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What is a Spinster?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated Mar 06, 2024
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A spinster is a woman who has not married. The word is usually used specifically to describe women who have passed the conventional age of marriage without marrying; in a country where women marry at 25, for example, a 20 year old woman would be described as “single,” rather than a spinster. Spinsters are associated with specific traits in many regions of the world; they are often described as depressed, living in oppressive situations, or unusually religious. Until the mid-twentieth century, the term was actually used in legal documents such as marriage licenses, showing how pervasive ideals of marriage are for many people.

Literally, a spinster is a “maker of thread,” and term has been used to describe spinners and other fiber workers since at least the 14th century. Classically, women have worked in the fiber arts, and spinning was often done by unmarried women, who sometimes had more time on their hands. By the 17th century, spinning was a common and acceptable occupation for women who wanted to support themselves, since working outside the house would have been unusual for a single woman who wasn't in the sex trade during this period. Reflecting this, the term “spinster” came to be associated specifically with older unmarried women by the mid-1600s.

Historically, being a spinster was seen as a source of shame and a sign of deficiency in some regions of the world. Many people today continue to expect to be married at some point during their lives, although they may not endure the same social pressure that women did in centuries past. Many people thought that in order to become a spinster, one had to be either extremely picky about potential spouses or unmarriageable in some way. Spinsters have also been called “old maids,” in a reference to their age and presumed virginity or maidenhood.

Historically, there were numerous reasons to become a spinster, just as there are reasons to remain single today. Some women, for example, chose not to marry so that they could help care for disabled parents or other relatives. Sisters might have chosen to continue living together because they enjoyed their company more than that of potential husbands, leading to the enduring image of spinster aunts. Other women simply were not interested in marriage, while some unfortunately probably wanted to marry, but were prevented by circumstances.

PublicPeople is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PublicPeople researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

By anon974526 — On Oct 18, 2014

@anonymous344757: I think you're confusing child-free women with never-married women. Ava Gardner most definitely was married -- several times, to high-profile male stars. Her first husband was actor Mickey Rooney at the height of his youthful fame, then she was married to band leader Artie Shaw, and then to Frank Sinatra for a while. She was child-free though, and never had or wanted kids.

By whatever — On Sep 13, 2014

I'm 42 and used to tell everyone I knew that I was going to be a spinster when I grew up (I was six!). I strangely even used that term. I find that I don't have much in common with anyone, and instead of bashing myself as I have done in the past, I now embrace it.

I love being alone-- I feel like my true self. Honestly, most people irritate me and I find that they have nothing to really offer, anyway. There's nothing wrong in not needing or wanting other people in your life. Society, however, tries to make people believe differently, which is wrong.

By anon969781 — On Sep 12, 2014

I'm 42 and used to tell everyone I knew that I was going to be a spinster when I grew up (I was six!). I strangely even used that term. I find that I don't have much in common with anyone, and instead of bashing myself as I have done in the past, I now embrace it. I love being alone-- I feel like my true self. Honestly, most people irritate me and I find that they have nothing to really offer anyway. There's nothing wrong in not needing or wanting other people in your life. Society, however, tries to make people believe differently, which is wrong.

By anon345857 — On Aug 23, 2013

Although spinsters try to deceive themselves otherwise, they live empty lives that ache with perpetual loneliness. But then, spinsterhood is its own punishment. With nothing to look forward to except the menopause, the company of a treasured pet cat is cold comfort as the years squeeze painfully by. Too good for any man who wanted them (and unwilling to compromise their standards), society treats spinster with a mixture of pity, contempt and mockery.

To describe a spinster as "lonely" is like saying "wet water" or "hot fire". The words "lonely" and "spinster" are interchangeable. Even the hours spent feverishly using their vibrators provide only partial relief, and certainly can't disguise the fact that these women missed the boat and got left behind. They are truly shipwrecked, marooned on a rocky island far away from the pleasures of life. To be a spinster is a fate to be feared and avoided, so find yourselves a husband before it's too late!

By anon344757 — On Aug 12, 2013

I am 40, never married, no children and just have platonic friendships. I have no worries over divorce, heartache or being dumped. You can do what you want, when you want and there is no hassle of being involved. Life is easier.

Platonic friendships last a lot longer than relationships nowadays, and platonic friends don't have the same expectations of you as a spouse would. I've been bullied over being ugly and I think that put me off wanting to get involved with anyone. Mind you, if I looked like Liz Taylor, I wouldn't want to marry. I guess you don't miss what you don't have. It's more socially acceptable for a man to be single at my age tho than a woman. Ava Gardner never married and she was gorgeous. It isn't the be all and end all, but a woman like me can only me a man's friend anyway.

By copen — On Jun 01, 2013

Celebrate spinsterhood: to do what and when on your terms. I am a young, young 63, happy, pretty and vibrant. Look at the divorce rate of today and then ask yourself about it. The secret is to have hobbies and girlfriends. Life is what you make of it. It is a case of choice. My choice is spinster and I've never looked back.

By anon327455 — On Mar 28, 2013

I am mentally disabled. I think that is what is wrong with me. People look down on me and shame me and judge me. They judge me for being stupid more than for being a spinster. But if they got to know me well enough to know I never married, they might. Now here is the thing. I was born with mental defects. I can't help them. Society wants to shame me for never marrying or for being retarded, but they can go to hell. They should be ashamed for judging, but they are too busy feeling superior. But the trick is to never judge yourself the way others judge you.

By hotpotato — On Mar 03, 2013

I am a fifty-two,nearly fifty-three, year-old spinster and I have always known that I would never marry.

That has never been a problem for me personally. I am used to myself. It is only other people who recoil with horror when they learn of my age and that I am unmarried. In other words, it is other people who make my life miserable, not myself.

By anon241844 — On Jan 20, 2012

I'm a 28 year old spinster, not by choice. I would love more than anything to find a guy who could tolerate me, but I can't even find a guy who can stomach the idea of me being their girlfriend. I'm just not pretty, smart, thin, or young enough for anybody to want.

By anon223081 — On Oct 17, 2011

I am a spinster by choice as I chose not to have married any of the jerks I dated. I like being alone. I won't call myself beautiful, or smart, or a catch. I am not any of these things.

I would have liked to have fallen in love, but that chemistry doesn't always last and then you are stuck with this guy, if you are lucky you can tolerate him after the honeymoon phase and kids are past the baby stage.

I guess the human race will survive if a few persons do something different. Imagine if everyone had kids! The world is already over-populated. We really need fewer breeders these days, honestly.

By anon125875 — On Nov 10, 2010

I am a modern day spinster -- by choice! I am beautiful and in great shape. I know I could find a husband easy enough, but I am happy on my own. I date when I want the company of a man, but I don't want to commit to a marriage. I love my freedom and prefer to live alone. I am 40 years old and very independent. I love my lifestyle the way it is.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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