Happy Old Maid’s Day, You Monstrous Spinsters!
Ladies, do you feel lost and lonely, as though life itself is but a vast cold ocean and you’re nothing but foam — flotsam — tossed about in a cruel wind, alternatively impervious to your cries or hell-bent on your demise?
That’s what happens when you’re unmarried. When you’re untethered and unloved — a lumpy buoy blindly bobbing alone. Perhaps, through no fault of your own, (although we can all agree that’s highly unlikely) or as a result of a slew of not-so-subtle deficiencies, you’ve been rendered un-partnerable.
June 4th marks Old Maid’s Day, and I just wanted to give a hearty shout-out to my fellow freaks fumbling through life with fever dreams of veils and sparkling rocks.
I, of course, jest . . . and yet.
Despite the seemingly caustic, humiliating, and stigmatizing vibe of being called an “Old Maid,” the day was actually created — or so the story goes — as a means of celebrating those women who’d been left in a lurch during and post World War II. Nearly 420,000 American men had died overseas — and more than 16 million served — wildly waylaying relationships and marriage. Single women and the surviving GIs were brought together at dances and socials in the wake of the war; the potential of a new pairing was posited as a kind of poultice. Love and marriage could help heal the travesties of war.
Of course, the fact that these unmarried women had to be publicly pitied (with a holiday!) and immediately paired up speaks volumes about the socio-cultural and economic constraints intrinsically bound up with the institution of marriage. We have a long, fraught relationship with matrimony; it sits at the cross-hairs of just about every societal disparity, from gender and race to economics. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more problematic — and hotly contested — institution that is simultaneously lauded as one of the high-points of humanoid existence (especially for women.)
The $31 billion dollars spent on weddings annually* is but one indication that the monolithic myth — marriage = personal, spiritual, and societal fulfillment — is not just alive and well, but ballooning.
To be sure, there has been undeniable pushback over the years, that questions the sanctioned pressure to pair off — just gander at these amazing clips from 1858 and 1967:
Peterson’s Magazine, 1858: “Honorable Often to Be an Old Maid”
“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?”
The single woman, however, is still a dangerous woman.
And perhaps even more confusing is the rhetoric that feminists can “reclaim” marriage and imbue it with a new meaning, as though context . . . isn’t everything.
As Adrienne Rich aptly described in 1980:
“Women have married because it was necessary, in order to survive economically, in order to have children who would not suffer economic deprivation or social ostracism, in order to remain respectable, in order to do what was expected of women because coming out of ‘abnormal’ childhoods they wanted to feel ‘normal,’ and because heterosexual romance has been represented as the great female adventure, duty, and fulfillment.”
And 36 years later, it still rings true — those little bells go right down my spine. Marriage is still posited as a kind of cure-all, a means of surviving — emotionally and economically — as well as a means of deriving worth. If no one will stand beside you, take you as their own, and enter into a life-long partnership of mutual adoration and ownership, surely there is something wrong with you. It is the height of exclusivity, the love-club everyone is clamoring to be part of. To be loved is not enough, you must be claimed.
This Guardian video gets at this maybe delusional conundrum modern women now finds themselves in — marriage can mean whatever we’d like it to mean! Rituals (like white dresses and fathers giving away their daughters!) are but touching relics of the past; they’re included as a kitschy nod to our forebears, not as genuflection to the Patriarchy. But alas…
So while single women are not “monstrous spinsters” (which, incidentally, is a term that stems from women spinning lots of yarn with all their unmarried free time circa 1700, I kid you not) we are still deemed lesser — Other — despite anthemic songs or think pieces telling us otherwise.
And perhaps there is no one examining the continued phenomenon more closely than illustrious shit-kicker Rebecca Traister — author of the New York Times bestseller All The Single Ladies — which meticulously traces the socio-political-economic-cultural evolution of, you guessed it, single women in America — and what our fate might be in the future.
Listen! Learn! Behold! Jaclyn Friedman gets on the horn with Rebecca Traister to talk marriage on Unscrewed.
*Figure based on National Center for Health Statistics multiplied with the average cost of an American wedding
Lead Image: flickr / Mattsko.wordpress