Notes on the Distaff Side

Once upon a time there lived a kind of creature called a spinster. Within the memory of our oldest inhabitants the word was still quite often heard. The elders recall that it denoted a never-married female person of, as the French say, a certain age.

“Like Gloria Steinem?” my daughter asks.

Not exactly. No, it was then generally used for a withered crone with skinny shanks, a tart tongue, and persnickety mannerisms. Recently the term has come to be considered inhumane like its grosser synonym old maid. Old maid hardly exists anymore except as the name of a simple card game, and spinster is quite moribund, dying of atrophy or maybe murdered as an act of common verbal decency. My ten-year-old son, when queried, had no idea of its traditional meaning. “A worker?" he guessed.

Yet the condition of unmarried mature woman, voluntary or no, continues to exist, even flourish, and to present a challenge to the much-vaunted resourcefulness of our language. For nothing has really emerged in spinster’s place to apply to such an individual. Maiden lady has a poor image, prissy,

sniffy, rabbity. Its components are as archaic as the whole; for almost any grown woman now, maiden is probably inaccurate, certainly impertinent. As for lady, who would be so gauche as to use that anymore? Egalitarian chic tolerates it only ironically, or in the compound cleaning lady; it’s as if the humbleness of the profession acts as antidote to the pretention. What else is there? Surely not the awful neologism bachelor girl, with its sad suggestion of stockings draped in the shower or an icebox full of yogurt and diet cola, and its pathetic grab at the tawdry glamour of supposed male license. Anyway, the use of girl for any female past puberty is guaranteed these days to raise the hackles of those people formerly known as girls. This is a famous pitfall for older adults, even ones who consider themselves quite liberated; it took me a while to realize, when my daughter who is in college spoke of “the women at Wellesley.”that she was not referring to the faculty.

The most fashionable current alternative is probably single, now barbarously used as a noun, as in Maxwell’s Plum. That does indeed have one signal charm: it applies equally to either or any sex. However, it too is saddled with a disastrous modifier, swinging, and its sleazy snigger. There may be other terms — quaint regionalisms, brutal argot, sociological jargon—waiting in the wings to be beckoned onstage by Webster’s fourth international edition—hardly a happy thought. But there does seem to be no turning back. To the extent that it still has any meaning at all. spinster is so glued in a matrix of drab associations. so freighted with dreary connotations. that it is probably well beyond all hope of rehabilitation. And yet, the fact is, there was a time. long. long ago, when it was a perfectly honorable and very useful title.

Spinster, according to dictionaries, originally and sensibly meant nothing more than a woman who spins. By Elizabethan times it was restricted to refer to an unmarried woman of “gentle” birth. In the seventeenth century it lost this aura of aristocracy and designated any unmarried woman. Finally, perhaps in the patriarchal prime of the Victorian period, it acquired its classic—to us—significance: unattractive, elderly,

unmarried female. Poor degenerate word! Era by era it has been stripped linguistically of 1) occupation. 2) husband. 3) social status. 4) youth and beauty—and now of any viable meaning whatever.

This decline should not be surprising since a similar insidious process seems to have taken place with almost every title that ever had the slightest taint of female dominance or even independence. (One of the few good things to be said of aristocratic societies is the fact that rank outweighed gender. Thus a few women—well born, well endowed, or just downright determined—were able to aspire to the highest positions. In an egalitarian world, all women are supposed to be equal, at least to each other if not quite equal to men. So women have more often been ruling monarchs than presidents.)

Among the devolutions of female titles. one example is the word governess. It once meant, literally, a woman who governs, but it came to designate, usually, a “career” of last resort for the shabby genteel and barely competent. Secretary has become bifurcated; when applied to a man, it is often followed by “of State” or appears on a company letterhead just below Chairman of the Board. Of a woman it means she can type, though recent Washington scandals have put even that modest skill in question. Dame (derived from the Latin domina, like dominant and, naturally, domineering) also once meant a woman leader. Now it’s about as elegant as broad. And madam, once honorific, is now used, in English at least, mainly of managers of whorehouses.

There is nothing new about all this, it’s only too familiar, and it might be attributed to our democratic disdain for all such hierarchic titles. But, significantly, this deterioration is true only of women’s titles, not of men’s. Are there any Jewish princes? Are lesbians called kings? Is a pimp ever called a monsieur?

Perhaps the unkindest cut of all is the fact that most of these debased terms have somehow acquired wounding sexual meanings, meanings that mock either abstinence or excess and acknowledge no ground between. Spinster and, to a large extent, governess bear the burden of implied frigidity or frustration. Madam and, to a lesser extent, mistress connote not only loose living but often a venal profiteering in sex.

The word mistress is a particularly pungent example of distortion. Mistress once meant (and this is still the first meaning in that chivalric source, the Oxford English Dictionary) merely one who rules, who has others in her employ. Later it was applied to any proper housewife; then it came to be used, metaphorically and microcosmically, to mean the ruler of a somewhat dwindled and undependable estate, a man’s heart. From this still quite chaste compliment, it declined further to be an only relatively polite term for—as the Oxford Dictionary daintily phrases it —“a woman who illicitly occupies the place of wife.” All this seems to have happened rather fast and with a certain amount of overlap, sometimes catching the innocent in a verbal time warp. I was told of a proud old woman (of the ilk once called lady) who condescended with noblesse oblige and calf’s foot jelly to appear at the hospital bedside of her disreputable gardener. A nurse accosted her. “Only family are admitted. Are you the wife?” The old gorgon drew herself up and answered with hauteur, “Certainly not! I am his mistress!” But even the decadent connotation, which did at least have some remnants of seedy romance, has become sociologically obsolete now that expenses are shared as well as beds, and neither love nor money stays in one place very long.

As most women are very well aware, a similar rule applies when the names of animals are used for people. While usually such names are derogatory (and beastly unfair that is too!) to both sexes, they are invariably even more so for women. Dog—bitch (or slut, which also once meant simply a female dog) ox-cow, gander—goose, fox—vixen. It isn’t much, admittedly, but one can at least say, “He’s a gay dog” or “strong as an ox” or “smart as a fox.” But do we ever hear “cheerful bitch.” “kind as a cow,” or “clever as a vixen”?

And so it seems inevitable that from the moment it was decided that a spinster must be a woman, the word was doomed. Whatever evidence there is. and there’s plenty, to suggest that in some time or some place it is the husband who sweeps the floor and the wife who tills the fields, the one skill or occupation that has been almost uniquely feminine is spinning (quite unlike knitting. which was originally a male accomplishment). This seems to have been established as early as the fall of the first fig leaf. An ancient verse begins: “When Adam delved / and Eve span . . .” Chaucer’s medieval Wife of Bath, fat and gat-toothed but apparently irresistible (she boasted of five husbands, no spinster she!), remarked wryly that God gave women “deceit, weeping and spinning.”

This fact that spinster is associated with an activity practiced by women could be enough to explain its low repute, just as secretary and librarian lost status when they came to be women’s occupations. But spinster is a very special case since it is the only one of

Dr. Samuel Johnson, though an eighteenth-century male chauvinist notorious for his sneer that a woman preacher is like a dog walking on its hind legs, once remarked, “The prejudice and pride of man has long supposed the sword and spindle made for different hands.” The sword and spindle—a provocative conjunction suggesting that the spindle is the female weapon. In The Erotic World of Faery, Maureen Duffy, in good Freudian tradition, bluntly states that the spindle is a substitute penis. It’s not necessary to be so anatomical, but the spindle does seem to represent power which is linked in some way with the bearer’s sexuality. What psychology proposes, anthropology endorses. For among those cultures and peoples for whom we have yet to find a better word than primitive, spinning and its equipment have always been suspected to be a source, or at least a symbol, of female power. And this feminine force has usually been regarded as a kind of black magic, dangerous to male dominance.

Fearful of such strength, and thinking that it derived from—or was implemented by—spinning, men in primitive cultures have hedged it about with taboos. Too useful to be forbidden, spinning did have to be controlled. Sir James Frazer in The Golden Bough gives lots of examples from obscure tribes with names as exotic as their behavior. Sanctions are enforced against spinning, or even holding a spindle, at all occasions critical for men: childbirth, hunting, mealtime, seed sowing, and councils. Mostly Frazer explains these taboos by the idea that the twisting action of the spindle is supposed, by sympathetic magic, to entangle—nets, guts, wheat, tongues, and even wits. Twisting and entangling; such is the devious and sneaky way that women’s wiles are thought to work against men.

Mythology, folklore, and fairy tales place a similar emphasis on this triad of women, spinning, and power. The most explicit splice of women, spinning, and power appears in the Greek concept of the three female spinners called the Fates. Even Zeus, king of the gods, was subject to them. And by means of spinning they held control over the duration—the spurt—of every human existence. Clothos span the thread of life, Lachesis measured it, and Atropos with her scissors (castrating shears, perhaps?) cut it off.

In fairy tales the feminine force associated with spinning is usually malignant. “Sleeping Beauty" tells of the encounter between a princess and a witch. (And aren’t princesses in fairy tales man’s ideal of good women, pretty and submissive, prizes for a hero’s triumphs, while witches are bad women who wield mysterious force?) The princess finds the witch spinning in a tower, pricks her hand on the spindle, and falls under an evil spell. She is revived at last only by gallant male intervention.

Women have not all been above cultivating the myth of their magical powers. in the hope of securing from it influence or at least protection. Mostly this has been a fatal miscalculation: the reputation for such power has done a great deal of harm. It has subjected girls and women to all kinds of taboos. Despite the reverence the Greeks accorded their goddesses, they kept their wives and daughters pretty well locked up. And in real life those women thought to be witches couldn’t save themselves from being burned at the stake.

Most women, as if aware of the consequences. have renounced all claim to such impotent power. Of course there are and always have been some women who have employed—and now promote in best sellers—a watered-down kind of magic. They instruct in mere manipulative charm -those petty, pretty devices formerly of the harem, now of the Total and Fascinating Pussycats. But this kind of power—which in fact is nothing of the kind—is only a sort of game, graceful or grotesque depending on the wit of the woman, which men can afford to indulge or even enjoy. It too doesn’t provide any true security or autonomy. Nevertheless, in the search for the kind of strength that leads to equality, the art of spinning may still have something to offer. We can think of it, not as a sign of female magic, but as a symbol of the very prosaic but invaluable possession of a marketable skill. It can stand for a means of economic independence and even for freedom of choice whether or not to be a spinster.