A spinster is a woman who has not married. The word is usually used specifically to describe women who have passed the conventional age of marriage without marrying; in a country where women marry at 25, for example, a 20 year old woman would be described as “single,” rather than a spinster. Spinsters are associated with specific traits in many regions of the world; they are often described as depressed, living in oppressive situations, or unusually religious. Until the mid-twentieth century, the term was actually used in legal documents such as marriage licenses, showing how pervasive ideals of marriage are for many people.
Literally, a spinster is a “maker of thread,” and term has been used to describe spinners and other fiber workers since at least the 14th century. Classically, women have worked in the fiber arts, and spinning was often done by unmarried women, who sometimes had more time on their hands. By the 17th century, spinning was a common and acceptable occupation for women who wanted to support themselves, since working outside the house would have been unusual for a single woman who wasn't in the sex trade during this period. Reflecting this, the term “spinster” came to be associated specifically with older unmarried women by the mid-1600s.
Historically, being a spinster was seen as a source of shame and a sign of deficiency in some regions of the world. Many people today continue to expect to be married at some point during their lives, although they may not endure the same social pressure that women did in centuries past. Many people thought that in order to become a spinster, one had to be either extremely picky about potential spouses or unmarriageable in some way. Spinsters have also been called “old maids,” in a reference to their age and presumed virginity or maidenhood.
Historically, there were numerous reasons to become a spinster, just as there are reasons to remain single today. Some women, for example, chose not to marry so that they could help care for disabled parents or other relatives. Sisters might have chosen to continue living together because they enjoyed their company more than that of potential husbands, leading to the enduring image of spinster aunts. Other women simply were not interested in marriage, while some unfortunately probably wanted to marry, but were prevented by circumstances.