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A spinster, or old maid, is an older, childless woman who has never been married.

For a woman to be identified as a spinster, age is critical. A "spinster" is not simply a "single" woman, but a woman who has not formed a human pair bond
Pair bond
In biology, a pair bond is the strong affinity that develops in some species between the males and females in a pair, potentially leading to breeding. Pair-bonding is a term coined in the 1940s that is frequently used in sociobiology and evolutionary psychology circles...

 by the time she is approaching or has reached menopause
Menopause is a term used to describe the permanent cessation of the primary functions of the human ovaries: the ripening and release of ova and the release of hormones that cause both the creation of the uterine lining and the subsequent shedding of the uterine lining...

 and the end of her reproductive lifespan.

"If someone is a spinster, by implication she is not eligible (to marry); she has had her chance, and been passed by," explains Robin Lakoff
Robin Lakoff
Robin Tolmach Lakoff is a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley.Lakoff's writings have become the basis for much research on the subject of women's language. In a 1973 article , she published ten basic assumptions about what she felt constituted a special women's...

 in Language and Woman's Place. "Hence, a girl of twenty cannot be properly called a spinster: she still has a chance to be married."

"In modern everyday English," the New Oxford American Dictionary says, "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." The title "spinster" has nevertheless been embraced by feminists like Sheila Jeffreys
Sheila Jeffreys
Sheila Jeffreys is a lesbian feminist scholar and political activist, known for her analysis of the history and politics of sexuality in Britain. She is a professor in Political Science at the University of Melbourne in Australia...

, whose 1985 book The Spinster and Her Enemies defines spinsters simply as women who have chosen to reject sexual relationships with men.

Early uses

According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, the term "originated in a town just east of Edinburgh, Scotland called Tranent."

The term originally identified girls and women who spun wool. In medieval times, this was one of the few livelihoods available to a woman in order to live independently of a male wage. During the Elizabethan era, spinster came to indicate a woman or girl of marriageable age
Marriageable age
Marriageable age is the age at which a person is allowed to marry, either as of right or subject to parental or other forms of consent. The age and other requirements vary between countries, but generally it is set at 18, although most jurisdictions allow marriage at slightly younger ages with...

 who was unwilling or unable to marry. "Spinster" also evolved into a legal term to describe an unmarried woman, commonly heard in the banns of marriage
Banns of marriage
The banns of marriage, commonly known simply as the "banns" or "bans" are the public announcement in a Christian parish church of an impending marriage between two specified persons...

 of the Church of England
Church of England
The Church of England is the officially established Christian church in England and the Mother Church of the worldwide Anglican Communion. The church considers itself within the tradition of Western Christianity and dates its formal establishment principally to the mission to England by St...

 when the prospective bride is formally described as a "spinster of this parish".

By the 19th century, the term evolved to refer to women who were so finicky that they refused to marry. During that century "middle-class spinsters, as well as their married peers, took ideals of love and marriage very seriously, and ... spinsterhood was indeed often a consequence of their adherence to those ideals. ... They remained unmarried not because of individual shortcomings but because they didn't find the one 'who could be all things to the heart.'"

During that same century, one editorial in the fashion publication Peterson's Magazine encouraged women to remain choosy in selecting a mate — even at the price of never marrying. The editorial, titled "Honorable Often to Be an Old Maid," advised women: "Marry for a home! Marry to escape the ridicule of being called an old maid? How dare you, then, pervert the most sacred institution of the Almighty, by becoming the wife of a man for whom you can feel no emotions of love, or respect even?"

Social stigma

Surveys indicate that modern spinsters feel a social stigma
Social stigma
Social stigma is the severe disapproval of or discontent with a person on the grounds of characteristics that distinguish them from other members of a society.Almost all stigma is based on a person differing from social or cultural norms...

 attached to their status, and a sense of both heightened visibility and invisibility. "Heightened visibility came from feelings of exposure, and invisibility came from assumptions made by others."

Women may not marry for a variety of reasons, including the available pool of men, which can decrease dramatically during wartime.
For instance, the First World War prevented a generation of women from experiencing romance and marriage, or having children. The image of the old spinster with a fading photo of her dead World War I soldier boyfriend on her fireplace mantel
Fireplace mantel
Fireplace mantel or mantelpiece, also known as a chimneypiece, originated in medieval times as a hood that projected over a grate to catch the smoke. The term has evolved to include the decorative framework around the fireplace, and can include elaborate designs extending to the ceiling...

 was common in films of the 1950s and 1960s. Likewise, in the American classic novel Gone with the Wind
Gone with the Wind
The slaves depicted in Gone with the Wind are primarily loyal house servants, such as Mammy, Pork and Uncle Peter, and these slaves stay on with their masters even after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 sets them free...

about the Civil War, numerous references are made to grieving fiancées, women who were "wanted, if not wed," and to the shortage of single, able-bodied (and thus "marriageable") men at war's end.

In peacetime societies with wide opportunities for romance, marriage and children, there are other reasons that seemingly available women remain single as they approach old age.

Psychologist Erik Erikson
Erik Erikson
Erik Erikson was a Danish-German-American developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst known for his theory on social development of human beings. He may be most famous for coining the phrase identity crisis. His son, Kai T...

postulated that during young adulthood (ages 18 to 35), individuals experience an inner conflict between a desire for intimacy (i.e., a committed relationship leading to marriage) and a desire for isolation (i.e., fear of commitment).

Popular culture

Spinsters have been the focus of attention from the media and mainstream culture for centuries.

For instance, the 2009 documentary Cat Ladies tells the stories of four spinsters whose lives have become dedicated to their cats. Many classic and modern films have depicted stereotypical spinster characters. The fictional character Bridget Jones
Bridget Jones
Bridget Jones is a franchise based on the fictional character with the same name. English writer Helen Fielding started her Bridget Jones's Diary column in The Independent in 1995, chronicling the life of Bridget Jones as a thirtysomething single woman in London as she tries to make sense of life...

 often refers to herself as a spinster in the film Bridget Jones' Diary. In the classic "Now, Voyager" (1942), Bette Davis
Bette Davis
Ruth Elizabeth "Bette" Davis was an American actress of film, television and theater. Noted for her willingness to play unsympathetic characters, she was highly regarded for her performances in a range of film genres, from contemporary crime melodramas to historical and period films and occasional...

 portrayed Charlotte Vale, an unattractive, overweight, repressed spinster whose life is dominated by her dictatorial mother, an aristocratic Boston dowager whose verbal and emotional abuse of her daughter has contributed to the woman's complete lack of self-confidence. She played another spinster named Charlotte in Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). Katharine Hepburn
Katharine Hepburn
Katharine Houghton Hepburn was an American actress of film, stage, and television. In a career that spanned 62 years as a leading lady, she was best known for playing strong-willed, sophisticated women in both dramas and comedies...

 specialized in playing spinsters in the 1950s such as Rosie in The African Queen (1951), Jane Hudson in Summertime (1955), and Lizzie in The Rainmaker
The Rainmaker (1956 film)
The Rainmaker is a 1956 film directed by Joseph Anthony and adapted by N. Richard Nash from his play The Rainmaker. The film tells the story of a middle-aged woman, suffering from unrequited love for the local town sheriff; however, she falls for a con man who comes to town with the promise that he...

(1956). A common theme in the fiction writings of author/poet Sandra Cisneros
Sandra Cisneros
Sandra Cisneros is an American writer best known for her acclaimed first novel The House on Mango Street and her subsequent short story collection Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories...

 is marital disillusionment; she has written the poem "Old Maids" (1994). Paul McCartney composed a hit song "Eleanor Rigby
Eleanor Rigby
"Eleanor Rigby" is a song by The Beatles, simultaneously released on the 1966 album Revolver and on a 45 rpm single. The song was written primarily by Paul McCartney and credited to Lennon–McCartney...

" in 1966 about the loneliness and death of a spinster.

One stereotype of spinsters that appears frequently in literature is that they are downtrodden or spineless women who were victims of an oppressive parent. This stereotype is played out in the classic short story "A Rose for Emily
A Rose for Emily
"A Rose for Emily" is a short story by American author William Faulkner first published in the April 30, 1930 issue of Forum. This story takes place in Faulkner's fictional city, Jefferson, Mississippi, in the fictional county of Yoknapatawpha County...

", in which Emily's father is confident that no man is worthy of his daughter's hand in marriage. Other stereotypes include women who were relegated to lifetime roles as family caretaker for their family of origin or for a married sibling's children, "poor relations" who would work "to earn their keep" as nannies
A nanny, childminder or child care provider, is an individual who provides care for one or more children in a family as a service...

 or unpaid domestic
Domestic worker
A domestic worker is a man, woman or child who works within the employer's household. Domestic workers perform a variety of household services for an individual or a family, from providing care for children and elderly dependents to cleaning and household maintenance, known as housekeeping...


In both The Taming of the Shrew
The Taming of the Shrew
The Taming of the Shrew is a comedy by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written between 1590 and 1591.The play begins with a framing device, often referred to as the Induction, in which a mischievous nobleman tricks a drunken tinker named Sly into believing he is actually a nobleman himself...

and Much Ado About Nothing
Much Ado About Nothing
Much Ado About Nothing is a comedy written by William Shakespeare about two pairs of lovers, Benedick and Beatrice, and Claudio and Hero....

, William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare was an English poet and playwright, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world's pre-eminent dramatist. He is often called England's national poet and the "Bard of Avon"...

 referred to a contemporary saying that it was the fate of women who died unmarried to lead apes into hell. By the time of the British Regency, "ape leader" had become a slang
Slang is the use of informal words and expressions that are not considered standard in the speaker's language or dialect but are considered more acceptable when used socially. Slang is often to be found in areas of the lexicon that refer to things considered taboo...

 term for "old maid". It is often used in that context in Regency romance
Regency romance
Regency romances are a subgenre of romance novels set during the period of the British Regency or early 19th century. Rather than simply being versions of contemporary romance stories transported to a historical setting, Regency romances are a distinct genre with their own plot and stylistic...

s and other literature set in that period.

The book Washington Square and The Heiress have an old maid heroine who ultimately chooses to remain a spinster and embraces the freedom of not having to enter marriage.

In Australia, parties are held for young single people to meet and socialize (particularly in the rural areas). These events are known as Bachelor and Spinster Balls
Bachelor and Spinster Balls
Bachelor and Spinster Balls events are hosted regularly in rural Australia, known locally as "B & S Balls" or simply "B&S's". They are staged for young spinsters and bachelors and traditionally the couples dress up in formal wear. Large volumes of cheap alcohol such as beer, spirits, Bundaberg...

 or colloquially 'B and S Balls.' Balls in which women ask men to attend are known as Sadie Hawkins dance
Sadie Hawkins dance
In the United States, the Sadie Hawkins Dance is usually a less formal dance sponsored by a high school, middle school or college, in which female students invite male students...

s in the United States. The Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan is an American singer-songwriter, musician, poet, film director and painter. He has been a major and profoundly influential figure in popular music and culture for five decades. Much of his most celebrated work dates from the 1960s when he was an informal chronicler and a seemingly...

 song "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
"The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" is a topical song written by the American musician Bob Dylan. Recorded on October 23, 1963, the song was released on Dylan's 1964 album The Times They Are a-Changin and gives a generally factual account of the killing of 51-year-old barmaid Hattie Carroll by...

" tells the true story of a murder at a Spinsters' Ball in Baltimore
Baltimore is the largest independent city in the United States and the largest city and cultural center of the US state of Maryland. The city is located in central Maryland along the tidal portion of the Patapsco River, an arm of the Chesapeake Bay. Baltimore is sometimes referred to as Baltimore...

 in 1963.

Unpopped popcorn kernels have been dubbed "old maids" in popular slang, since just as unmarried women that don't have children, they do not "pop.".

Famous spinsters

Susan Boyle
Susan Boyle
Susan Magdalane Boyle is a Scottish singer who came to international public attention when she appeared as a contestant on the TV programme Britain's Got Talent on 11 April 2009, singing "I Dreamed a Dream" from ...

, a Britain's Got Talent
Britain's Got Talent
Britain's Got Talent is a British television talent show competition which started in June 2007 and originated from the Got Talent series. The show is produced by FremantleMedia's TalkbackThames and Simon Cowell's production company SYCOtv. The show is broadcast on ITV in Britain and TV3 in Ireland...

contestant was referred to as a spinster throughout the competition. Part of Boyle's massive appeal has been the difference between her allegedly-impressive talent and her "never been kissed" and "spinster" labels.

Other famous spinsters include Susan B. Anthony
Susan B. Anthony
Susan Brownell Anthony was a prominent American civil rights leader who played a pivotal role in the 19th century women's rights movement to introduce women's suffrage into the United States. She was co-founder of the first Women's Temperance Movement with Elizabeth Cady Stanton as President...

, Ann Coulter
Ann Coulter
Ann Hart Coulter is an American lawyer, conservative social and political commentator, author, and syndicated columnist. She frequently appears on television, radio, and as a speaker at public events and private events...

, Florence King
Florence King
Florence Virginia King is an American novelist, essayist and columnist.While her early writings focused on the American South and those who live there, much of King's later work has been published in National Review...

, Condoleezza Rice
Condoleezza Rice
Condoleezza Rice is an American political scientist and diplomat. She served as the 66th United States Secretary of State, and was the second person to hold that office in the administration of President George W. Bush...

, Maureen Dowd
Maureen Dowd
Maureen Bridgid Dowd is a Washington D.C.-based columnist for The New York Times and best-selling author. During the 1970s and the early 1980s, she worked for Time magazine and the Washington Star, where she covered news as well as sports and wrote feature articles...

, Holly Hallstrom
Holly Hallstrom
Holly Hallstrom was one of the models on the daytime game show The Price Is Right, from 1977–1995...

, Lizzie Borden, Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson
Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was an American poet. Born in Amherst, Massachusetts, to a successful family with strong community ties, she lived a mostly introverted and reclusive life...

, Florence Nightingale
Florence Nightingale
Florence Nightingale OM, RRC was a celebrated English nurse, writer and statistician. She came to prominence for her pioneering work in nursing during the Crimean War, where she tended to wounded soldiers. She was dubbed "The Lady with the Lamp" after her habit of making rounds at night...

, Queen Elizabeth I, actresses Frances Bavier
Frances Bavier
Frances Elizabeth Bavier was an American stage and television actress. Originally from the New York theatre, Bavier worked in film and television from the 1950s...

, Ann B. Davis
Ann B. Davis
Ann Bradford Davis is an American television actress.Davis achieved prominence for her role in The Bob Cummings Show for which she twice won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series...

, Diane Keaton
Diane Keaton
Diane Keaton is an American film actress, director, producer, and screenwriter. Keaton began her career on stage, and made her screen debut in 1970...

, Lillian Gish
Lillian Gish
Lillian Diana Gish was an American stage, screen and television actress whose film acting career spanned 75 years, from 1912 to 1987....

, Greta Garbo
Greta Garbo
Greta Garbo , born Greta Lovisa Gustafsson, was a Swedish film actress. Garbo was an international star and icon during Hollywood's silent and classic periods. Many of Garbo's films were sensational hits, and all but three were profitable...

 and Amy Sedaris
Amy Sedaris
Amy Louise Sedaris is an American actress, author, and comedian. She is known for playing the character Jerri Blank in the Comedy Central television series Strangers with Candy. Sedaris regularly collaborates with her older brother, humorist and author David Sedaris...

, and novelists Harper Lee
Harper Lee
Nelle Harper Lee is an American author known for her 1960 Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird, which deals with the issues of racism that were observed by the author as a child in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama...

, Louisa May Alcott
Louisa May Alcott
Louisa May Alcott was an American novelist. She is best known for the novel Little Women and its sequels Little Men and Jo's Boys. Little Women was set in the Alcott family home, Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts, and published in 1868...

, Emily Bronte
Emily Brontë
Emily Jane Brontë 30 July 1818 – 19 December 1848) was an English novelist and poet, best remembered for her only novel, Wuthering Heights, now considered a classic of English literature. Emily was the third eldest of the four surviving Brontë siblings, between the youngest Anne and her brother...

, Willa Cather
Willa Cather
Willa Seibert Cather was an American author who achieved recognition for her novels of frontier life on the Great Plains, in works such as O Pioneers!, My Ántonia, and The Song of the Lark. In 1923 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours , a novel set during World War I...

, and Jane Austen
Jane Austen
Jane Austen was an English novelist whose works of romantic fiction, set among the landed gentry, earned her a place as one of the most widely read writers in English literature, her realism and biting social commentary cementing her historical importance among scholars and critics.Austen lived...


See also

  • Bachelorette
    Bachelorette is an American English term for an unmarried woman. The term is derived from the word bachelor, and is often used by journalists, editors of popular magazines, and some individuals. "Bachelorette" was famously the term used to refer to female contestants on the old Dating Game TV...

  • Cat lady
    Cat lady
    The term cat lady can refer to several things:* Cat lady, a woman who dotes upon her cat or cats. The term is commonly used in a pejorative sense to denote an animal hoarder who keeps large numbers of cats without having the ability to properly house or care for them.Fictional characters* Eleanor...

  • Catherinette
  • Fear of commitment
    Fear of commitment
    Fear of commitment in much popular literature refers to avoidance of long-term partnership and/or marriage but the problem is often much more pervasive, affecting school, work, and home life as well....

  • Misandry
    Misandry is the hatred or dislike of men or boys.Misandry comes from Greek misos and anēr, andros . Misandry is the antonym of philandry, the fondness towards men, love, or admiration of them...

  • Moirae
    The Moirae, Moerae or Moirai , in Greek mythology, were the white-robed incarnations of destiny . Their number became fixed at three...

  • Single
    Single (relationship)
    In legal definitions for interpersonal status, a single person is someone who is not in a relationship or is "unmarried". If a marriage is annulled, however, or it is found to have been void ab initio , and assuming the person was not married previously, that individual is single, rather than...

  • Weaving (mythology)
    Weaving (mythology)
    The theme of weaving in mythology is ancient, and its lost mythic lore probably accompanied the early spread of this art. In traditional societies today, westward of Central Asia and the Iranian plateau, weaving is a mystery within woman's sphere...

External links