Old Maids And Spinsters: The Best Female Role Models A Teen Girl Can Have

Illustration for article titled Old Maids And Spinsters: The Best Female Role Models A Teen Girl Can Have

As a teenager, I was obsessed with spinsters. I modeled myself after Stevie Smith, Marianne Moore and Barbara Pym, was known to sport gloves and vintage hats and, if you're wondering who's the proud owner of the handle "Spinster@aol.com," look no further. I remember relishing the choice of a wholly asexual persona, and loving the notion that these were women who had actually opted for a certain independence that was so much more than just settling for singlehood. Naturally I was intrigued then by Blogher's "Search for Cinematic Spinsters." The author, a self-described spinster, identifies the spinster archetype and its essentially negative stereotype — the bitter, dried up old maid so often seen in movies — but goes on to find that it is more nuanced than that. And as a 16-year-old me could have told her, there are far worse role models.The article's author, Gena Haskett, is initially put off by the batterie of "sexually repressed librarians" she encounters in her search: a raft of African Queens and Now Voyagers ripe for sexual rehabilitation; tragically lonely Miss Brills; the comical eccentrics of Jane Austen novels. She finds a little redemption in the form of Jill Clayburgh's sexy divorcee choosing independence in An Unmarried Woman or the solitary protagonist of Rachel, Rachel. That's swell, but to my way of thinking, these women aren't really spinsters. And I don't think you even need to break away from that essentially negative archetype to find positive inspiration. I do fully believe that the single woman is a historically thorny issue for people, and filmmakers, writers and generalizers alike, when they can't quickly transform their lives via heroes ex machinae, slot them into 'sinister witch', 'terrorized old maid' or bitter, sexually-repressed misanthrope, essentially tragic and fearful. The thing is, though, the spinster is too complicated — and too awesome ‚ an archetype to dismiss like that. To me, a spinster isn't just an unmarried lady. Rather, I've always thought of her as a woman who, for whatever reason, chose not to define herself through a man, in a time when that was de rigeur. Maybe that's a reductive definition, but I think a substantiated one. Sure, sometimes there were circumstances for spinsters' single states: Barbara Pym would have liked to have married in her youth, and Marianne Moore was essentially chained to an ailing mother. But the point is that women like these ended up forging lives and identities that were rich, full, and completely independent. In this sorority I place such literary lionesses as Eudora Welty, Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, the forementioned Stevie Smith, Pym and Moore. It's surely no coincidence that these women had the time, the serenity and the inclination to turn out some of the richest poetry and prose in the English-speaking cannon. There is certainly an asexuality and a smallness of scale to the work of, say, Barbara Pym, but it is this which gives it its charm and richness and, dare I say it, a distinctive Spinster Lit flavor not found in the work of women who took a different path. Her characters, too, are often single women building small, rich lives; while there's sometimes a possibility of romance in her work, it's almost uniformly incidental to a character's lifestyle or essential makeup. Film gives us such stalwarts as Lillian Gish's heroic child-defender in Night of the Hunter, Marilla Cuthbert, or weird as it sounds, the fairy godmothers in A Sleeping Beauty — benevolent characters who, while maybe secondary, manage to provide a singular tartness and goodness which, whether people realize it or not, is as essential to our cultural view of the spinster as is the bitter recluse. In a sense, it's an archetype with the energy to be sensible — you could argue there's a backhanded misogyny to that, the notion that asexuality is a sort of pathway to wisdom — but one which is every bit as enduring as the negative stereotypes discussed. Was I a teenage goofball? Obviously. But the impulse towards the spinster paradigm was in no way an unwholesome one, and it's a badge anyone can still claim and wear with pride. And no, you can't have my email address. In Search of Cinematic Spinsters and Unmarried Women [Blogher]



I have two spinster aunts who share a house together...they were wonderful fun to spend time with as a child as they had all the time in the world (when I visited) to play with me and many of my best childhood memories involve time with them.

I had never thought about them in relation to the spinsters of literature and film and I have no idea if there was some reason neither of them ever married...but thanks for reminding me how much I love them and their influence on me! (Says a single childless woman of 30...)