contemporary saying that it was the fate of women who died unmarried to lead apes into hell. By the time of the British Regency, "ape leader" had become a slang term for "old maid". It is often used in that context in Regency romances and other literature set in that period. The books Washington Square and The Heiress have old maid heroines who ultimately choose to remain spinsters and embrace the freedom of not having to enter marriage.
One stereotype of spinsters that appears in literature is that they are downtrodden or spineless women who were victims of an oppressive parent. This stereotype is played out in William Faulkner's classic short story "A Rose for Emily" (1930), in which Emily's father is confident that no man is worthy of his daughter's hand in marriage. Other stereotypes include women who were relegated to lifetime roles as family caretaker for their family of origin or for a married sibling's children, "poor relations" who would work "to earn their keep" as nannies or unpaid domestics. Being a governess was the fate expected by rejected orphan Jane Eyre in the 1847 novel by Charlotte Brontë, a status she kept until the man she loved was widowed and available.
A common theme in the fiction writings of author/poet Sandra Cisneros is marital disillusionment; she has written the poem "Old Maids" (1994).
In the Dickens's classic Great Expectations, the primary antagonist is Miss Havisham, a spinster embittered by being defrauded and abandoned on her wedding day; an event that shaped the rest of her life, and by extension, those around her.
The Bob Dylan song "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" (1963) tells the true story of a murder at a spinsters' ball in Baltimore in 1963. Paul McCartney, while in the band The Beatles, composed a hit song "Eleanor Rigby" in 1966 about the loneliness and death of a spinster (though never using the term in the lyrics). The country song Delta Dawn made famous by Tanya Tucker overviews the plight of a woman focused on a single lost love, destined to go unmarried unless the lover returns.
Tina Fey's portrayal of her character Liz Lemon, on the hit NBC series 30 Rock exemplifies another classic spinster stereotype. Lemon, a 40-something single woman whose relationships never seem to work out, has unrealistically high expectations of what she is looking for in a man: her dream husband is the archetypal "Astronaut Mike Dexter", and for much of the series her character is holding out on settling on a man until she can score an astronaut.
Unpopped popcorn kernels have been dubbed "old maids" in popular slang, since like unmarried women who never had children, the kernels do not "pop".
- Cat lady
- Fear of commitment
- Sheng nu
- Weaving (mythology)
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for assaulting on Mary Bowden, Spinster, a Virgin, under the Age of Ten Years
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- Nicholson, Virginia (2007). Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived Without Men After the First World War.
- Harder, Arlene (2009). The Developmental Stages of Erik Erikson.
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- Slang dictionary definition Slang City
- "Blog: There's No Such Thing As Astronaut Mike Dexter". LA Times. 30 May 2010.
- Spinster: An Evolving Stereotype Revealed Through Film, by Deborah J. Mustard
- Goodbye to the Spinster by Wendy Braitman
- Barbie: Always a Bridesmaid, Never a Bride by Wendy Braitman