The Enigmatic Spinster

The Enigmatic Spinster

Judging from the number of books, blogs, news articles and interviews focused on the lives of single women, it seems that the “spinster” is making a resurgence. For example, Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation and Kate Bolick’s Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own received a lot of attention when they came out in 2016. Traistor’s interview with NPR in March of 2016 gives a good overview of the concept of a “modern-day spinster.”

A quick search for books with the word “Spinster” in the title reveals myriad romance novels and so-called “chick-lit.” For example, the popular three-book Spinster Series by Becky Monson follows a fictional heroine named Julia Dorning in her search for love and partnership. The third book in the series is in fact called Thirty-four Going on Bride, so her spinsterhood might not be permanent. There are also many blogs by self-professed “spinsters”: Twisty Faster’s I Blame the Patriarchy and Hannah Ruth’s Diary of a Spinster Aunt are good examples.

In the course of my current research, which focuses on single women and sex (or more specifically, the lack thereof), in early America, I started thinking a lot about how the “spinster” has been portrayed in American history. In order to understand our cultural assumptions about single women today, I think we need to consider not just the impact of these assumptions, but also where they came from. To accomplish that, this essay is going to go backwards, beginning with the modern era and then using one specific example from colonial Maryland, the story of Margaret Brent, to begin a larger conversation about single women, power, sex, and politics.

I first remember hearing the term spinster in the 2001 film Bridget Jones’s Diary based on Helen Fielding’s popular novel of the same name. The film focuses on Bridget’s continuing struggle to shake off spinsterhood and find completeness with a partner. I was in the UK for a semester abroad when I watched Bridget Jones’s Diary. A few weeks earlier my fiancé had flown to Wales and unceremoniously dumped me.

Getting engaged was obviously a naïve decision for 20-year-old me. I remember laughing along with the film, but not critically analyzing its implications until later in my life. Single women in film and TV are generally portrayed as incomplete or not fully formed. Singleness is shown as “fun and natural,” until one crosses an invisible age line into spinsterhood and sadness. Marriage is represented as a social requirement, a goal that one must meet, in order to gain access not only to one’s fully realized self, but to the social capital that marriage brings.

Actress Renee Zellweger plays Bridget Jones, a single white 30-something woman who is caught in a love triangle with actors Hugh Grant and Colin Firth. All three are pictured on the cover, with Bridget holding a red diary and a pen to her lips.
DVD cover for Bridget Jones’s Diary.

Even in a modern context, it can be difficult to write about this topic because our language makes it hard to even speak about a woman “alone” without judgment. As Allan Johnson notes in The Gender Knot, American society is male-centered, which makes the existence of women without the presence of men in their lives confusing. He writes:

[gblockquote]How else do we understand the experience of groups of women who go out for drinks and conversation and are approached by men who ask, “Are you ladies alone?”1[/gblockquote]

The term “bachelor” carries with it a whole host of assumptions (like sloppiness and microwaved food, for example), but what is the female equivalent? The inexplicably popular TV Show The Bachelor is paired with The Bachelorette, but bachelorette is not a term we would typically use for an adult woman who is content with her single status. In other words, bachelorette implies that the woman is actively seeking a change to her status. Bachelorette is a temporary and unpleasant state that must be dissolved even if it means going on TV to humiliate oneself all for the faint hope of finding “true love.” Bachelor only refers to men who have never married, without implying that the man is actively searching for a partner.

Historically, Americans have used the term “spinster” to describe perpetually unwed women. Despite its smaller resurgence in recent memoirs, “spinster” is just not commonly used in everyday conversation. So, back to the central question. How do we as a society talk about women who are unpartnered?2 This difficulty is imbedded in our language itself.

For example, the title “Mr.” describes both unmarried and married men. “Mrs.,” on the other hand, refers only to women who are married; since the 1970s, the term “Ms.” has been used as a neutral title for women that doesn’t indicate marital status. And more recently, Mx. has been proposed as a gender- and status-neutral title. However, speaking from personal experience, my students hardly ever use Ms. and very rarely are they even aware of Mx. They habitually call me Mrs. Watson, no matter how many times I discuss the politics of titles and naming with them. While I am married, my partner’s last name is not Watson and I have a PhD. Thus, Mrs. Watson is not exactly correct.

Spinsters and Nuns

The difficulties we face in having these kinds of conversations today are only magnified when we try to talk about women in the past. Unmarried women are nearly invisible historically. They appear typically as domestic help or nuns. With few exceptions, adult unmarried women are even less likely to appear in the historical record than their married counterparts, who are already mentioned less frequently than men.3

painting of a woman wearing a long black veil, a white tunic-length shirt, and black pants.
One of the oldest portraits of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha by father Claude Chauchetière around 1696 (Father Claude Chauchetière, S.J./Wikimedia Commons)

The first single women in colonial North American history that come to my mind as a scholar are Kateri Tekakwitha, Marie de l’incarnation, and Juana Ines de la Cruz. These women obviously share one important trait: their religion. Catholicism provided a space for women who, willingly or not, remained unwed and celibate in the physical world (many, like Marie de l’incarnation, believed themselves to be spiritually married to Jesus).

But what about women in colonial North America who weren’t married but also weren’t religious dedicates? In the history of the founding of the Maryland colony, two unmarried sisters and “spinsters” played an important role: Margaret and Mary Brent. Both came to Maryland in their 30s and had never been married, nor would either ever take a husband. Margaret is much better known than her sister, particularly for her 1648 request to the Maryland Assembly for “vote and voyce4

She was essentially asking for two votes: one for herself as a landholder and one as the representative of the estate of the recently deceased Leonard Calvert. Brent is often credited as an early suffragette, feminist, and lawyer, but she was not really any of those things. She wasn’t asking for women’s right to vote, but rather her right to vote. Unsurprisingly, her request was denied.

In order to make sense of the lives of these two very successful, prolific women, most scholars have tried to find ways to explain their singleness. The most common explanation given is that Margaret and Mary probably took some sort of religious vows.5

Lois Green Carr, one of the most respected scholars of colonial Maryland, made a case for Margaret and Mary Brent as members of the controversial Mary Ward Society. Carr’s papers are held at the Maryland State Archives. Amidst those papers was a record of correspondence between Carr and Leona Meisner from Historic Saint Mary’s City in 1993. Meisner asks:

[gblockquote]Short of being a butt-ugly lesbian, what could the possible reasons be for her [Margaret Brent] failure to marry prior to her decision to travel to MD? What about Mary?6[/gblockquote]

There are so many interesting things to analyze in this question. The assumption that unmarried women were secret lesbians is fascinating in and of itself, but coupled with the notion that in order to be a lesbian, or perhaps to be a lesbian who couldn’t find a husband to cover for her, Margaret Brent was obviously hideous, leaves us with a lot to unpack, both about colonial America and the 1990s. Beyond that, Meisner’s question implies that, in not marrying, Margaret Brent was a failure. In light of the fact that Margaret and her sister Mary were among early Maryland’s wealthiest English people, this definition of failure seems odd but important.

Black and white sketch of a room with tall ceilings and big windows, in which five men sit surrounding a woman, who is standing, the the room. One man, in a chair (the others sit on benches or behind tables) seems to be questioning the woman.
Speculative painting of Margaret Brent (1601-1671) (Edwin Tunis /Wikimedia Commons)

Carr responded to Meisner’s question over the phone and wrote down her answer. She stated: “Religious vocation. May have been part of Mary Ward’s institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” There is no firm evidence that Margaret Brent or Mary Brent took religious vows. They were prominently Catholic and neither sister ever married, but that alone is not enough to assume they were members of a lay religious order.

Our desire to explain their lack of marriage comes somewhat from our assumptions about the incompleteness of single women, but also more benignly from the fact that it was unusual for a woman, particularly in a time and place with a very skewed sex ratio, to never marry.7

For me, it is just as easy to believe that the Brent sisters stayed single because as feme sole they retained much greater power over their lands and finances than they would have as feme covert. In other words, in colonial English North America, when a woman wed, her legal identity was “covered” by her husband. She ceased to exist as an individual entity and became part of a family unit led by her husband. Thus, any property that she might have had before the marriage transferred from her control to her husband’s. So, staying single could have been a pragmatic decision for Margaret and Mary.

The desire to explain and understand their choice not to marry often leads us to try to fit their story into a more comprehensible narrative. We want to know why an individual didn’t marry, and often that translates into a desire to know what is “wrong” with that individual. The same kinds of questions were asked of women who did not have children.

While we can probably never fully understand why Margaret and Mary Brent made the choices that they did, I argue that we should shift our focus from asking why they remained single to asking what it meant to be single in this place and time. Focusing on this question also means that telling the stories of single women can allow us to see the ways that marital status has shaped women’s lives over time. Furthermore, I hope that a critical analysis of “spinsterhood” can help us to understand our world today, a world where single women are still viewed as “defective.” There is obviously much more to explore here, about singleness in the past and present, non-procreative women, non-heterosexual marriage, etc.; so stay tuned for future blog posts!


  1. Allan Johnson, The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy, 3rd ed. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2014), 11-12. Return to text.
  2. This term is more neutral and allows for a range of relationship status that aren’t necessarily legally “validated” by a marriage license. Return to text.
  3. I asked a number of friends in person and on twitter if they could name any well-known unmarried women from before the 19th century. This is the list they came up with (I added a few suggestions of my own): Joan of Arc, Queen Elizabeth, Kateri Tekakwitha, Marie de L’incarnation, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, and several female saints and anchoresses like Julian of Norwich. Return to text.
  4. William Hand Browne, ed., Proceedings and Acts of the General Assembly, January 1637/8-September 1664, vol. 1 (Maryland Historical Society, 1883), 215. “Came Mrs. Margarett Brent and requested to have vote in the howse for her selfe and voyce allso for that att the last Court 3rd Jan: it was ordered that the said Mrs. Brent was to be lookd uppon and received as his Lordships Attorney. The Governor denyed that the said Mrs. Brent should have any vote in the howse. And the said Mrs. Brent protested agst all proceedings in this pfit [present] Assembly, unlesse shee may be pnt. [present] and have vote aforesaid.” Return to text.
  5. Lois Green Carr, “Margaret Brent.” “I have long given thought to the idea that Margaret and Mary Brent had been members of Mary Ward’s Institute, an unenclosed order of women who undertook to propagate the faith and strengthen belief through education. This Institute functioned in England, among other places, beginning about 1618, but was finally banned by the Pope in 1631. He gave the nuns three choices: to enter enclosed orders, live together under vows to local bishops, or marry. The English Jesuits had been much opposed to Mary Ward and her Institute, but individual Jesuits, among them Father Andrew White, had been sympathetic.” Mary Beth Norton repeats Carr’s assertion: Norton, Mary Beth Norton, Founding Mothers and Fathers: Gendered Power and the Forming of American Society (New York: Vintage Books, 1997), 282. I don’t find this evidence as nearly as convincing as Carr or Norton. Return to text.
  6. Emphasis in original. Lois Carr, Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 5906-6-457, 1/10/10/63. Return to text.
  7. Roughly one woman for every six men in the mid 1600s in the Chesapeake. Robert Emmett Curran, Papist Devils: Catholics in British America, 1574-1783 (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2014), 37. Return to text.

Featured image caption: “This our aunt had destined as a legacy for a worthy old spinster who had no friends.” (Internet Book Archive/Flickr Commons)

Kelly Watson is an Assistant Professor of History and an affiliate member of the Women's and Gender Studies Program at Avila University in Kansas City, MO. Her book Insatiable Appetites: Imperial Encounters with Cannibals in the North Atlantic World was released by NYU Press as a part of the Early American Places series in 2015. The paperback was released in 2017. Her current research examines the cultural power of celibacy and singleness in colonial America.