A spinster (or old maid) is a woman or girl of marriageable age who has been unwilling or unable to marry, therefore has no children. Socially, the term is usually applied only to women who are regarded as beyond the customary age for marriage, and is generally considered an insulting term, more degrading than the term "bachelor" for males. While men can continue to have children into their 70s or 80s, women generally become less and less able to bear children as they get older. So the term "old maid" is only applied to women who are past a child bearing age but have never married.
The need to specify a woman's status of coverture turned "spinster" into a legal term of art in English. In the United Kingdom, for instance, until the introduction of the Civil Partnership Act of 2004, any woman never previously married was categorized as a "spinster" on her marriage license, regardless of her age at the time the license was issued (with a never-married man being listed thereon as a "bachelor"). Likewise, far into the 20th century, some states in the United States required that a woman buying property be designated as either a spinster, married woman, divorced woman, or widow. In both legal systems, this was done because a woman's right to make contracts, retain her earnings, and own property was directly affected by her status under coverture as either never married, currently married, divorced, or widowed.
Until the advent of feminism, spinsterhood was generally portrayed as a condition to be pitied or mocked.
The stereotype of the heroic spinster left unmarried by war was generally pitied. The image of the old spinster with a fading photo of her dead World War I soldier/boyfriend on her fireplace mantel was common in films of the 1950s and 1960s. Likewise, in the American classic novel Gone With The Wind about the Civil War, numerous references are made to grieving fianceés, women who were "wanted, if not wed," and to the shortage of single, able-bodied (and thus "marriageable") men at war's end. These sympathetic portrayals of post-war spinsters masked the fact that, at least in Britain, marriage rates actually increased after the Great War compared to their pre-war levels.
However, most stereotypes of spinsters are hostile. They include a reputation for sexual and emotional frigidity, lesbianism, ugliness, frumpiness, depression, astringent moral virtue, and overly-pious religious devotion. Spinsters have traditionally been accused of being overly fussy, of setting their standards too high — to the point of being unable to find a mate they are willing to accept. In the 19th century, "middle-class spinsters, as well as their married peers, took ideals of love and marriage very seriously, and ... spinsterhood was indeed often a consequence of their adherence to those ideals. ... They remained unmarried not because of individual shortcomings but because they didn't find the one 'who could be all things to the heart.'"
In the 19th century, at least one editorial encouraged women to remain choosy in selecting a mate — even at the price of never marrying. An editorial in the widely popular Peterson's Magazine, titled "Honorable Often to Be an Old Maid," advised women: "Marry for a home! Marry to escape the ridicule of being called an old maid? How dare you, then, pervert the most sacred institution of the Almighty, by becoming the wife of a man for whom you can feel no emotions of love, or respect even?"
More sympathetic, but still condescending, stereotypes of spinsters were that they were downtrodden or spineless women who were victims of an oppressive parent or who were relegated to lifetime roles as family caretaker for their family of origin, or for a married sibling's children; "poor relations" who would work "to earn their keep" as nannies or unpaid domestics.
However, the Second Wave of feminism expanded women's acceptable and available roles, including the ability to work and keep one's earnings, to pursue a career or job beyond women's traditional spheres of childcare, teaching, and nursing, and to be able to support oneself and one's children without a legal tie to a man. In this time frame, the 1960s through roughly the late 1970s, feminist pressure also forced the elimination of the legal distinctions between a femme covert and a femme sole in most Western jurisprudence, following up on early progress made by the First Wave feminists with, e.g., passage of the Married Women's Property Act in New York in 1848 and similar acts in Britain in 1870 and 1882. As a result, the term "spinster" was no longer useful as a means of defining a particular woman's legal rights, though many institutions and statutes continued to use it until confronted with demands that they stop.
Changing social mores in the 1960s regarding non-marital sexual relationships also abruptly changed social expectations of spinsterhood as the equivalent of lifelong virginity, and Sex and the Single Girl by Helen Gurley Brown was a record-breaking bestseller when published in 1963, and later a wildly popular film.
The term "spinster" almost fell completely out of common use after the sexual revolution of the 1960s, being replaced by the coinage "bachelorette" or "single girl." However, both of these terms were scorned by feminists as being denigrating in their own way, the first as a diminutive of a male status, and the second for minimizing their dignity as adult women, not "girls."
Feminism, often referred to as Women's Liberation, asserts that even heterosexual women might deliberately choose not to marry. Remaining unmarried, feminists argue, can be an empowering choice, one not necessarily linked to romantic or sexual abstinence. Some Second- and Third-wave feminists sought to reclaim the word spinster to signify their rejection of the social expectation that all women should, or at least should want to, marry. Although the website cited below was defunct as of 2008, it accurately illustrated one aspect of this perspective from a heterosexual point of view:
In addition to self-designated spinsters who chose to be sexually or romantically involved with men, some of the women who "reclaimed" the word "spinster" as an identity did so while celebrating other sexual orientations, including lesbian relationships and celibacy. However, whatever their orientation, most unmarried, unpartnered feminists did not, and still do not, routinely identify as spinsters, preferring more common, and less freighted, terms such as "single woman" or "unmarried woman."
Many classic and modern films have depicted stereotypical spinster characters. Bette Davis played the title role in The Old Maid (1939), where she played an unwed mother named Charlotte. She played another spinster named Charlotte in Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). Katharine Hepburn specialized in playing spinsters in the 1950's such as Rosie in The African Queen (1951), Jane Hudson in Summertime (1955), and Lizzie in The Rainmaker (1956 film) (1956). A common theme in the fiction writings of author/poet Sandra Cisneros is marital disillusionment; she has written the poem "Old Maids" (1994). Paul McCartney composed a hit song "Eleanor Rigby" in 1966 about the loneliness and death of a spinster.
In Australia, parties are held for young single people to meet and socialize (particularly in the rural areas). These events are known as Bachelor and Spinster Balls or colloquially 'B and S Balls.' Balls in which women ask men to attend are known as Sadie Hawkins dances in the United States. The Bob Dylan song "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" tells the true story of a murder at a Spinsters' Ball in Baltimore in 1963.
Episode 69 in the fifth season of the HBO series Sex And The City titled "Luck Be An Old Lady" dealt with Charlotte being increasingly fearful that she's become an old maid on her 36th birthday. She gives herself an Atlantic City style makeover and stuns the girls with her new racy, red lipstick look. Miranda gets her a gag gift of playing cards titled "old maid" and the characters discuss why women are labelled "spinsters" and men get the less-denigrating "bachelor" designation, no matter how old they are.
Unpopped popcorn kernels have been dubbed "old maids" in popular slang, since just as unmarried women, spinsters and old maids traditionally who do not have children, they do not "pop.".