Origin of the Word ‘Spinster’

Claim

The term "spinster" became an epithet thanks to resentment toward women who earned their own way rather than having to depend on a man around the house to bring in money.

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The word “spinster” generally conjures up a mental picture of mean little old ladies who have never been married, glaring at young people from behind their living room curtains (which are lacy and yellowed with age, naturally) with their mustachioed mouths puckered in disapproval at all the goings-on outside. At its very least, it is a word that carries connotations of pity.

An April 2018 entry on Tumblr has gone quietly viral since it was first posted, putting the lie to that trope by delving into the origins and history of the term and tracing how it became an epithet. In it, user systlin wrote:

I honestly always find the term ‘spinster’ as referring to an elderly, never-married woman as funny because you know what?

Wool was a huge industry in Europe in the middle ages. It was hugely in demand, particularly broadcloth, and was a valuable trade good. A great deal of wool was owned by monasteries and landed gentry who owned the land.

And, well, the only way to spin wool into yarn to make broadcloth was by hand.

This was viewed as a feminine occupation, and below the dignity of the monks and male gentry that largely ran the trade.

So what did they do?

They hired women to spin it. And, turns out, this was a stable job that paid very well. Well enough that it was one of the few viable economic options considered ‘respectable’ outside of marriage for a woman. A spinster could earn quite a tidy salary for her art, and maintain full control over her own money, no husband required.

So, naturally, women who had little interest in marriage or men? Grabbed this opportunity with both hands and ran with it. Of course, most people didn’t get this, because All Women Want Is Husbands, Right?

So when people say ‘spinster’ as in ‘spinster aunt’, they are TRYING to conjure up an image of a little old lady who is lonely and bitter.

But what I HEAR are the smiles and laughter of a million women as they earned their own money in their own homes and controlled their own fortunes and lived life on their own terms, and damn what society expected of them.

The claim has bounced around social media in bits and pieces for many years, but this particular entry seemed to strike a chord with readers; it was shared on the platform more than a hundred thousand times.

According to the old reliable standby Merriam-Webster, the term did indeed originally describe occupation, and its definition has evolved since it was first used sometime in the 14th century:

Definition of spinster
1: a woman whose occupation is to spin
2a archaic : an unmarried woman of gentle family
b: an unmarried woman and especially one past the common age for marrying
3: a woman who seems unlikely to marry

The site also offered a page from the editors delving into the word’s etymology, which appeared to back up the original Tumblr post:

When spinster first entered English in the mid-1300s, it referred to a woman who spun thread and yarn. Our earliest use comes from the allegorical poem Piers Plowman: “And my wyf … Spak to þe spinsters for to spinne hit softe” (and my wife…spoke to the spinners to spin it soft).

Two historical facts led to spinster’s evolution: the fact that most spinners in the Middle Ages were women, and the fact that it was common in legal documents to use one’s occupation as a sort of surname (which is why we have Smiths and Bakers and Tanners and so on). Women who spun yarn or thread were given the title Spinster in legal documents.

The jump from spinner to single lady is likely an economic one. Some scholars suggest that during the late Middle Ages, married tradeswomen had greater access to raw materials and the market (through their husbands) than unmarried woman did, and therefore unmarried women ended up with lower-status, lower-income jobs like combing, carding, and spinning wool. These jobs didn’t require access to expensive tools like looms, and could be done at home. By the 17th century, spinster was being used in legal documents to refer to unmarried women.

The Online Etymological Dictionary also draws a clear line from the work-related origin of the word “spinster” and its later derogatory connotations, pointing out that it was supposed to be exactly the sort of work with which unmarried women were supposed to occupy themselves, at least in England, by the 1600s:

However, there seems to be little historical indication that this was ever a particularly lucrative trade; industries relegated to “women’s work” have been characterized by intermittent labor and low pay throughout the centuries. Spinning and carding wool, even for the most gifted women in the Middle Ages, was no different. Which is not to say that it brought in no money at all. Poet and writer Christine de Pizan, who was born in 1364 and became one of the first women in Europe to support herself through her prolific writing, was an early advocate for women’s equality. Medieval researcher and former Queens College professor Diane Bornstein summed up her advice in her book The Lady in the Tower: Medieval Courtesy Literature for Women, which indicated that spinning and carding did not always necessarily pay pittance wages:

The lady who lives on her estates must be wise and must have the courage of a man. She should not oppress her tenants and workers but should be just and consistent. She should follow the advice of her husband and of wise counselors so that people will not think she is merely following her own will. She must know the laws of warfare so that she can command her men and defend her lands if they are attacked. She should know everything pertaining to her husband’s business affairs so that she can act as his agent in his absence or for herself if she should become a widow. She must be a good manager of workers. To supervise her workers, she needs a good knowledge of farming. She will be sure to have adequate supplies for the spinning and weaving of cloth for the wise housekeeper can sometimes bring in more profit than the revenue from the land.

That was not the only reference to spinning (and weaving) cloth as a way that women could find financial independence. But as with all of history, the true stories are always more nuanced and complex than the claims. A 2004 paper by Middle Ages historian Ruth Mazo Karras notes that even as textile production became regarded more as a prestigious and skilled occupation, meaning that men eventually took over its distribution and excluded many women from guilds in the process, spinning wool (which was at the time in great demand) remained the domain of the women:

With the continuing development of towns in the high and later Middle Ages craft guilds began to take control of production, and in northwestern Europe women’s labor was largely excluded or relegated to spinning or other less skilled and less remunerative stages of the clothmaking process, although in the Mediterranean region women may have been included for longer. As David Herligy describes the situation by the thirteenth century, “Guilds and governments as yet had made no effort to limit women’s work or to reserve or preserve jobs for men. In cloth making as in many other trades, women and men worked alongside one another without visible rivalry. The central Middle Ages remained a period of free enterprise and of open access to employment for both sexes.” Herligy paints too glowing a picure here, for (as he points out) even where men and women worked together in a craft men tended to do the more skilled parts of the job and to be paid more.

Karras goes on to point out that it is still difficult to parse how much work was done by women on behalf of men, rather than working on their own account:

By the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries craft guilds had come to dominate skilled labor and women were for the most part excluded. In a few places — Paris, Rouen, Cologne — there were female guilds, partcularly in luxury textile crafts like silkworking, but these were rare. In other places, like London, women did most of the wilk work but did not achieve the dignity of a guild structure. The male guilds of weavers, dyers, fullers, and others — those who worked in wool, which was more lucrative because of greater demand — attempted to exclude women other than widows of guild members (and sometimes daughters of guild members if they married men of the craft). Thus, although women may have done a good share of the textile work, as members of households, it was not conceived of as women’s work, but rather as women helping men with their work. Individual female spinners or carders might be employed by male weavers, as York wills indicate.

It is true that some spinners and weavers were recognized as highly skilled, such as a group of women in 15th century London who spun and wove silk rather than wool, but whose experiences as tradeswomen followed a common trajectory:

The silkworkers of London, then, serve as a somber reminder of how some medieval notions of “community” worked to the disadvantage of women. Since most skilled work prone to gild organization was done by men, most gilds were male dominated, and if women were tolerated within them, they were second-class members. They enjoyed some of the religious, social, and charitable benefits of gild membership, but they were firmly excluded not only from its political perquisites but also from many of its more important economic and social privileges. Although some women’s crafts and trades had sufficiently high status or sufficiently skilled workers to make gild organization possible, few gilds were actually formed. In some towns, such as Rouen, Paris, and Cologne, such women did form gilds, but even these were less autonomous than the gilds of men. In most other towns, like London, such women did not organize into gilds and were thus vulnerable to competition and loss of trade.

But even though the labor of women, even highly skilled women, was assigned lower value than that of men, it still offered a path to financial independence that lasted cor centuries, but it did not come without a social cost:

Jackie M. Blount calls spinsters “gender transgressors,” women who managed to find lives of independence and autonomy in their work as educators. Hired because of their singleness, not despite it, spinsters were at first considered “high-minded, upstanding pillars of the community” and eventually became cultural icons. But when social hygiene and the study of sexuality came into vogue at the turn of the twentieth century, spinsters came under fire. Suspected of lesbianism and accused of suppressing frustrated sexuality, Blount writes, spinsters were increasingly viewed as “standing outside their conventional gender roles as procreating women.” Admiration turned into villainization as women were forced to defend their single status in a workplace that once welcomed them.

Though many spinsters doubtless fell on the LGBTQ spectrum or were simply unable to find a mate, there was another reason to stay single. Zsuzsa Berend writes that contrary to modern-day beliefs that spinsterhood was the dismissal of traditional marriage values, many nineteenth-century spinsters in fact chose not to marry because they adhered strongly to ideals about traditional marriage. As marriage was elevated and spiritualized, Berend writes, women looked for vocations and occupations rather than betray their own principles about love.

But once again, a theme appears in the historical studies of spinsters, one that appears to have been missed by critics of the original Tumblr posts. It’s true that spinning wool (and other textiles) was a stable and lucrative career in Europe during the Middle Ages, and indeed it’s true that it remained so for centuries. Cloth production was regarded as “women’s work,” but eventually it was economically dominated by men who often tried to exclude women from guilds and unions. But it remained an way for women who by choice or by circumstances lived outside of their cultural and social norms to freely choose their own economic destinies and their own fates, relying on their own skills and talents to do so. For many women, freedom from such cultural pressures and the ability to steer their own fate is priceless by their own admission, a sentiment reflected in early writings of the time. The term started be used to describe unmarried women in the 1700s, but it did not become derogatory until centuries later, when “social hygiene” was swept into vogue during the eugenics craze of the early 1900s; by 1903, United States President Theodore Roosevelt was vividly and dramatically describing what he thought of as low birthrates among white Americans as “race suicide”:

The growing scientific field of genetics led some political leaders to embrace the notion of controlled breeding to favor “advanced” races. White Americans feared an “infertility crisis” in their neighborhoods. President Theodore Roosevelt warned in 1903 that immigrants and minorities were too fertile, and that Anglo-Saxons risked committing “race suicide” by using birth control and failing to keep up baby-for-baby.

In one speech, Roosevelt said: “The chief of blessings for any nation is that it shall leave its seed to inherit the land. The greatest of all curses is sterility, and the severest of all condemnations should be that visited upon willful sterility.”

That meant that white women (and to a lesser degree, men) who chose to remain single were suddenly regarded as especially suspect, adding a eugenicist twist to the term “spinster” and giving it a whiff of louche disreputability for failing to uphold the white “race”:

The tendency of single women to remain unmarried seemed to pose an enormous threat to the traditional gender order where women served men.

In response, a series of intellectual developments emerged in the 1800s and early 1900s that were employed to counter the threat. First, the medical profession grew intensely interested in the broad field of human sexuality. The subject became a matter of heightened concern, and much of the research conducted was heavily influenced by religions beliefs. Any deviations from conventional procreative male-female relationships came under increased scrutiny and eventually were regarded as pathological (Bullough, 1974).

Second, in an era of rapidly increasing social diversity, the social hygiene movement emerged in the early 1900s and saw as its role the proper direction of sexuality toward the advancement of the White race. School and college hygiene classes assisted young White men and women in mastering gender-appropriate behaviors, and in finding worthy spouses who could best assure fit offspring and therefore the improvement of the race.

[…]

…[I]n the early decades of the twentieth century, single women increasingly were viewed as standing outside their conventional gender roles as procreating women…. In time, spinsterhood even became conflated with lesbianism, then an unspeakable social transgression.

Over centuries, then, the term “spinster” went from describing an occupation, to describing an unmarried women, to describing an unmarriageable one, reflecting the social attitudes, trends, and finally the race-based moral panics of the times. At one point, working as a spinster was indeed regarded as a stable and sometimes lucrative profession that was open to women, particularly throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, just as described in the original Tumblr post. While admittedly history is far more nuanced and complex than it is often presented, and while women were still earning less on average than the men who often controlled the means of production, the historical record shows that spinning and other aspects of textile production were considered appropriate and common ways for women to earn a living and support themselves and their households without having to depend on others to do so. Therefore, we rate this claim True.

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