Caitlin Moran and the real definition of spinster

I enjoyed listening to Caitlin Moran on NPR talking about feminism a few weeks ago, though the reviews of her book, How To Be A Woman, haven’t been that stellar.

This part of her conversation jumped out at me though because it highlights the double standard that women face when they decide to be single and/or not to bear children.

“The word ‘barren’ tells you everything you need to know. The word ‘spinster’ tells you everything you need to know about our attitude of women who choose not to marry. … Imagine if you saw George Clooney on the cover of a magazine every week with: ‘Is George broody? Is George gonna adopt a baby? When is George gonna have another kid?’ It would just seem weird. We’d seem demented, yet it’s totally valid for women.”

I have been calling myself a spinster, first as a joke and then as a badge of pride, since the 90s. I used to tease people who would ask me how I would manage to both be an ambitious woman in the world and have a meaningful relationship with a guy who was not intimidated by either by telling them that I would end up moving to the mountains with a pack of dogs living nearby a friend or two.

It took me awhile to learn the origin of the word spinster – do people even use that word anymore? Florence Falk in her 2007 book, On My Own: The Art of Being A Woman Alone, writes:

Once upon a time, the spinster was, quite simply, a spinner of thread. And since spinning was most commonly done by young unmarried women, the term came to represent unmarried women in English legal documents dating from as early as the 1600s. By the following century, it was used to describe any “woman still unmarried and beyond the usual age for it.” Over time, this spinster morphed into the spinster female archetype of the once luscious woman gone to seed, also known by such various synonyms as “thornback,” “stale maid,” “old maid,” and antique virgin.

Gosh, folks used to be harsh. Does anyone really call women spinsters anymore? Especially since more of us are single than not?

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