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September 24 2018

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I honestly always find the term ‘spinster’ as referring to an elderly, never-married woman as funny because you know what?

Wool was a huge industry in Europe in the middle ages. It was hugely in demand, particularly broadcloth, and was a valuable trade good. A great deal of wool was owned by monasteries and landed gentry who owned the land. 

And, well, the only way to spin wool into yarn to make broadcloth was by hand. 

This was viewed as a feminine occupation, and below the dignity of the monks and male gentry that largely ran the trade. 

So what did they do?

They hired women to spin it. And, turns out, this was a stable job that paid very well. Well enough that it was one of the few viable economic options considered ‘respectable’ outside of marriage for a woman. A spinster could earn quite a tidy salary for her art, and maintain full control over her own money, no husband required. 

So, naturally, women who had little interest in marriage or men? Grabbed this opportunity with both hands and ran with it. Of course, most people didn’t get this, because All Women Want Is Husbands, Right?

So when people say ‘spinster’ as in ‘spinster aunt’, they are TRYING to conjure up an image of a little old lady who is lonely and bitter. 

But what I HEAR are the smiles and laughter of a million women as they earned their own money in their own homes and controlled their own fortunes and lived life on their own terms, and damn what society expected of them. 

Just wanted to add that the suffix -ster was originally specifically feminine, a means of denoting a lady known by her profession. Spinster = female spinner, baxter = female baker, webster = female weaver (webber), brewster = female brewer. If one of the ladies named Alys in your village was known for selling her excellent weaving, you might call her Alys Webster (to differentiate her from, say, Alys Littel who was rather short, and Alys Bywater who lived near the pond).

This fascinates me for many reasons, but especially in the case of modern families with last names like Baxter or Webster or Brewster. What formidable and well-known ancestresses managed to pass on those very gendered names to all their descendants, when last names were changing from personal “nicknames” into indicators of lineage among the middle and lower classes? There’s a forgotten story of a fascinating woman behind every one of those family lines.

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September 23 2018

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