In our latest fascinating blog we hear from Emily Priscott about her fascinating new book: Singleness in Britain, 1960-1990: Identity, Gender and Social Change
The concept of spinsterhood might seem hopelessly dated, an obsolete category that more than a century of social change has firmly consigned to the past. Single women are no longer routinely dismissed as ‘old maids,’ who have been ‘left on the shelf,’ and the proportion of unmarried women living alone in Britain has never been higher. Gone are the stock images of repressed grey ladies, wasting away in stale, sunless rooms, or the public-spirited woman-of-good-works who lives meekly at the corners of other people’s lives.
Or are they? You only have to cast your mind back a few years to conjure up the image of a deliciously deranged Judy Dench in Notes on a Scandal (based on the novel by Zoe Heller), whose repressed longing for one of her female colleagues leads to an obsessive, mutually-destructive friendship, her deviance seemingly an emblem of repressed lesbian desire. As with Glen Close in Fatal Attraction, family relationships are often seen as both the envy and the enemy of single women, who live outside their comfortable, reassuring structures.
This sort of representation has a long history, often interwoven with deep-seated fears about female independence and repressed or lesbian sexuality. The term ‘spinster’ means so much more than marital status, drawing on a barely concealed undercurrent of assumptions about womanhood and femininity. It is a dismissal, or a refusal, sometimes even a threat, which can leave a sense of unease hanging in the air. Most of all, it hints at a woman’s inherent incompleteness, her failure to conform to patriarchal expectations.
As outsiders in a couple-centric culture, whether through choice or not, spinsters have always seemed at odds with the most important obligations of their sex, a handicap which, according to Freud, could lead to anxiety and neurosis. This kind of theorizing made a deep impression, casting a shadow over the ‘permissive society’ and beyond. During the 1960s and 70s, while more young, single women were starting to leave home to live alone in the city, anxieties about their lifestyle and moral welfare provoked many hand-wringing headlines in the popular press, often linked to fears about illegitimacy and the kinds of choices women might make outside family control.
Of course, this was also the era of the Pill, student rebellion and ‘free love,’ which blew apart many of the previous generation’s assumptions about what it meant to be young and single. When Helen Gurley-Brown published Sex and the Single Girl in 1962 it was a smash hit both in America and overseas, selling the glamorous lifestyle of the sophisticated, independent Manhattan secretary living alone in the Big City. Even so, this was only ever meant to be temporary, and as Gurley-Brown made clear, marriage should still be a girl’s ultimate goal. Like its near-namesake Sex in the City over thirty years later, Gurley-Brown was adamant that being single was simply the gateway to being married, ideally to a rich, successful ad executive.
By the latter decades of the 20th century, staying single for too long was still seen as a denial of women’s biological destiny; at the same time, as constraints against pre-marital sex, cohabitation and illegitimacy began to loosen, the image of the repressed, celibate spinster couldn’t have seemed more regressive. But however anachronistic it seemed, as a motif it lingered in the popular imagination, no matter how much women’s status had changed since the 1920s. Stereotypes about spinsters existed in a social vacuum, preserving them in amber like mysterious, unfurled butterflies, and exerting an almost subliminal influence over how single women perceived themselves.
This became clear when single women spoke about their own experiences of life and love. In her interviews with single women in America, Britain and Sweden during the 1980s, the sociologist Tuula Gordon saw how influential these stereotypes still were, attributing them to society’s continuing fear of female autonomy. Many expressed a sense of unease about their status and felt an intense pressure, often from family and friends, to ‘settle down,’ whether they wanted to or not. For Gordon, their perceived abnormality resulted from their rejection of (or failure to secure) a secure heterosexual partnership, the lack of which seemed to undermine their very status as authentic women.
It could never simply be a case of one-sided rejection, however. In time-honoured tradition, this kind of pathologizing eventually provoked a backlash, the roots of which could be seen in the British popular press. During the 1980s, the concept of spinsterhood started to seem strangely appealing to some, carrying an almost exotic air of power and self-fulfilment. For the British newspaper commentator Penny Perrick, the term ‘spinster’ had a subversive ring that defied all pressures to settle down. Reporting on a 38-year-old advertising executive who had thrown a party to celebrate her ‘joyous commitment to Old Maidenhood,’ Perrick reflected that the woman’s ‘most cheerful approach to spinsterhood’ would make her married friends jealous. In America, a new magazine was launched baring the catchy title Celibate Woman: A Journal for Women who are Celibate or are Considering this Liberating Way of Life, featuring interviews with single women from all walks of life.
This new appreciation of old-style spinsterhood, and even celibacy, came from a sense of disillusionment with the sexual revolution, and the idea that sex itself could liberate women (and men) from patriarchal structures. Many women found that the old constraints continued in different ways, the pressure now being to have as much sophisticated, complicated sex as they could manage just to prove how liberated they were. While some women renounced sex altogether during the ‘post-feminist’ 1980s, this could also seem like another way of saying that they couldn’t have it all. It was a sign that, rather than going too far, the sexual revolution hadn’t gone far enough, as it had failed to fully address the underlying power dynamics which still structured so many relationships.
Emily Priscott is a writer and historian, specializing in 20th Century British history. She recently published her first book, Singleness in Britain, 1960-1990: Identity, Gender and Social Change, through Vernon Press, which is available through Amazon or the Vernon Press website.