Death of the spinster

Is anyone going to mourn the impending death of the word ‘spinster”? It is described in the Cambridge dictionary as referring to ‘a woman who is not married, especially a woman who is no longer young and seems unlikely ever to marry”. In Finnish, Bulgarian and Arabic the equivalent translates literally as ‘old maid”.

‘Spinster” has been in use since the 14th century, but was not used to describe a single woman considered to be past the marrying age until the early 1600s.
From December 21 in the United Kingdom it will no longer officially exist. It will no longer appear on the marriage certificate of anyone, whether heterosexual or gay, apparently ‘to make things consistent so civil marriages and civil partnerships are registered in the same way”, according to the Registrar General’s Office.

Webster’s dictionary defines a spinster as ‘a woman of evil life and character”, so it’s perhaps not surprising that feminists are pleased at its abolition.

Broadcaster Jenni Murray is one feminist who welcomes the death of the spinster. ‘I so hated the concept of the word when I bought my first house in the Seventies that I told my solicitor I did not want ‘spinster of this parish’ to appear on the deeds,” she says. ‘He did some research and found that femme sole is still legally acceptable in this country. Thus I appear on the deeds as ‘woman alone’—much less demeaning.”

The word has never had a positive connotation. The original meaning comes from the fact that unmarried, poor women were made to spin cotton and wool in a workhouse. Single women alone on the streets at night in the 16th century were regularly accused of being prostitutes and arrested. Middle-aged and elderly women living without men were in danger of execution on suspicion of being witches.

The 18th century saw the spinster begin to rebel. Some women cross-dressed as men and worked as sailors, ran bars and married other women. (Spinster was often, and still is, used as a euphemism for ‘lesbian”.) By the time of Queen Victoria, the number of spinsters was increasing. Some of them joined the Suffragette movement. As today, those without the burden and responsibility of husbands and children are far more likely to have the energy to campaign to make the world a better place.

Despite this history, the word, for me, is not reclaimable. There have been half-hearted attempts by some feminists, but to no avail. It will never sound sassy or cool. Goodbye spinster, you will not be missed.—

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