The first time I heard the word “spinster” was on a dating show. It didn’t take long to figure out what it meant — unmarried woman — and based on the host’s tone, it was not something desirable.
But seconds later came the introduction of the “spinster’s” date — “eligible bachelor.”
The message? Unmarried woman, bad; unmarried man, sexy.
The word “spinster” was first coined in 14th-century Europe, a time when women’s financial futures were still secured through marriage. With few ways to make their own money, some never-married women were able to carve out a niche for themselves in the textile industry — spinning thread for a living.
Originally a job title, by the 17th century so many unmarried women had found their way into the profession, spinster became a legal term for an unmarried woman. Yes, legal, as in on legal documents used in England and Wales up until as recently as 2005 to describe the status of a single woman.
But thanks to its association with being an unmarried woman earning her own money (though admittedly, not much), it didn’t take long for “spinster” to become a derogatory word for single women, used to shame them for not being married by a certain age.
Spinsters were portrayed as undesirable, unpleasant and pathetic — a joke to men and a cautionary tale to women. By the 17th century, the lexicon expanded to include words like “thornback” — a sea skate covered with thorny spines — to describe single women older than 25. And eventually, “old maid.”
There’s a long history of derogatory words, nasty images, and overwhelmingly negative depictions used to villainize single women. And when we consider the historically economic role of marriage, it’s hard to ignore what this long history of shaming and maligning unmarried women is really about: independence.
The stigmatization of “spinsters,” “thornbacks,” and “old maids” is a window into underlying attitudes around independent women who make their own money — even when it’s not much. Because anything that falls outside the patriarchal “ideal” in which womanhood revolves around the husband, the home, and the children threatens the expectation that men should hold power and that women should serve them.
So throughout history, when women have acted independently, they’ve been met with stigmatization and backlash — from spinsters and old maids to witches and b*tches.
It’s important to look back on this history, and the extent to which many of these tired and disparaging tropes continue to show up in our culture today — which brings me back to that dating show and the juxtaposition of the “sad spinster” with the “sexy bachelor.”
While we might not hear “spinster” quite as often these days, the cultural dialogue around never married women is still overwhelmingly negative — think the trope of the crazy cat lady, or Liz Lemon snuggled up on the sofa alone, eating her “night cheese.”
Even the modern day romcom in which the story typically revolves around a woman with an interesting, well-paying, fulfilling job, her own apartment, a great group of friends — think Bridget Jones’ Diary, Thirteen Going on 30, or Crazy Rich Asians — hinges on the idea that her life is incomplete without a man. And while it’s easy to dismiss these depictions as frivolous and lighthearted, elevating marriage and villainizing independence for women actually comes with real world outcomes.
A 2017 study found that young professional women play down their ambitions around men – but only if they’re not in serious relationships. Single women reported higher salary expectations, a greater willingness to travel and more willingness to work longer hours when they thought their preferences would be kept confidential. When they thought their preferences were going to be made public, single women cut their salary expectations by an average of $18,000, their willingness to travel by seven days each month and their willingness to work by four hours each week.
When given two choices – a more flexible, lower-paying job and a more demanding-higher paying job – single women were more likely to choose the more flexible option when placed in groups with single men. When placed in groups with other women, they were more likely to choose the higher paying job.
When we turned one of the only job titles women could have into an insult, we turned a vehicle of independence into a bad thing — and the thing is, we’re still doing this today.
The word “spinster” holds the contradictions women have had to navigate for centuries – that what helps them in the job market can hurt them in the marriage market. And when a woman’s worth and place in society is defined by her marital status, it undermines her own ambitions.
A future that upholds women’s independent ambitions will always be out of reach if we’re telling young girls and women that independence is a character flaw, instead of something to reach for and be proud of.
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