What is a “spinster”? If whispers of the word conjure images of a frumpy, grumpy woman or a despondent Bridget Jones-esque archetype, wailing about the tragedy of her singledom and desperation to find a man to marry before she dies by herself, you aren’t alone. And that, in itself, is the problem.
While the term for a single, unmarried adult man, “bachelor,” evokes tropes of coolness, strength and autonomy, the language we use for single, unmarried adult women is loaded with negativity. Spinsters are not seen, as male bachelors are, as eligible and free. For centuries, society has pushed the idea that a spinster is a deviant person to be pitied, feared and ridiculed — and we continue to perpetuate this notion today.
To unpack where these ideas come from, and why they persist in 2022, we can start by looking at the origins of the word spinster. By understanding where the term comes from (hint: it started, as so many social issues do, with money), and how it became a way to stigmatize women who choose to prioritize economic autonomy, personal choices or career over following the social constructs of marriage — we can, perhaps, begin to change the narrative.
What is the origin of the word “spinster”?
While we (and the Merriam-Webster dictionary) now commonly define a spinster as “an unmarried woman and especially one past the common age for marrying,” originally, the word spinster was, essentially, just a job title (à la how “baker” describes someone who bakes things).
According to Merriam-Webster’s Word History, in the late Middle Ages (around the mid 14th century), the word spinster arose as a factual way to describe someone who literally spun thread and yarn (hence the “spin-”) who was also usually a woman (via the feminine suffix “-ster”).
At this time, spinning was a trade that was more accessible to unmarried women who wanted to work, but who wouldn’t have been able to obtain higher-status trades work, as those jobs would have gone to married tradeswomen. Thus, the first — though benign — link between unmarried women and the spinster label was created.
Building on this origin, another norm from this time period further solidified the link between unmarried, working women and the spinster label. In the Middle Ages, it was common to use your occupation (such as “Baker” or “Miller”) as a type of surname on legal documents. So, women who spun wool for a living would have labeled themselves as spinster as a form of identification based on their career.
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When and how did the meaning of a spinster change?
So when did society’s image of the spinster transform from a hardworking woman spinning her way to some measure of self-made financial security into a patriarchal trope of a sad, single lady to be pitied?
If you were unmarried by 23 you were a spinster.
As explained in Merriam-Webster’s Word History, the label of spinster evolved to define unmarried women, whether or not the spun wool, by the 17th century. The shift towards the negative connotation of spinster, however, appears to have surged in colonial America.
“During the colonial period, Americans were trying to build their population,” Kate Bolick, author of the book Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, said in a 2015 interview with the Toronto Star. “You needed women to be wives and mothers. If you were unmarried by 23 you were a spinster. If you weren’t married by 26 you were a thornback. It wasn’t easy or fun to be a single woman during that time period.”
Bolick further summarized the shift in this time period in an interview for Inside The New York Times Book Review: “Any woman who was not married and having children was considered an actual menace to society.”
Women worried about being a spinster — in a bad way. To some extent, we still do.
In this way, as society came to see women who were not marrying and procreating in a negative light — and subsequently twisted the word “spinster” from a job description into a signal of female villainy and to shame women into falling in line with the “norm” of marriage. Thus, the so-called “deviant” spinster was born.
In the past hundred years, however, the term further developed into a pejorative term for certain women. As Bolick noted in the Toronto Star interview, “The word became the lowest in the 1950s when only 17 per cent of women were unmarried. To be a single woman during that time was difficult. You were ostracized, you were outside of the society. It was about keeping the social order intact.”
This suggests that the idea that not finding a husband by a certain age became linked with the idea of being forever labelled as lesser than. Women worried about being a spinster — in a bad way. To some extent, we still do.
How do we view the spinster in 2022?
Despite the fact that single-person households are officially the most common type of Canadian household, and there are now more Canadians living alone (not just women) than ever, the idea that unmarried women are somehow lesser than or unlovable persists.
Though we may use different terms like “crazy cat lady” more commonly than “spinster” nowadays, (though, notably, “spinster” remained the official term for an unmarried woman on legal forms in Britain until 2005), the lingering stigma against single women today shows its face in many forms. Most commonly, we accept attitudes that bachelors are “free” while single women are “desperate” or must be unwanted (and not unwanting of marriage) if they’re unattached.
Economically, working women (both single and married) who strive for personal and financial success meet different barriers, challenges and attitudes than men. For example, Canadian women make only 84 cents for every $1 a man earns. High-performing women have similar access to leadership positions to underperforming men. In the workplace, there is a beauty gap that prioritizes women with a certain look — and male counterparts — over marginalized, overweight and less-conventional-looking women when it comes to promotions and higher-level positions.
‘Spinster’ remained the official term for an unmarried woman on legal forms in Britain until 2005.
While these factors apply to women in general, they are compounded when you factor in the fact that it is simply more expensive to be single in Canada.
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The idea that a woman needs a partner (usually, a man) to save her from loneliness and economic failure is also casually accepted in popular culture. In a 2020 episode of CBC’s Ideas discussing CBC producer Alison Cook’s documentary The Rise of The Glorified Spinster, highlights the connection between the “crazy cat lady” and the single woman. Having little to do with pet ownership (as married women and men are also, obviously, cat owners), the term crazy cat lady denotes a negative connotation that calls back to the spinster label.
To take this example in pop culture further (spoiler alert for The Office), we can look at how the character of Angela Martin is portrayed as a “crazy cat lady” who exhibits spinster stereotypes. She’s a single woman who works, lives alone and literally surrounds herself with many cats. She’s both vocally morally uptight and sexually adventurous in a way that is often portrayed, for laughs, as hostile and unseemly. When she eventually does marry and is subsequently divorced, she becomes destitute and unable to care for herself without her husband in the aftermath.
Can — and should — single women reclaim the word spinster?
The way that the term spinster has evolved thus far has been overwhelmingly negative for women. By subverting a term that represented some measure of economic power and turning it into a label of shame, society has cemented the spinster into an icon of gloom — but there are certainly cracks emerging in that foundation.
In 2022, being married is no guarantee for financial security, happiness or even sexual satisfaction — so why do we still accept the idea that being an unmarried woman of a certain age is a bad thing or something to be feared? And why do we continue to accept the word spinster as a weapon and not (as it was originally intended) a term to signify the strength and skill of women working for their own independent success?
As Bella DePaulo argues in Psychology Today, the term spinster may offer an opportunity for women who have been marginalized by the stereotypes to reclaim and redefine the word. While women continue to strive for economic success today (whether through a trade, like the spinsters of the Middle Ages, or through side hustles in today’s gig economy), we can, collectively, refuse the notion that a woman who isn’t married is less worthy than a married woman, or that she should be considered a threat or source of pity. We can question the social structures that place dominance on marriages over other types of domestic structures — whether that means non-married coupledom or being single.
We can make spinster a word that’s more than merely a neutral term. We can make spinster a compliment.