Bella DePaulo argues that you’re “socially single” if you’re sexually or emotionally involved with someone but the two of you don’t consider yourself a couple, or don’t meet society’s definition of coupledom (which ranges from exclusivity to cohabitation).
Further, you’re “personally single” if you think of yourself as single, even if you’re coupled.
That her definitions apply to men and women alike might seem to suggest that the single experience is the same regardless of gender.
But the old-fashioned synonyms that remain in circulation indicate otherwise.
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 and 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.
The term spinster follows an inverse trajectory.
It originated in fifteenth-century Europe as an honorable way to describe the girls, most of them unmarried, who spun thread for a living — one of very few respectable professions available to women. By the 1600s the term had expanded to include any unmarried woman, whether or not she spun.2
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 has 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, and because only wives, of course, were allowed to have sex, the settlers considered 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.
During the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, of the nearly two hundred people accused of witchcraft — all of them from the little farming villages and seaside towns I grew up among — the majority were adult women at the fringes of society, whether poor single mothers or widows whose wealth inspired jealousy.3
Indeed, I was raised in spinster territory.
Throughout the nineteenth century, New England harbored more single women than anywhere else in the country, with the highest proportion in Massachusetts, which had more than double that of the American population as a whole.
This was largely because of the massive losses sustained by the Civil War, which of course ravaged the whole country; historically, wars create a radical spike in the single female population. (In ancient Rome, repeated military campaigns so drastically depleted the pool of marriageable freemen that some single women tried to marry slaves, to much public resistance.)
But other factors — the bruised postwar economy, which made it difficult for men to professionalize and marry early; a regional commitment to intellectual and literary pursuits, which extended to women — created a social atmosphere in which single women were allowed, a little bit, to flourish.
Few people, if any, seriously use the term spinster today, and yet we all agree on what she is.
Oxford English Dictionary: “An unmarried woman, especially an older woman thought unlikely to marry”; American Heritage Dictionary: “Often offensive. A woman, especially an older one, who has not married”; the dictionary on my MacBook Air: “An unmarried woman, typically an older woman beyond the usual age for marriage. Usage note: In modern everyday English, ‘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.”
Only Black’s Law Dictionary offers a neutral definition: “The addition given in legal proceedings and in conveyancing to a woman who has never been married.”
1 Today the federal age of consent, which applies to sexual acts that involve travel between different states or countries, is sixteen, which also holds in thirty-one states; of the remaining states, eight set the age at seventeen, and ten at eighteen.
2 When servants became common, so did neologisms that likewise doubled for occupation and marital status: the German magd, the British maid. In the nineteenth century, when single women recently immigrated from Ireland dominated America’s domestic workforce, the popular Celtic girl’s name Bridget became the generic term for any Irish female servant.
3 Of the tens of thousands executed for witchcraft in central Europe from 1450 to 1750, three-quarters were widows over fifty who lived alone. Which is to say: their crime was the audacity of existing without a husband.
Copyright © 2015 by Kate Bolick. From SPINSTER: Making a Life of One’s Own, published by Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC, New York. Reprinted with permission.
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