Let’s start with some definitions.
1 a: woman whose occupation is to spin
2 b: an unmarried woman and especially one past the common age for marrying
3 a: woman who seems unlikely to marry
2b is also the definition given in the New Oxford American Dictionary.
Here’s some history I gleaned from these two dictionaries:
The word comes from 14th century Middle English. It described a woman who spins. Starting in the 17th century, the word was added to a name to designated the legal status of an unmarried woman: Rachel Musing of San Francisco, Spinster. Since the 18th century, it’s been used more derogatory. Based on the pre-Civil War history, this probably happened in the later part of that century. “In modern everyday English, however, spinster cannot be used to mean simply ‘unmarried woman’; it is now always a derogatory term, referring or alluding to a stereotype of an older woman who is unmarried, childless, prissy, and repressed” (NOAD). Such definitions contribute to the social stigma of the term.
A very thorough history of the word “spinster” is presented here by another unmarried woman who is a journalist. A few things that caught my attention (I highly recommend the whole post! Note: The post seems to have disappeared… – 3/3/2013):
Apparently, Martin Luther started the trend of denigrating single life with words such as “one cannot be unmarried without sin.” Burning witches apparently is not sinful… Though he was followed, in time at least, by one strong single woman: Elizabeth I. Although spinsters were mostly ignored around the Queen’s time, they became stereotyped in the 17th century. In the 1950s, a former eugenicist became an expert on getting women ready for marriage.
The main definition seems to be “woman past usual/common age for marrying.” Okay. So, let’s take a look at the median age of marriage for women. Based on the U.S. Census’ 2007 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimate, the median age of a woman at first marriage is 26. This means that any woman above 26 is a spinster! Sure takes the air out of the image of a wrinkled old witch as the spinster that was bobbing around in my head… The oldest median age at marriage for women appears to be 37 in Chile (this page is a bit scares on sources, so who knows if this is correct…). Also, not quite the very old woman I had in mind… Time to abandon that stereotype! Incidentally, this might be a more successful way of abandoning it than paying homage to “the spinster.” The word is not going away. Instead we could dismantle the stereotype.
As my internal debate on whether to embrace “spinster by choice” or stick with the slightly less burdened (and gender-neutral) “single by choice” continues, I realize that both are simply labels. What really matters is how I live my life. Although, using a rebellious label might be a better reflection of how I want to live my life. Based on this last consideration, I rather like “spinster by choice”!