My computer is running very slow this morning so rather than fire up my thesis document and feel frustrated at the pinwheel of doom that keeps appearing I thought I would ramble here. This is a free-writing exercise so may not make sense by the end …
Part of my research involves the decoding of culturally loaded language. For example when someone uses the word ‘spinster’ what ‘extra’ meaning does that word convey? The OED lists spinster as
a. Appended to names of women, originally in order to denote their occupation, but subsequently (from the 17th century) as the proper legal designation of one still unmarried.
b. A woman still unmarried; esp. one beyond the usual age for marriage, an old maid.
But if you describe someone as a ‘spinster’ today what images would that conjure up? It’s a very dated expression now, and one that you rarely hear in common usage and it is usually applied with regard to women who are elderly and unmarried. But as recently as the 1950s magazines such as marvel were still using the term as a threat:As such it evokes nostalgia and images of pejorative female stereotypes; prudish, stuffy, old-fashioned. If one looks for synonyms for ‘spinster’ the tell-tale nature of them denote it as a negative label, one that diminishes rather than enhances a woman’s reputation;
- old maid (1530)
- old maiden (1566)
- pussock (1622)
- ape-leader (1652)
- thornback (1694)
- spinster (1719)
- tabby (1748)
None of the above inspire positive images. The spinster is also behind the mythologised/pathologised woman; the sinister crone, witch, hag, valkyrie, siren, all of which are deemed to be in league with the devil in order to undermine male potency with sorcery and trickery.
Whilst the spinster, as a label, is no longer common currency, it was very much in use in 1911 and it was the task of journalists such as Dora Marsden and Rebecca West to generate debate about the destructive nature of such a label. Through wit and parody, the writers of The Freewoman revealed the Nietzschean philosophy of ‘what Labels me, negates me’; for to be labelled as a spinster in 1911 meant you were viewed as an economic drain on society, a burden to your close family and undesirable and worthless. On the other hand you were viewed as naive, unworldly, unintelligent and prudish – you couldn’t win.
So why is it relevant to modern day life to be discussing such old-fashioned language? It would be reasonable to say that times have changed, things have moved on and terminology that was meaningful to those in 1911 no longer applies to us in the modern day. And in some ways this is true of us in the West but this culture of the unmarried women being of no economic value is still relevant to those in the far east. Especially when you witness the atrocities imposed upon China’s unwanted baby girls … These children are cast aside because they are considered culturally, politically and economically of less value than male children. The following videos are distressing and I should warn you, are not easy to watch.
The Dying Rooms 3 (unavailable because of copyright issues)
It may seem a huge leap from spinster to the Dying Rooms but it is the fear of what these girl children will become – effectively the fear of them growing into unmarried burdens on their parents – that prompt ordinarily loving parents to dump them in orphanages and try for a son. For the Chinese, the Spinster is a modern day spectre that continues to haunt them.
Language plays an important role in how we view the world. To call another woman by a pejorative label, endorses a society that thinks less of its women than it does its men. To judge a woman on the basis of her sexual activity is just a stone’s throw away from calling a woman a spinster in 1911 – it’s using a different motif but its intention is the same; to keep women in their place. If you think this is just nonsense that men have it just as hard, then come up with a pejoration for a man, that is unique to men, that cannot be applied to a woman and that diminishes that man in the eyes of men and women alike. It’s harder than you think isn’t it? There is no male equivalent to ‘whore’, ‘slut’, ‘slag’, ‘shrew’ or even ‘bitch.’ Words like bastard and cunt are applied to both sexes without distinction and really don’t convey the same capacity to diminish as those thrown at women … it’s something worth thinking about.
Whilst we in the West enjoy a high level of equality, I would argue that it remains precarious and we should be vigilant. Our rights are precious and as such should be protected, because they were hard-won to begin with.