Spinning yarn

“Miss Tarabotti felt such rules did not entirely apply to her, as she was a spinster. Had been a spinster for as long as she could remember. In her more acerbic moments, she felt she had been born a spinster.” –Souless by Gail Carriger

During my first semester of college, I took a women authors course. The first assignment was to form groups, read a critical essay, and make a presentation about it. After reading the article, the three of us began discussing it. One of my group members was silent, her brow slightly furrowed, afraid to ask a stupid question. Finally, she lifted her eyes from the article and said, “Something confused me. What is a spinster? Is that, like, someone who spins yarn?”

Looking back on that, I feel like my classmate came from a privileged place. She had lived in a world where her own worth was reinforced, completely separate from a man’s, equality always assumed and never questioned. Where she came from, no one slighted a woman for being unmarried, no one told her that she had to be married or else face inevitable labeling with a negative word. What a world, I thought as I explained it to her, where I could find someone who was free from centuries of misogyny.

By that age, I was very familiar with the term spinster. With all of the wisdom and sureness of an eighteen-year-old, I knew that I never wanted to get married or have kids. My favorite time period of literature was nineteenth century, and I had worked my way across Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters, Louisa May Alcott and George Eliot. I was quite familiar with the term spinster, what it meant, what it implied, what damage it could do, but I chose to reappropriate it and make it my own. At eighteen, I embraced the term and used it to describe myself and felt a fellowship with those women described in the article.

The term spinster is tricky because it implies a lack of value in the marriage marketplace. Women, especially in the early nineteenth century, were dependent on men when they did not have a fortune of their own. Jane Austen knew this all too well. In Pride and Prejudice, the Bennet sisters would be left penniless if their father died, turned out of their house by a male relative. The Dashwood sisters meet that fate in Sense and Sensibility. Though Emma does not feel the pain of poverty in her self-titled novel, Jane Fairfax knows that she will need to sell herself into the governess trade if she does not marry well.

Jane Austen had at least one proposal of marriage, from a Harris Bigg-Wither, which she accepted one night then declined the next morning, having thought better of it. She did not marry from choice. Men have the privilege of being a happy bachelor. Women are thought to be a scorned spinster, whether they remain single from choice or not.

Will there ever be an age where the word spinster is thrown aside and forgotten? Perhaps not, but as my classmate showed, it is not such a silly thing to think may happen.