I made a post to social media that inspired some response that I didn’t expect. This is what I wrote:
Another “overheard” moment… I was in line at TJMaxx and there was a pair of 40-somethings behind me. I don’t know their relationship but (going off stereotypes) picture a tidy spinster and her sassy gay friend.
She: (poking around in an impulse buy bin) This store has so much kitsch. You know, there isn’t a single item in my home that isn’t meaningful to me.
He: (snort laughs) Well Honey, your life is FULL of meaning.
I thought it was perfectly benign thing to share, but a few of my older female friends replied to say that if I didn’t know this woman I shouldn’t call her a spinster. I got the sense that the word was offensive to them, and I was surprised.
I like to refer to myself as a spinster. I am not. I’m actually a divorcée, which is a word that I hate. It is a grey word that is dour and weighty with implication and story. It is constricting and old-fashioned, like a corseted Victorian dress. Yes, I got a divorce ten years ago. But can’t I just be single now? Do I have to wear a scarlet D on my chest for the rest of my life?
If I can’t be single I would rather be a spinster. That word is lithe and awash in color. It is fun and reckless, like a wooden top, darting in unpredictable directions before flying off the table. Or a child twirling so her skirt fills the blurred space around her until she is overcome by joy and falls in the grass.
Older women don’t seem to feel the same way about the word. Perhaps to them, the connotation is darker. It is a spider in the corner of a room, dark and entombed in silk, watching the action of the home from a distance and ruminating on small insects and speculations on what might have been.
The word “spinster” actually means exactly what it says. “A female spinner of thread.” It dates to the mid fourteenth century and comes from a time that spinning thread and yarn for textiles was one of few money-making options for a woman. This would allow a woman to contribute to the house hold, but also was a way for a woman to live independently of a man’s income. In time, the term “spinster” became synonymous with a single women, and then with single women who were passed the age where they were likely to marry. By the 1600s it was used in legal documents as a shorthand for an unmarried woman.
I haven’t found this specifically stated, but I must assume that the term was always pejorative, as the idea that a woman might approach life with goals that she prioritizes above marriage and family is a new idea. (In my experience, it is even still controversial, but I live in Utah so that might be region specific.) It is clear that by the nineteenth century there was the added stigma attached to the unmarried women in the middle class, which was that they were too fussy or choosy to accept a man when they opportunity arose. Or that they had been passed by due to their inherent lack of desirability. Or, in the case of Dicken’s Miss Havisham, destroyed utterly by disappointment and her own frail heart.
Of course, the other evidence for negativity attached to the word is revealed in the search for the male equivalent. An unmarried man is considered a “bachelor,” a word that doesn’t ever seem to break or expire. A man is either an eligible bachelor or a confirmed bachelor. A state which I have never sensed is shameful, regardless of the circumstances, but especially if the man in question has chosen career over matrimony.
There appears to be a movement now to redefine or reject the term spinster. In England and Wales, the word was formally thrown over in favor of the word “single” in legal documents in 2005. In Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, Kate Bolick tells her own story of following her career away from the more traditional choice of husband and family and encourages women to celebrate their singleness and reclaim the word “spinster” as a legitimate choice for the third-wave feminists of today.
I love the idea, but I personally don’t feel invited to join the party. Not simply because – as I mentioned earlier – there was a time that I chose to get married. But also because I would have welcomed the chance to have a long-term relationship competing for my attention. I am proud of what I have accomplished with my career, but I don’t feel like I am living a full life. I tried many times after the divorce to find a relationship and make it work, but it didn’t happen for me. Not yet anyway. I don’t feel like a failure as a feminist because I feel that way. But I don’t feel like I can “celebrate my chosen singleness” in earnest. It isn’t as though I made that choice. And if I am being completely honest, perhaps there is a part of me that fears becoming the spider in the corner, spinning silk and watching my nieces and nephews grow into adults, trying not to think of the things that I missed out on.
I think about these things often but I try not to write about them. It feels indulgent and whiny. I know that no one gets everything that they want. We are all compromising all the time. Furthermore, I realize that I myself am giving these words the power that they have over me.
The word “divorcée” is a pronouncement about my past. Something I would like to shed and leave behind. And the word “spinster” is an assumption about the future, which may or may not prove to be accurate. At present, I am “single,” and going forward that will be my word. I’m living in the moment, doing my best to succeed in all areas of my life. I’m letting go of the past and I’m open to whatever the future holds.