Whispers of the past, echoing in the present
A couple of months ago I was whiling away an afternoon playing card games with two of my godchildren. After several hands in which we triumphantly commanded each other to "Go Fish!", we turned our attention to a new (old) game – one I remembered well from my own childhood.
There we sat, determinedly trying to match pairs of Milkman Mo, and Postman Pete, and Ballet Betty, whilst desperately hoping to avoid being the one stuck with the Old Maid at the end. Loser.
We tend to think of singleness as a bit of modern phenomena – a sociological shift of recent decades (which it is - more on that in another post). But whilst marriage has always been normative, single men and women have always constituted a significant minority of the adult population of western countries.
Random Fact - Historians reckon that 30% of all women in late 14th Century northeastern Europe were single.
The social status of single individuals – and of single women in particular – ebbed and flowed over the centuries, ranging from ambivalence, to pity, to scorn, with some brief periods of relative neutrality thrown in for good measure.
Another Random Fact - The term spinster wasn’t always a pejorative one. It originated in the 17th Century from the occupational title of a woman who spun textiles – a spinner. So many spinners were single, that 'spinster' became a neutral collective term for the social category of single women.
So, ebbs and flows…
And then along came 18th Century England where a few brave (or foolhardy) women, such as Mary Astell, encouraged women to embrace their singleness (and… errr… all go live together in ‘religious retirement’) and where a lot of concerned men thought “Ummm. No. That’s not happening”. And thus was born the “Old Maid”. (OK. It was a bit more complicated than that, but you get the picture).
Where previously, single women (and particularly those who quite liked being single) tended to be the object of pity, the Old Maid became a satirical spectacle and society’s new villain. She didn’t just tend to meanly glare at people while spending her days gossiping over ever increasingly cups of cold weak tea. Oh no.
She was a disgrace to society.
She was a danger to impressionable young maidens.
She was a contaminant.
In the words of the anonymous author of the ever-so-lovely 1713 poem ‘A Satyr Upon Old Maids’, the Old Maid was the “Devil’s Dish… a pestilence… a nasty, rank, rammy, filthy [censored]”, who is so disgusting and dangerous that she should go marry "a leper, a lecher [...] or a dolt", just to avoid being “[censored] with contempt” for her singleness.
(Please enjoy a much-needed moment of comedic relief as you peruse this
1835 categorisation of Old Maids. Clearly I’m category #4)
Historians tend to posit that the vitriolic construction of the Old Maid came about because population growth was seen to be the key factor in the continued expansion of the British Empire. Married women really were expected to close their eyes and ‘think of England’. But single women… well, they were “useless” to their country. Worse still, single women who weren’t desperately concerned about just how “useless” they were (i.e. Old Maids) were traitors to their country.
Yet Another Random Fact - One tactic that was employed to try and "solve" the problem of Old Maids, was the holding of public lotteries where men could win themselves a wife - for example, the 1709 "Love Lottery: Or, A Woman the Prize". Of course, only virgins under 25 years (or who had ‘money enough to supply the defects of age’), who didn’t have eyesores, imperfections, deformities and who didn’t smoke tobacco, drink gin or chew charcoal (?!) were given as prizes.
We’re a long way from 18th Century England ourselves. Thankfully the scepter of the Old Maid is in the long distant past. Or is she?
As I’ve been researching the history of singleness, one of the things I’ve been reminded of again and again is that history really does matter. Like it or not, our own cultural discourse has been shaped by those who came before us. Thankfully, 21st Century single women are not the object of pervasive societal scorn and awful public poetry. We have a legitimate social status that those 18th Century Englishwomen could not have even imagined. According to Beyoncé, we are ‘Independent Women’ and it’s certainly not our loss that ‘he didn’t put a ring on it’.
However, the one who is stuck with the Old Maid is still the loser…right?
Old Maids were an icon of the past, but it is right for us to consider how much of the past remains a whisper in the present. Of course, it’s not about a card game (although, if you do play that game with the kids in your life, perhaps consider a name change?!). Rather, it has to do with the possibility of any latent prejudices towards singleness that might still exist in our culture today – and by that, I mean our Christian culture.
Old Maids were reviled because they weren’t doing their bit for country. Is it possible that deep (deep) down, there might be a sense in which we 21st Century evangelicals subconsciously think that perhaps single Christian’s aren’t really doing their bit for the kingdom?
Is it possible that deep (deep) down, we might be tempted to see marriage and the family as so synonymous with the church, that we subconsciously think of the single Christian life as a problem to be fixed?
Is it possible that deep (deep) down, we might struggle to remember that being adopted into the kingdom through spiritual rebirth in Christ means that the ultimate familial privilege is spiritual parenthood, demonstrated through disciplemaking (1 Cor 4:15; 1 Thess 2:7; Gal 4:19) - a privilege and responsibility that belongs to married and single Christians alike?
Is it possible? Maybe. Maybe not.
But the question is worth asking, yes?