On spinsters

// 2 October 2008

spinster mittensSpinsters – not a word you hear so often anymore. I’ve always understood it as a term of abuse for women who don’t marry men, a cultural archetype meant to keep women in their place – the flip side of the wedding-industrial-complex.

But, well, it’s not so simple – Gena Haskett’s (of Out on the Stoop) has written a brilliant thought-provoking post, over at BlogHer, searching out positive representations of spinsters:

When I started thinking about my concepts of spinsterhood I had a lot of powerful images and media messages that flooded my consciousness. Spinsters are old and ugly and they turn mean or unstable without a man.

My mind can see cartoons with the Sea Hag and Alice the Goon as spinster role models. The many variations of the shushing sexually repressed librarian. The Jane Austin books that put the word out that you better hook up with someone or you might have to depend on the kindness of flipped out relatives or dark, powerful but aloof men. I’m thinking there has got to be a positive spinster image somewhere in my mind.

Meanwhile, this kicked off a great post over at Jezebel, where Sadie Stein talks about looking up to spinsters as a teenager (she had the email address spinster@aol.com!), and the interesting potential for spinsters to make great role models for girls.

She makes some great points, particularly on how – if you take away the negative stereotyping and presentation of spinsters – what you’re left with is women who refused to be defined according to their relationship with men:

I do fully believe that the single woman is a historically thorny issue for people, and filmmakers, writers and generalizers alike, when they can’t quickly transform their lives via heroes ex machinae, slot them into ‘sinister witch’, ‘terrorized old maid’ or bitter, sexually-repressed misanthrope, essentially tragic and fearful. The thing is, though, the spinster is too complicated — and too awesome ‚ an archetype to dismiss like that.

To me, a spinster isn’t just an unmarried lady. Rather, I’ve always thought of her as a woman who, for whatever reason, chose not to define herself through a man, in a time when that was de rigeur.

Sadie also draws attention to the fact that a number of literary women were “spinsters” – including Jane Austen and Barbara Pym.

Film gives us such stalwarts as Lillian Gish’s heroic child-defender in Night of the Hunter, Marilla Cuthbert, or weird as it sounds, the fairy godmothers in A Sleeping Beauty — benevolent characters who, while maybe secondary, manage to provide a singular tartness and goodness which, whether people realize it or not, is as essential to our cultural view of the spinster as is the bitter recluse. In a sense, it’s an archetype with the energy to be sensible — you could argue there’s a backhanded misogyny to that, the notion that asexuality is a sort of pathway to wisdom — but one which is every bit as enduring as the negative stereotypes discussed.

Photo by Cross-stitch ninja, shared under a Creative Commons license

Comments From You

Semaphore // Posted 2 October 2008 at 4:37 pm

Definitely! The books of my childhood were populated by spinsters, and they were always some of the coolest characters. And although they are often presented as bitter and sarcastic and equally often intended to be unattractive characters, to me they were examples of women who spoke their mind freely and were able to come and go as they please. (Another brilliant example is Miss Climpson in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Peter Wimsey books, and her undercover employment agency for women.)

Shaktima // Posted 3 October 2008 at 1:20 am

I love spinsters! They were my greatest teachers. They opened my mind, cultivated my potential, showed me the way. They were wise, inspiring, full of life.

ethnic midget // Posted 3 October 2008 at 1:50 am

Hell yeah Miss Climpson! And even Harriet was seen and not judged negatively as a spinster in the years before she “gave into” Peter.

Mandy // Posted 3 October 2008 at 11:37 am

‘Spinster’ also originally meant a woman who span/spins for a living, so technically it has its roots in working women who weren’t dependent on husbands to support them. I rather like it as a term…I think we should reclaim it from pathetic negative connotations.

Sian // Posted 3 October 2008 at 6:04 pm

I think of Miss Marple, who was clearly ace!

Chloe // Posted 3 October 2008 at 6:38 pm

I’ve never understood (well, I have – sexism) why being a bachelor is seen as a positive, or at least neutral position for a man to be in, but being a spinster is always negative. My great aunt never married and she’s a beautiful, kind and inspiring woman. I’ve never seen being a spinster as a negative thing and wouldn’t mind if I end up one :]

A new reader // Posted 5 October 2008 at 3:29 pm

Here’s someone great who has reclaimed the term, perhaps you already know her..


Sophia // Posted 22 November 2008 at 2:43 pm

Thank you for this thread! It seems that not only have spinsters ‘disappeared’ from today’s world, but when they are shown on films etc, the old stereotype is alive and well. Was anyone else as upset as I was by the book / film ‘Notes on a Scandal’, where we were invited to sympathise with a woman who has sex with her pupil and to feel disgust with the old, single Judi Dench character?

Ruth // Posted 22 November 2008 at 6:46 pm


I didn’t feel we were supposed to feel sympathy for the teacher having sex with her pupil – I certainly didn’t; she came across as immature, naive and self-centred, not to mention very unprofessional. Nor do I feel that the Judi Dench character was to be despised for her singleness as such. It was a much more complicated portrayal of someone in denial about/denied by society to express an aspect of her nature for so long that it had morphed from a basic human desire for connection and emotional/sexual intimacy into something desperate, grasping and self-defeating.

Anna // Posted 22 November 2008 at 11:12 pm

Um. nothing wrong with teachers having sex with pupils -underage pupils yes, pupils no.

Kath // Posted 23 November 2008 at 12:12 pm

Sophia, I agree with you about Notes on a Scandal. I felt that the younger teacher really had no excuse for abusing her power over the boy pupil and destroying her relationships with her partner and children, whereas Dench’s character, whilst unpleasant, was clearly lonely and looking for affection. But the film certainly invited us to view things the other way round and that is how most of my friends saw things: that the older woman was the abuser who had destroyed the younger one’s career and family.

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