half of American adults are single.
According to the US Census, 53% of singles are women, 47% are men.
But the way American culture treats single people of the different genders is — unsurprisingly — different.
To Kate Bolick, author of “Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own,” it has a lot do with pressures around marriage. In “Spinster,” Bolick traces the place and status of single women in American history.
While everybody grows up with the expectation that we’ll one day get married, she says, the pressures are a lot more pronounced for women, and there’s a lot more fear involved.
“I think that women tend to feel that they have less choice, that it’s something they have to do, and don’t have control over when it will happen,” she tells Business Insider.
Then there’s guys.
“When it comes to men, but from what I’ve witnessed, men tend to hit ‘marriage o’clock’ around their early 30s, where they just decide that it’s time to get married, and marry whoever they’re dating,” Bolick says. “So they have a much more relaxed attitude toward marriage; it’s something that they will do when they’re ready and they feel like it, and women don’t have as relaxed a relationship to the idea of marriage.”
You can also see it in the words we use for singles — bachelor and spinster.
In “Spinster,” Bolick unpacks the differences.
Here’s the history of bachelor:
Bachelor originally referred to men of inferior status in professions so demanding they precluded marriage. In thirteenth-century France this meant, for instance, a theological candidate who held merely a bachelor’s degree instead of a master’s.
Around 1300 the word crossed into English to describe low-ranking knights. Much later, Victorian matchmakers appropriated the term adn added eligible, for an unmarried man blessed with financial and social inducements, and confirmed, for any who wanted to remain that way. By the late nineteenth century the term had neutralized to simply mean “unmarried man,” as it still does today.
[Spinster] originated in fifteenth-century Europe as an honorable way to describe the girls, most them unmarried, who spun thread for a living — one of the very few respectable professions available to women. By the 1600s the term had expanded to include any unmarried woman, whether or not she spun.
Not until colonial America did spinster become synonymous with the British old maid, a disparagement that cruelly invokes maiden (a fertile virgin girl) to signify that this matured version will never outgrown her virginal state, and is so far past her prime that she never will.
At a time when procreation was necessary to building a new population, the biblical imperative to “be fruitful and multiply” felt particularly urgent, nad because only wives, of course, we allowed to have sex, the settlers considers solitary women sinful, a menace to society. If a woman wasn’t married by twenty-three she became a “spinster.”
If she was still unwed at twenty-six, she was written off as a hopeless “thornback,” a species of flat spiny fish — a discouraging start to America’s long evolution in getting comfortable with the idea of autonomous women.
Other cultures are even more brutal to single women. In South Korea, for instance, women who die without ever being married become Cheonyeo gwishin, or maiden ghosts — since they never served their purpose in life of winning a husband.
While not quite as intense as in Confucian societies, the historical legacy in America is that the right role of women is to serve her parents, husband, and children, because how else would the colonies have enough humans to continue to exist. While the pressure isn’t as acute as it was in the 18th and 19th centuries, 21st century women still feel a greater pressure to get hitched than guys — though they’re increasingly able to create meaning in their lives beyond those primary relationships.
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