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A poem entitled "It won't be my fault if I die an Old Maid", containing the lines "Remember no thought to a girl is so dread / As the terrible one—She may die an Old Maid."

A spinster, or old maid, is an older, childless woman who has never been married. A "spinster" is not simply a "single" 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.[1]

For a woman to be identified as a spinster, age is critical. "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."[2] "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."[1] The title "spinster" has nevertheless been embraced by feminists like Sheila Jeffreys, whose 1985 book The Spinster and Her Enemies defines spinsters simply as women who have chosen to reject sexual relationships with men.[3]

Etymology and history[edit]

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;[4]

The term originally identified girls and women who spun wool. In medieval times, this was one of the few livelihoods available to a woman in order to live independently of a male wage. During the Elizabethan era, spinster came to indicate a woman or girl of marriageable age who was unwilling or unable to marry. "Spinster" also evolved into a legal term to describe an unmarried female, [5] 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".[6]

By the 19th century, the term evolved to refer to 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.'[7]

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?"[7]

In England and Wales, the term was abolished in favour of "single" for the purpose of marriage registration in 2005.[8]

Social stigma[edit]

Surveys indicate 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."[9]

Women may not marry for a variety of reasons, including the available pool of men, which can decrease dramatically during wartime. For instance, the First World War prevented a generation of women from experiencing romance and marriage, or having children.[10] 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 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 peacetime societies with wide opportunities for romance, marriage and children, there are other reasons that seemingly available women remain single as they approach old age. Psychologist Erik Erikson postulated that during young adulthood (ages 18 to 35), 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).[11]

Popular culture[edit]

Spinsters have been the focus of attention from the media and mainstream culture for centuries.

For instance, the 2009 documentary Cat Ladies spins a tale of four spinsters whose lives have become dedicated to their cats.[12] Many classic and modern films have depicted stereotypical spinster characters. The fictional character Bridget Jones often refers to herself as a spinster in the film Bridget Jones' Diary. 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). A common theme in the fiction writings of author/poet Sandra Cisneros is marital disillusionment; she has written the poem "Old Maids" (1994). Paul McCartney composed a hit song "Eleanor Rigby" in 1966 about the loneliness and death of a spinster. 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.[13]

One stereotype of spinsters that appears frequently in literature is that they are downtrodden or spineless women who were victims of an oppressive parent. This stereotype is played out in the classic short story "A Rose for Emily", 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.

In both The Taming of the Shrew and Much Ado About Nothing, 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 book Washington Square and The Heiress have an old maid heroine who ultimately chooses to remain a spinster and embraces the freedom of not having to enter marriage.

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". Balls in which women ask men to attend are known as Sadie Hawkins dances in the United States. The Bob Dylan song "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" tells the true story of a murder at a Spinsters' Ball in Baltimore in 1963. Unpopped popcorn kernels have been dubbed "old maids" in popular slang, since just as unmarried women that never had children, they do not "pop".[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b New Oxford American Dictionary: 'spinster'.
  2. ^ Lakoff, Robin. 1975. Language and Woman's Place. New York: Harper and Row.
  3. ^ Jeffreys, Sheila. The Spinster and Her Enemies: Feminism and Sexuality, 1880–1930. 1985.
  4. ^ "Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913 + 1828)". Retrieved November 8, 2012. 
  5. ^ "John West, Sexual Offences > assault with intent, 13th December 1699.". Old Bailey Proceedings Online. Retrieved 28 July 2012. "or assaulting on Mary Bowden, Spinster, a Virgin, under the Age of Ten Years" 
  6. ^ Marriage service rubric in The Book of Common Prayer
  7. ^ a b Zsuzsa Berend: 'The Best Or None!' Spinsterhood In Nineteenth-Century New England. Summer, 2000, Journal of Social History
  8. ^ "R.I.P Bachelors and Spinsters". BBC. 14 September 2005. Retrieved 8 April 2013. 
  9. ^ LiveScience: 'Single Women Still Feel Spinster Stigma, Study Finds'. March, 2010, LiveScience.
  10. ^ Nicholson, Virginia. Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived Without Men After the First World War. 2007.
  11. ^ Harder, Arlene. The Developmental Stages of Erik Erikson (2009).
  12. ^ http://catladiesdoc.com/
  13. ^ LA Times Blog: There's No Such Thing As Astronaut Mike Dexter
  14. ^ Slang dictionary definition Slang City

External links[edit]