Why Words for Single Women Have Changed Through Time 单身女性身份标签流变不休为哪般
Amy Froide 埃米·弗罗伊德
In a recent interview with Vogue， actress Emma Watson opened up about being a single 30-year-old woman. Instead of calling herself single， however， she used the word “self-partnered.”
I've studied and written about the history of single women， and this is the first time I am aware of “self-partnered” being used. We'll see if it catches on， but if it does， it will join the ever-growing list of words used to describe single women of a certain age.
Women who were once called spinsters eventually started being called old maids. In 17th-century New England， there were also words like “thornback” — a sea skate covered with thorny spines — used to describe single women older than 25.
Before the 17th century， women who weren't married were called maids， virgins or “puella，” the Latin word for “girl.” These words emphasized youth and chastity， and they presumed that women would only be single for a small portion of their life — a period of “pre-marriage.”
But by the 17th century， new terms， such as “spinster” and “singlewoman，” emerged.
What changed？ The numbers of unwed women — or women who simply never married — started to grow.
Now terms were needed for adult single women who might never marry. The term spinster transitioned from describing an occupation that employed many women — a spinner of wool — to a legal term for an independent， unmarried woman.
Many of us assume that past societies were more traditional than our own， with marriage more common. But my work shows that in 17th-century England， at any given time， more women were unmarried than married. It was a normal part of the era's life and culture.
In the late 1690s， the term old maid became common. The expression emphasizes the paradox of being old and yet still virginal and unmarried. It wasn't the only term that was tried out; the era's literature also poked fun at “superannuated virgins.” But because “old maid” trips off the tongue a little easier， it's the one that stuck.
Today in the U.S.， the median first age at marriage for women is 28. For men， it's 30.
What we're experiencing now isn't a historical first; instead， we've essentially returned to a marriage pattern that was common 300 years ago. From the 18th century up until the mid-20th century， the average age at first marriage dropped to a low of age 20 for women and age 22 for men. Then it began to rise again.
There's a reason Vogue was asking Watson about her single status as she approached 30. To many， age 30 is a milestone for women — the moment when， if they haven't already， they're supposed to go from being footloose and fancy-free to thinking about marriage， a family and a mortgage.
Even if you're a wealthy and famous woman， you can't escape this cultural expectation. Male celebrities don't seem to be questioned about being single and 30.
While no one would call Watson a spinster or old maid today， she nonetheless feels compelled to create a new term for her status: “self-partnered.” In what some have dubbed the “age of self-care，” perhaps this term is no surprise. It seems to say， 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.
To me， though， it's ironic that the term “self-partnered” seems to elevate coupledom. Spinster， singlewoman or singleton: None of those 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.