Are Spinsters Making A Comeback?

Following the publication of Kate Bolick's book on the topic, Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, a debate of sorts has emerged as to whether the female figure of the "spinster" is making a comeback. After all, the demographics don't lie: more women are staying unmarried and without children than ever before, and these are hallmarks of spinsterhood. But it's not really clear whether the class of "spinster" is growing or just becoming totally irrelevant as the life patterns of American adults change in previously unforeseen ways.

I can certainly understand the urge to take back a formerly derogatory term. We've seen reappropriation happen in the case of "slut," for example. But there are very deep questions about who even counts as a "spinster." Certainly some women depend on and define themselves around relationships with men more than others. You wouldn't necessarily call a 38-year old woman desperate to be married a "spinster," because the term also implies a certain (if odd) self-possession. Spinsters aren't just boy crazy girls gone over the hill.

So, the concept isn't a very meaningful one if it's open to basically every woman — spinsterhood is a specific social niche at least as much as it is a state of mind, and that means other people are also judges of whether you occupy it. Bolick, who has literally written the book on spinsters, does accept this super broad, non-historical definition of "spinster," finally coming to the conclusion that "For the happily coupled […] spinster can be code for remembering to take time out for yourself.” But it does a disservice to the real spinsters to devolve this term into mere self-care, which is a thing everyone should do anyways.

Regardless of how the word is defined by individual authors, basically everyone still knows that a spinster is a woman past her perceived marriage prime who is, in some sense, a lost cause to the purposes of hearth and home. That's why, for instance, the philanthropic group called the "Spinsters of San Francisco" is tongue-in-cheek: its members must be between the ripe old ages of 21 and 35. Keeping spinsterhood weird also helps to clarify the double standard between long-single women (crazy cat ladies) and long-single men (cool and worldly, as long as they have decent jobs).

The world isn't always kind to single people, but that's exactly why spinsters are a thing. If no one ever judged the fact that a woman is unmarried and without children at a certain age, then there would be nothing especially interesting about the category as such. And if the growing ranks of unmarried and childless women got that way due to serious gender imbalances in the dating market and not totally through their own volition or from their own desires, then maybe we need a new term altogether.

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