Reclaiming Words: Spinsters are Kickass, Empowered Women
It’s time to reclaim our vocabulary. Let’s start with ‘spinster’, which originated well before the Industrial Age in England and was commonly used for women who spun thread for a living. By virtue of the fact that most of the women in the occupation were unmarried and beyond the prescribed age for it, the Oxford Dictionary suggests that in the 18th-century word was soon “appended to names as the official legal description of an unmarried woman”.
“Spinster is not a bad word, it actually celebrates the empowered woman. Problem is we are using it without knowing its history,” celebrity hairstylist Sapna Bhavnani said during the SheThePeople panel at the Times of India Delhi Lit Fest.
Also Read: Why Am I A Feminist: Sapna Bhavnani
But let us go back a few hundred years. Why did women who chose to not marry take up spinning in the first place? The Merriam-Webster dictionary suggests the word first started being used in the 13th-century to describe “women who spun thread and yarn”. Tradeswomen who had husbands, had access to the markets and better resources (like looms) through their spouses but the women who were not married were forced to take up domestic, low income-jobs like spinning and hence they were called spinsters.
Thus, Spinster as a word set to dehumanise women if they did not subscribe to the societal norms and standards. A lack of suitors, a lover fighting in the great wars or simply a denouncement of the institution of marriage, the reasons did not matter as did (to put in common parlance) their relationship status which proved to be a challenge every step of the way. But these strong, empowered women kept fighting back, working hard to earn a frugal living.
A spinster by no means is a virgin, but someone nearing menopause whose life’s choices are up for public scrutiny. What would you call a man past “marriageable age”? George Clooney?
The word had then come to relegate women only to their child-bearing abilities, their intellect and talents were secondary to the fact they are not putting their ovaries to good use. ‘Spinster’ as a term became derogatory because, over centuries, it has been too quick to label and judge. A spinster was assumed to be fussy, lonely and depressed. Nothing about Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott or Gloria Steinem suggests the above and these are women who chose to make their destinies, to pave way for many others.
A wise sage by the name of KoolCharm ingeniously redefined Spinster on Urban Dictionary as ‘an attractive lady who can spin dreams of her own, have the freedom to make them true’.
Until the time this regressive word is done away with, I’m more than happy to have it imply a fierce and beautiful woman who never settles for anything less than what she’s worth.