The Truth About Spinsters

Once upon a time we lived in a world where women like me, single women in their 30s were strange, sad creatures.  We were called spinsters and old maids.  We were the unfortunate minority, living off of the kindness of relatives, caught in the cogs between childhood and marriage, eternally silenced by a society that wasn’t quite sure where to put us.  In one of my favorite TV shows of all time, PBS’s reality series Manor House, in which a group of 21st century people lived for several months as a functioning Edwardian household, two “characters” quit because they couldn’t handle the stress of the lifestyle: the scullery maid (two of them actually) and the lady of the house’s unmarried sister.  For that unmarried woman in her 40s life was a lonely test of patience as law dictated she be treated like a child.  This was the fate of the single woman of a certain age.

We’ve come a long way, baby!

I turned 37 this month, I’m single, and let me tell you, I couldn’t be happier!  Okay, well maybe I could be happier – if Richard Armitage arrived at my front door with nothing but a box of chocolate truffles and his goofy, blue-eyed grin, for example – but as things stand I live a pretty charmed life.

The freedom a 21st century spinster has is the stuff of legend.  I go out whenever I want.  I come home whenever I want.  I investigated the gentleman’s sport of cricket on a lark and ended up getting sucked into it hook, line, and sinker.  I travel to Toronto ever 4th of July weekend for a cricket tour.  I zipped off to the UK last year.  I might just go gallivanting around the countryside sometime this Fall to look at leaves because I have extra days to take off of work and no set plans for them.  I am free!

Okay, granted, it might have been nice to settle down in my 20s, have some kids to call my own, a husband to turn to when times get rough … or hormonal.  At one point I would have loved my own house and everything that goes with it.  But even though I long for those things from time to time – and God only knows my friends have to listen to me complaining about not having a man WAY too much – I also know that marriages fail, children aren’t angelic little tikes all the time, and houses take mass quantities of money and work.  Everything in life is a trade-off.

My historical counterparts didn’t have this much freedom.  … Or did they?

My number one pet peeve of all time is people assuming that anything that happened to anyone prior to the 20th century, or World War II, or even the day they were born, was dark, dirty, and dismal.  Nothing sets my teeth on edge faster than the ill-informed assuming that women had no rights whatsoever until bras were burned in the 60s.  The truth is that the rights of women have fluctuated throughout history.

In other words, spinsters of ages past haven’t always been doomed to the stifled, lonely life of the Victorian and Edwardian era.  In fact, the word “spinster” originally just referred to an unmarried woman, no judgment involved.  (And, incidentally, the word “wench” merely meant a woman who had a job)

Did you know that some of the most educated women of the Middle Ages were single women?  That in the so-called Dark Ages an abbess could be the head of a community made up of women and men?  That there were highly respected female teachers that instructed men?  That many of the major kingdoms of Europe were administered directly by women while their husbands were off fighting the Crusades (and getting themselves killed or captured)?  Okay, those weren’t spinsters, but with the menfolk gallivanting around the Holy Land they might as well have been.  Did you know that up until the 14th century women could own and inherit property?  Own and operate their own businesses separate from their husbands?  Are you aware that some of the most well-known and widely-read poets and playwrights of the Middle Ages were, in fact, women?  Or that in lower strata of society women were considered equal to men?*

Bet you didn’t know that.

In fact, much of the image we now have of women in history being all but slaves to their husbands, grown-up children coddled by the men in their world, comes from a relatively narrow period of time.  In fact, up until several so-called Reform Acts were passed by the British Parliament in the 1820s and 30s women had far more freedoms than you would expect.  In spite of being named after a reigning queen, the Victorian era was a bit of a low point for women.

So as a happy 21st century spinster I can kick back and count my blessings and feel a sense of pride in taking care of myself.  And I can look back with a smile and a wink to the single women who came hundreds of years before me and were just as in control of their own fortunes.  And for those sad souls caught in the middle and born at the wrong time, at least you guys get more publicity!

*I’ll be blogging in a lot more detail about these things and more from the Middle Ages to the present, so stay tuned!

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2 thoughts on “The Truth About Spinsters

  1. Great post! I find the truth behind women’s roles in the Middle Ages to be incredibly empowering, because they flip the script of the “defenseless, put-upon female” and show how women have continually played important roles in social life (I am also a sociologist who studies history and gender, so I might get more excited about these things than most people lol). I’ve been trying to rally my single friends behind the idea of reviving the word spinster, because they were absolutely awesome, and I love the history that is embedded in the term.

    On a side note, Terry Jones (of Monty Python fame) did an 8 part series for BBC about the Middle Ages, “Medieval Lives,” that also touched on this (the episode is titled, “The Damsel”). Not sure if you’ve seen it, but it’s really funny, and provides a nice alternative view to some of the general assumptions of the period.

    • If you’re reviving the word Spinster then count me in! =D

      As a History major I have always been astounded at all of the amazing things they don’t teach you in a standard course of study. I suspect it’s because the Victorians shaped so much of what we study as history. But the Middle Ages is a treasure trove of powerful, intelligent women who shaped the course of the world. I’ve been brushing up on Eleanor of Aquitaine, Constance, Queen of Sicily, Melesende of Jerusalem, and Catherine of Aragon in prep for future blog posts and once again I’m blown away by how much butt they kicked!

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