From yesterday's 'spinster' to today's 'crazy cat lady,' has anything really changed?

Throughout history, single women have been vilified, ostracized and shamed. And while there are more single-person households in Canada than ever before, that lingering stigma still follows the single woman. CBC producer Alison Cook explores the social history of these "deviant" women in The Rise of the Glorified Spinster.

For millennia there’s been a fear of a single woman’s seductive nature, argues historian

Miss Dorothy Warner, a member of the newly-formed Spinsters' Club at the University of Southern California, gives the 'cold shoulder' to onlookers. Girls who wear buttons bearing the name 'Spinster' are pledged to shun men at the University. (George Rinhart/Corbis/Getty Images)

* Originally published on May 21, 2020.

By Alison Cook

Single women have been stigmatized throughout history and even today are subject to societal pressure to marry and have children. Yet one-person households are a growing trend in Canada, and around the world.

"If you Google 'single' the first websites that will come up are dating websites," said Rona Macdonald of the University of Toronto, "which gives you a message that in society and in culture, to be a single woman is to want to not to be a single woman."

"It's a comforting sort of a thought that that's what you will do — you will marry and you'll have children and everything will be lovely," said historian Elizabeth Abbott. "We have a whole culture that seeks to reassure us that that really is the be-all-and-end-all." 

But Abbott says that today there is also a very compelling counter-narrative about independent women, for whom their career takes priority over their marital status.

"If they do marry, the marital status will still have to be supportive of their primary goal, which is to be a lawyer, an astronaut, a ballerina," said Abbott.

Circa 1935: Two women enjoying a chat and a bite to eat during a break in a spinster protest. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

According to Canada's census and the 2017 General Social Survey on Family, the more educated a woman is, the more likely she is to live alone, with a clear correlation between higher education and the delaying of marriage and having children. For example, among women ages 25 to 34, 77 per cent of those who live alone have a college degree, compared to 67 per cent of those who live with others.

In fact, the 2016 census showed that one-person households were the most common type of household for the first time in recorded history, overtaking households comprising couples with children.

It is also the most common living arrangement in Finland, Estonia, Norway and Germany, and the trend is also growing quickly in Japan. 

Spinsters, old maids and crones

But being single, especially for women, has been a fraught status throughout history. Unmarried women were called spinsters, old maids, surplus women and crones. While there have been a few more positive names, such as the "bachelor girl" and "thoroughly modern Millie," the depictions of unmarried women have been overwhelmingly negative. 

Being an unmarried woman often also meant having a lower status in society.

If Jane Austen had married, she probably could not have been a novelist.- Historian Elizabeth Abbott

In Ancient Rome, the only respectable way to remain single and obtain status was to become a Vestal Virgin, one of the select few who tended the sacred fires of Vesta. The price to pay for this privileged position was to remain a virgin until age 30.

English nursing reformer Florence Nightingale (1820 - 1910) became the first woman to receive the Order of Merit for her tireless efforts during the Crimean War. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Chastity is a thread that weaves its way throughout history — that for women to remain single, they had to sacrifice their sexualiy, remain chaste. It was the case with early Christian virgins, and was also the case for many of the unmarried women who made their mark throughout history, including Elizabeth I (the Virgin Queen) and Joan of Arc. 

Remaining single also allowed some women, including Florence Nightingale and Jane Austen, to achieve things that would have otherwise been impossible had they married.

"If Jane Austen had married, she probably could not have been a novelist," said Abbott. "And she probably would have become a mother with all that that entails. It is also very hard to imagine her going to parties and observing everything in the same manner."

Arlene Young, author of From Spinster to Career Woman: Middle-Class Women and Work in Victorian England, says that middle-class women in the 18th and 19th centuries had few respectable means of supporting themselves, aside from marriage. But throughout the century, new options opened up to them, including work as nurses, clerical workers and typists.

By the end of the 19th century, attitudes toward women who remained single and worked were shifting, but there were still many negative stereotypes associated with them, associations that remain to this day.

The crazy cat lady

While we rarely call unmarried women spinsters now, a phrase has emerged to take its place: the crazy cat lady.

"I can say crazy cat lady to you and you immediately will know what that means, and you will immediately know the kind of cultural policing work that it's doing," said Monica Flegel at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont. 

Flegel says she uses the term to teach students about tropes and stereotypes. When she asks them why they might be afraid to be labelled a crazy cat lady, they can all answer the question easily.

Three Russian Blue cats are treated to dinner in Totteridge, a village in England, in 1956. (Getty Images)

"So that says to me that it still has some cultural force in terms of policing our behaviour or making women feel bad for not having achieved a particular status in society."

Macdonald says single women trouble our traditional notions of family. 

"So rather than assuming the problem is with single women," she says, "maybe the problem is rather our conventional understandings of what constitutes family." 

Guests in this episode: 

Elizabeth Abbott is a writer, historian and the author of A History of Celibacy, A History of Mistresses and A History of Marriage historical relationship trilogy. 

Monica Flegel is a professor in the Department of English at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, and the author of Pets and Domesticity in Victorian Literature and Culture

Keturah Kendrick is the author of No Thanks: Black, Female and Living in the Martyr-Free Zone, and host of the podcast Unchained, Unbothered.

Rona Macdonald is a Post Doctoral Fellow at the Nalder Lab in the Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy at the University of Toronto. Her doctoral thesis, 'Ms-Understandings'?: A Discourse Analysis of the Talk of Older Single Women', won the Joan Eakin Award for Methodological Excellence in a Qualitative Doctoral Dissertation from the Centre for Critical Qualitative Health Research, University of Toronto. 

Jane Nicholas is a historian at St. Jerome's university in the University of Waterloo, and author of the book,The Modern Girl.

Arlene Young is professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba in the Department of English, Theatre, Film and Media. Her latest book is entitled From Spinster to Career Woman: Middle-Class Women and Work in Victorian England.

* This episode was produced by Alison Cook.

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