When the actress Emma Watson described herself as “self-partnered,” she launched an explosion of tweets, commentaries, and think pieces. The frenzy has mostly died down by now, but the long tail is still with us. One of the recent contributions is a perspective missing from most of the others, an historical one.
Amy Froide, a professor of history at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, explained that terms for single women change over time as historical circumstances change. For example, before the 17th century, single women were called virgins, maids, or “puella,” which is Latin for “girl.” Those words emphasized youthfulness and chastity. The women of those times were expected to remain single only for a short while.
Once the number of single women started to grow at a remarkable rate, and women stayed single longer, the terms used to refer to those women turned harsh. Let’s consider, first, just how many women were single in 17th century England.
Historically, Single Women Were Described More Harshly as Their Numbers Grew
In the U.S. today, there are more women 18 and older who are not married than married – 50.5% not married vs. 49.5% married (from Table 2, here). Although I have been studying single people for a long time, it still amazes me that, as Froide points out, the same was true in 17th century England: more women were not married than married. “It was a normal part of the era’s life and culture,” she noted.
Single women weren’t just “maids” anymore. Now they were “old maids.” That was not meant in a positive way. Women got saddled with that insult around the ripe old age of 25.
In England at the time (around 1700), concerns about the rising number of single people became so great that just coming up with disparaging names for them did not seem to be enough. The government tried to get singles to do their duty and get married by creating a “Marriage Duty Tax.” The tax “required bachelors, widowers and some single women of means to pay what amounted to a fine for not being married.”
I think single people in the U.S. today are still paying such fines, though they are not labeled as such. They come in the form of those federal laws I have mentioned so often, more than 1,000 of them that benefit and protect only people who are legally married. In the marketplace, too, and in everyday life, single people on their own often pay more per person than coupled people do.
The Meaning of Self-Partnered in Contemporary Times
For decades, the number of single people has been growing in many other places all around the world, but Emma Watson did not get labeled as a “spinster” or an “old maid” when she approached the age of 30 as a woman who had always been single. Still, Froide notes, she faced the expectation that she should be married already; her wealth and fame did not protect her from that.
Froide sees the “self-partnered” term as part of our “age of self-care.” She thinks it says, “I’m focused on myself and my own goals and needs. I don’t need to focus on another person, whether it’s a partner or a child.”
I don’t like how Froide’s way of talking about single women in that quote seems to assume that the only people of note are romantic partners and children. Research shows how important important friends can be to single people, perhaps especially single women.
I like her other point a lot better, perhaps because it echoes my own take on the matter. Froide said:
“…it’s ironic that the term “self-partnered” seems to elevate coupledom. Spinster, singlewoman or singleton: None of these terms openly refers to an absent partner. But self-partnered evokes a missing better half.
“It says something about our culture and gender expectations that despite her status and power, a woman like Watson still feels uncomfortable simply calling herself single.”
The Wider World of Terms for Single People
Froide’s article was very brief, so there was a lot of important material left uncovered. Her work focuses on single women in England, and most of her examples came from England or from the English language. Adriana Savu, a scholar who told us about single women in Romania in a guest post here, has studied terms for single people in four languages — Romanian, French, and Polish, as well as English. I hope to write about that in a future post.
Laura Dales has already told us about the use of derogatory terms such as “loser dogs” and “parasites” in Japan – and also how those single women who were called loser dogs bit back. In China, single women are called “leftover women;” they are not buying it, either.
Sadly, the terms invented to disparage single women comprise a very long list. But as Froide pointed out, changing times inspire changing terminologies. I hope that as the number of single people (and not just women) continues to grow, and more and more people admit to embracing single life instead of shunning it or trying to escape it, we will have more affirming or even celebratory terms. My own contribution is “single at heart,” the name of this blog and of the people for whom single life is their best life.