'Spinster' and the Stigma of Being Single

The thing that most surprised me during the reporting of my “Single By Choice” article was how many people were hesitant to speak with me about being single — in many cases asking me not to reveal their last names or identity at all should they appear in the piece. As a journalist, I’m always respectful of a person’s privacy and realize that any time I turn on my tape recorder, there is a degree of personal exposure that can be intimidating to any subject. But I wasn’t talking to people about their sex-crazed single parties; I was talking with them about issues as benign as having cats. Yet cats and knitting and other seemingly innocuous things take on a different meaning in the context of singlehood, to the point where one woman I spoke with told me she refused to own a cat, lest she be viewed as a cat lady among her social circle. For people who are single, whether it’s by choice or by chance, the stigmas that they feel are deeply ingrained within our culture.

So I was surprised to learn that this wasn’t always the case. Stephanie Coontz, in her book Marriage, A History, writes about the etymology of the word “spinster,” and reveals that it was in fact, an honorary term for women who earned their own money spinning wool. Spinsters were “highly moral and fully womanly creatures” writes sociologist Zsuzsa Berend in Journal of Social History. After examining the diaries of 40 single women in 19th-century New England, Berend found that they “remained unmarried not because of individual shortcomings but because they didn’t find the one ‘who could be all things to the heart.’”

Back then, being a spinster was a choice, and they were celebrated as “champions of uncompromising morality,” Berend continues. Some of the country’s most well-known women of that era valued their independence over partnership, particularly in Massachusetts, which has a long history of rearing women who lived singly throughout their lives. Woman’s suffragist Susan B. Anthony, who hailed from Adams, never married, nor did Concord’s Louisa May Alcott, who famously declared that “liberty is a better husband than love to many of us.”

At the time, “there was a respectability to spinsterhood,” says Pat Palmieri, a historian at Queensborough Community College, who has been working on a book, Single in America: A History, 1870 to the Present. “It was fashionable, these women were going on to higher ed and becoming professionals, they could have their own income.”

Palmieri was kind enough to put together a timeline outlining how singles were perceived in the past 150 years. Here’s a quick overview, which may help you rethink the way we perceive single people today:

1875-1920

Pre-Freudian era where economics and demography shaped the cultural conversation on staying single. After the massive loss of life during the Civil War, the theme emerges that there are “too many women” and many are encouraged to move out West to find husbands. At the same time, it’s increasingly seen as respectable to be a spinster in urban areas, where careers for women could sustain them so that they didn’t need to marry. Men stay bachelors longer and begin living in bachelor apartments; and they enjoy their clubs and amusements. Marriage is put off since economics make it difficult to professionalize and marry early.

1920-1960

Freudian era which stigmatized singles and deemed them abnormal (marriage is elevated and the only “normal” path to intimacy). Single men and women are “extra”; psychiatry shapes this picture of singles. In a survey taken in 1957, eighty percent of Americans believed that people who preferred to remain single were “sick,” “neurotic,” or “immoral.” Unmarried women were deemed suspect, as they could steal away a husband at any time. And unwed men were seen as “narcissistic, deviant, and pathological.”

1960-today

Post-Freudian period in which the number of singles grew, and cultural commodification — single clubs, trips, apartment housing, online dating sites — starts in earnest. Demography once again is important and the “too many women” theme re-emerges. (This is particularly emphasized in the African American community.) Single women outnumber the available men in some cohorts. A new pluralism emerges in American family life, as divorce became more acceptable and newly singled joined the non-marrieds in terms of cultural tastes. Gays get more legitimacy and begin to marry. In this era, staying single becomes more normalized.