Through the ages bachelors have had better press than spinsters. Bachelors are depicted as young, virile males out for a good time. Spinsters are usually seen as the old maiden aunts sitting at home watching the world pass them by.
Now neither perception is necessarily accurate. I would hesitate to put myself up as an arbiter of what qualities should define a typical bachelor or spinster, but I do know that spinsters are rebelling against their public image.
The subject came up recently when a display of historical material from two spinster sisters was mentioned in one paper that carried a headline about maiden aunts. This prompted the ABC to field several phone calls about why spinsters didn't rate a better image in the fun stakes.
"Spinsters of the world unite" attracted my attention as a forthright statement from the apparently unmarried brigade. It went on: "Our elders are leading the way for spinster acceptance by openly acknowledging themselves as spinsters in a society that punishes for being different. For nearly a century that word has held women by the throats. Spinster elders know what it's like to run and hide".
Whoever made that comment probably hadn't attended a Bachelors and Spinsters ball which attract sellout crowds around the country.
The word spinster has had a spin-off effect in our language, sponsoring a few other words in common use. The verb to spin was first used around the 8th century, but the word spinster came on the scene about four centuries later. It applied to any ordinary woman employed at spinning cloth. Alfred the Great is said to have referred to the females in his family as "the spindle side".
It became a custom for young women, before marriage, to spin a set of body, table and bed linen, something like the start of a glory box. Women in those days tended to marry very young. Some who felt marriage had passed them by were aged only 14 or 15. But many of them continued spinning, often to support family and friends.