‘Spinster’ is an emotive word that should be consigned to the bin of history.
Watching one of those TV programmes where someone was finding out about their ancestors, my ears pricked up on hearing the word ‘spinster’. It was quoted as the legal description for an unmarried woman, on a ship’s passenger list in the early 20th century. Even used in that bygone context, I was still jolted to hear the word. Because, when I was growing up, the term ‘spinster’ was only ever used as an implied threat, as in, “You don’t want to end up a spinster.”
I looked up the dreaded noun in The Reader’s Digest Wordpower Dictionary to discover that, in the Middle Ages a spinster was ‘a woman who spins’. But by the 17th century the word had become the official legal description of an unmarried woman! Heaven only knows how that transformation came about. But it gets worse as, over the next three centuries (of witch hunting let me remind you), in everyday English ‘spinster’ does not simply “signify an unmarried woman” – it is always a derogatory term referring to a stereotype of an older woman who is not just unmarried, but also childless, prissy and repressed”. The development of the word ‘spinster’ is therefore a good example, says Wordpower, of the way in which a word acquires such strong negative connotations that it can no longer be used in a neutral sense.
In the 1960s, my teenaged girlfriends and I knew that there was no worse fate than to be ‘left on the shelf’ unselected by a man, and to get to middle-age never having known the joy of marriage or the pain of childbirth - to end up, in short as a spinster of the parish. The message was clear: marry a man and start procreating or you will have failed to perform your role in society. No word has more effectively stigmatised the unmarried, childless woman than ‘spinster’ – and society agreed that they deserved to be derided.
Fiction reflects this view back to us right up to modern times by being littered with stereotypical spinster characters: the monstrous Miss Haversham in Great Expectations; the vengeful Brewster sisters in Arsenic and Old Lace; murderous Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard; the hysterical governess in The Turn of the Screw ; the fantasist school mistress in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Only Jane Austen, a spinster herself, is kind to her spinster creations, as when the title character in Emma is scolded and punished for her mocking treatment of Miss Bates.
The eventual demise of the use of the derogatory ‘spinster’ term can probably by linked to the emergence of Ms as a new generic title, for women of all ages, in the 1970s (Ms. Magazine published its first issue in 1972). Here was a neutral status title for women to replace Miss or Mrs for women who didn't want to be discriminated by marital status. I for one adopted the neutral title in the 1970s, when I entered the workplace, but it didn't really become well-used until the 1990s. Despite this, the use of the word ‘spinster’ still survives as the legal description of an unmarried woman in a few legal and religious contexts.
Fortunately, in modern day data collection we have removed erstwhile judgemental terminology: in the population Census for example, unmarried status for both men and women is ‘single’, and having no children is merely recorded as a zero. It is worth noting here that there is, and never has been, a legal description for an unmarried, middle-aged childless man. That’s because the crucial difference between men and women in middle age, of course, is that women lose their reproductive ability and men don’t – they can go on sowing their seeds into old age.
I am dismayed to learn that in modern-day fiction, ‘spinster’ genre terms have developed. ‘Pseudo-spinster’ describes a genre whereby an unmarried but still eligible heroine in her thirties is looking to settle down with Mr Right (Bridget Jones in her diary of desperation for example). ‘New spinster’, is the name of a fictional strand of US East Coast feminism, as typified by Eligible, a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice written by Curtis Sittenfeld, published in 2016.
This is frankly depressing and lazy terminology. Why does fiction featuring a heroine who is an interesting unmarried woman (regardless of age or any love interest) need to be defined using a derogatory and negatively emotive term deriding women that has almost fallen out of usage? I think this is a feminist and equality issue. I’d like therefore, in this day and age, to consign the word ‘spinster’ to the dictionary usage archive once and for all.