A term used to indicate an unmarried woman who was past the usual or legal age for marrying (and sometimes also considered unlikely to marry), spinster originally referred to a woman whose occupation was to spin. Several dictionaries flag it as a derogatory term. A synonymous, but more pejorative, term is Old Maid.
Etymology and history
Long before the Industrial Age, "spinster" denoted girls and women who spun wool. According to the Online Etymological Dictionary, spinning was "commonly done by unmarried women, hence the word came to denote" an unmarried woman in legal documents from the 1600s to the early 1900s, and "by 1719 was being used generically for 'woman still unmarried and beyond the usual age for it' ". As a denotation for unmarried females in a legal context, the term dates back to at least 1699, and was commonly used in banns of marriage of the Church of England where the prospective bride was described as a "spinster of this parish".
The Oxford American Dictionary tags "spinster" (meaning "...unmarried woman, typically an older woman beyond the usual age for marriage") as "derogatory" and "a good example of the way in which a word acquires strong connotations to the extent that it can no longer be used in a neutral sense."
The 1828 and 1913 editions of Merriam Webster's Dictionary defined spinster in two ways: "1. A woman who spins, or whose occupation is to spin. 2. Law: An unmarried or single woman." By the 1800s, the term had evolved to include women who chose not 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".(subscription required)
One 19th century 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."
Currently, Merriam-Webster's Dictionary defines the "unmarried woman" sense of the term in three ways: (1) an archaic usage meaning "an unmarried woman of gentle family", (2) a meaning related to (1) but not tagged as archaic: "an unmarried woman and especially one past the common age for marrying" and (3) "a woman who seems unlikely to marry".
Dictionary.com describes the "woman still unmarried beyond the usual age of marrying" sense of the term as "Disparaging and Offensive". A usage note goes on to say that this sense "is ... perceived as insulting. It implies negative qualities such as being fussy or undesirable". Also included is a sense of the word used specifically in a legal context: "a woman who has never married".
Wordreference.com describes the "woman still unmarried" sense of 'spinster' as "dated".
Age is a crucial part of the definition, according to Robin Lakoff's explanation in Language and Woman's Place. "If someone is a spinster, by implication she is not eligible [to marry]; she has had her chance, and been passed by". "Hence, a girl of twenty cannot be properly called a spinster: she still has a chance to be married." 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).
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. In her 2015 book, Spinster, Making a Life of One's Own, Kate Bolick has written, "To me, the spinster is self-reliant and inscrutable. We think we know what the wife is up to and what the mother is up to but the single woman is mysterious. I like that mystery. So the term is a useful way to hold onto the idea of autonomy that can get so easily lost inside of marriage or motherhood."
In 2005, in England and Wales, the term was abolished in favour of "single" for the purpose of marriage registration.
One University of Missouri 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."
Reasons women do not marry
Women may not marry for a variety (and/or combination) of reasons, including personal inclination, a dearth of eligible men (whose numbers can decrease dramatically during wartime) and socio-economic conditions (that is, the availability of livelihoods for women). Writer and spinster Louisa May Alcott famously wrote that "liberty is a better husband than love to many of us".
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). Other reasons women may choose not to marry include a focus on career, a desire for an independent life, economic considerations, or an unwillingness to make the compromises expected in a marriage.
Some writers have suggested that to understand why women do not marry, one should examine reasons women do marry and why it may be assumed they should marry in the first place. According to Adrienne Rich, "Women have married because it was necessary, in order to economically, in order to have children who would not suffer economic deprivation or social ostracism, in order to remain respectable, in order to do what was expected of women because coming out of 'abnormal' childhoods they wanted to feel 'normal', and because heterosexual romance has been represented as the great female adventure, duty, and fulfillment".
Spinsters have been a focus of attention from the media and mainstream culture for centuries. They are the "aanissat" in Arabic, "spinsters" or "old maids" in English, "vieilles filles" in French, "zitelle" in Italian, "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 of women between the ages of 21 and 35, called the Spinsters of San Francisco, who organize events.
By the 2010s, interest developed 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. For example:
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. For example, being a governess was the fate expected by rejected titular orphan in Charlotte Brontë's novel Jane Eyre (1847); Eyre retained that status until the man she loved was widowed and available.
A common theme in the fiction writings of author/poet Sandra Cisneros is marital disillusionment; for example. in the poem "Old Maids" (1994).
In the Charles Dickens' 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.
Another stereotype of the spinster that has appeared in literature is the quick-witted and sometimes quick-tempered independent woman, who has remained unmarried by choice, as in "Spinster Thurber's Carpet" (1897), Pauline Phelps's popular short story and play about an unmarried woman who decides during the Revolutionary War that she'd rather have a carpet than a husband.
The popular and shrewdly intelligent detective Miss Marple was a spinster heroine in Agatha Christie's series of crime novels, which later became a television series.
In Jane Austen's Emma, the character known as Miss Bates is a spinster.
Bob Dylan's 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 the hit song "Eleanor Rigby" (1966) about the loneliness and death of a spinster (though he never used 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 for a male partner: 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".
Some notable women who never married include: