Thursday, July 20, 2023

A Different Kind of Spinster

The Old Maid by Alfred Priest

A Different Kind of Spinster

Picture a spinster, and the image of a dour-faced woman probably comes to mind. Awkward in movement and speech, she is not a beauty to whom men flock. Poor, undesirable woman! Her dreams of a wedding, a happy marriage, and her own children lie in ashes at her feet. She is like a rose that withers on the vine. These ideas mirror attitudes in the Victorian era, a time when women considered spinsterhood a fate worse than death. Understanding this sentiment takes us all the way back to the Middle Ages.

The word, ‘spinster,’ originated in in the mid-1300s as a way to describe a woman who spun thread and yarn. The term first cropped up in Piers Plowman (an allegorical poem): "And my wyf ... Spak to ├że spinsters for to spinne hit softe." (Translation: And my wife...spoke to the spinners to spin it soft). The term took hold, and legal documents of the 17th Century referred to single women as spinsters.

The Spinster by Michael Versteegh

Michiel Versteegh - De spinster, bij een olielampje - 1906 (OK) - Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen.jpg; public domain image

So, what does spinning have to do with single women? Scholars suggest a reason. In the late medieval period, married tradeswomen gained better access to money, supplies, and customers. This inequality caused unmarried women to take on lesser jobs, like combing, carding, and spinning) that could be performed at home without an expensive loom. So, there you have it. The abhorrence of married women remaining single has its roots in medieval socio-economic status.

Call me contrary, but I enjoy writing fiction that turns normal expectations on their head. What if a beautiful woman could take her pick of suitors but decided not to marry any of them? I drew a quick breath, realizing with sudden clarity that the next heroine my publisher wanted me to write about was the perfect candidate. Phoebe Walsh, the headstrong child with golden ringlets who grew up in the Montana Gold books, had an independent spirit and the self-confidence to forge her own path. But, was she too young?

After a little breathless research, I learned that Phoebe was the right age to face impending spinsterhood at her next birthday. By our modern standards, twenty-three seems awfully young to be ‘on the shelf.’ Bear in mind that Victorian women were presented as marriageable prospects in society circles at eighteen. Given the rounds of parties and other events they attended, five years to find a husband must have seemed reasonable. Although those of lesser means did not indulge in such things, high society set societal expectations.

These standards were breaking down in the Wild West, where the shortage of women created a demand that whisked women out of widow’s weeds and into bridal veils. This created an environment where a woman might choose to remain single, despite numerous suitors. The specter of spinsterhood is raised by her mother, who was raised in a wealthy household. Clashes caused by changing social mores appeal to my sense of drama. They create challenges, which attract readers.

Woman reading about 1890 National Media Museum - Kodak Gallery Collection

More research revealed that some Victorian women resisted the pressure to marry by a certain age. “Tit-bits," an 1889 magazine, queried women on why they wanted to remain single. Some of the responses did not take a favorable view of men. Others reminded me of something Phoebe would say:

“Like the wild mustang of the prairie that roams unfettered, tossing his head in utter disdain at the approach of the lasso which, is once round his neck, proclaims him captive, so I find it more delightful to tread on the verge of freedom and captivity than to allow the snarer to cast around me the matrimonial lasso” (from Sarah Kennerly).

“My reason for being a spinster is answered in a quotation of the Taming of the Shrew: “Of all the men alive I never yet beheld that special face which I could fancy more than any other” (from Lizzie Moore).

Maria Denny Fay; public domain image
After writing Phoebe’s story (entitled The Whispering Wind), I discovered Maria Denny Fay (1820-1890) of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Educated and well-traveled at twenty-six, she was more interested in music and learning German than finding a husband. Although attractive and sought by suitors, she felt no need to marry. She explained her stance to her brother, Joseph Story Fay, in a letter dated November 15, 1846: “I agree with you in thinking it desirable for every body to be married, and I should be the first to set the example if I were not an only daughter as it were, and if I was not assured that having been created entire, I need not expect a better or worse half.”

The popular 19th-century author, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, would have applauded Maria’s thoughts. A quote from Sedgwick 1827 novel, Hope Leslie, puts a fine point on the subject. “Marriage is not essential to the contentment, the dignity, or the happiness of woman.”

I believe Sedgwick’s statement is true, whether or not a woman marries. What do you think?

What’s New with Janalyn Voigt

I’m working on an editing project for my publisher but setting a slower pace for the summer months. The large vegetable garden I planted this year draws me often into the fresh air, and the preserving bound to follow will hijack my time. I’ve countered by fine-tuning my schedule. No matter how you slice your time, and I’ve tried many ways, making progress on my goals comes down to self-discipline. That’s a wonderful and terrible thing, because it puts success or failure squarely in your own hands.

“You are the person who has to decide. Whether you’ll do it or toss it aside; You are the person who makes up your mind. Whether you’ll lead or will linger behind. Whether you’ll try for the goal that’s afar. Or just be contented to stay where you are.” ~ Edgar A. Guest.

Learn more about Janalyn Voigt.

Discover Montana Gold

As mentioned, my writing takes a unique look at common perceptions. The Montana Gold series tells the stories of a:

  1. Hills of Nevermore: A young widow and the circuit preacher who wants to save her must both come to terms with their secret pasts.
  2. Cheyenne Sunrise: A disillusioned woman has no choice but to trust her wagon train's half-Cheyenne trail guide.
  3. Stagecoach to Liberty: A captive Hessian woman decides whether to trust the mysterious stranger determined to free her.
  4. The Forever Sky: Circumstances and her strong-minded daughter throw together a widowed mother and the man who broke her heart.
  5. The Promise Tree: A preacher’s daughter is sure she shouldn't encourage the local troublemaker, never mind that promise she once made.
  6. The Whispering Wind: A spirited woman facing spinsterhood struggles to forget the one man she can’t have.


  1. Thanks for posting today, and you pose an interesting question. I agree with the statement taken at face value, but I would hope that the woman, if a Christian, talks and listens intently to God as to His will for her life.