Rejoice, Single Ladies: The "Old Maid" Term Is Dead

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Yep, you heard it here first on Go Retro: the Old Maid is dead. I'm not a fan of elder abuse, but it was about time someone took that old bag for a ride and dumped her on an abandoned highway in the middle of Kansas. Good riddance! Same goes for the word spinster -- an even worse term someone dreamed up at one point for unmarried women past a certain age. That word always makes me think of a witch...a witch from a Disney cartoon with a big, warty nose who loves to dispense poison apples to innocent children and princesses. 

Normally on Go Retro I like to celebrate the way certain things used to be in decades past...but I am still very much a modern woman, and of all of the things that are awesome about living in the 21st century, the fact that there's no longer a stigma against unmarried (or divorced) women in their 30s, 40s, 50s, and beyond is definitely at the top of my list. 

That's why I bring up the "old maid" phrase. Do you remember the last time someone used it to describe a single woman? I sure don't (and in fact, I'm not so sure that kids today even play the card game by the same name.) 

As glamorous as we think the Mad Men world was, the fact is there was a lot of pressure -- even if it was unseen -- on women to get married by a certain age. If you didn't, it was automatically assumed that there was something wrong with you and that you were (gasp!) a lesbian. Just check out this Valium advertisement from 1970 that alludes to the fact that being single at age 35 will make a woman mentally lose it...

"You probably see many such Jans in your practice," reads the copy. "The unmarrieds with low self-esteem. Jan never found a man to measure up to her father. Now she realizes she's in a losing pattern -- and that she may never marry."

That's right. If you're single, you're depressed and let's face it: you're never getting married, so you might as well live the rest of your sad, unfulfilled life in a drugged stupor and adopt several stray cats while you're at it (another dumb stereotype that needs to go the way of the Dodo bird.) 

Just about any book that takes place in the 20th century presents the notion that a woman who didn't want to get married young was crazy. Remember the lead character, Skeeter, from The Help? She just wanted to write and establish a career first while the snooty racist women in her town were marrying husbands they didn't love, having babies they didn't raise, and constructing separate bathrooms for their African-American employees. Her mother was constantly distraught by her single status. Over the summer I read a book called American Wife which seems to have been inspired by the life of Laura Bush. The lead character is pondering the town's fabric shop clerk, "whose single status into her late twenties had confused and saddened my mother and me."

Good grief. Thank God those days are gone. 

I don't know exactly when it all changed for the better, but it seems during the 1990s and beyond that there was a much-needed shift in attitudes towards single women. Maybe all of those shows from the 1970s and '80s that portrayed smart, strong, unmarried or divorced career women such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda, Alice, One Day at A Time and Murphy Brown finally got through to us. 

I wrote a post a couple of years ago about the decline of marriage, although today I'm not so sure that the wedding bells are peeling less often. I hear about announced marriages quite often these days and have attended a few weddings in recent years. I think people are still getting married -- just marrying a bit later compared to their parents' generation. The official stats claim that the average age for a woman's first marriage in the U.S. today is 27 while it's 29 for men. That may not seem that much older, but in 1990 -- 25 years ago -- the average was 23 for women and 26 for men. In 1960, it was only 20 for women and 22 for men. 

I've read quite a few articles lately about people in their late 30s, 40s, and 50s who have found love and are getting marrying for the first time. There were quite a few reasons cited by the interviewed brides and grooms as to why they're walked down the aisle a little later in life. Almost all of them said they didn't want to settle; they'd had it rough in the dating scene and/or were in long-term relationships that just didn't feel right. They wanted to wait for the right partner that they were crazy about and compatible with. Some of them also chose to focus on their careers first. They didn't feel the pressure -- from society, from their partner, from their family, or from a biological clock -- imploring them to tie the knot with someone who would just do, because they didn't think they could do any better. 

And although it's no guarantee, I'm willing to bet that most of these marriages are going to be much happier and stronger in the long run compared to people who got married in their 20s. I think it's because they knew exactly what they wanted out of life and waited until they found someone they could see themselves sharing that life with. 

Now, that's not to say that I believe every person who got married in their 20s wed the wrong person and is headed for divorce. There are exceptions to every rule. Some people do luck out and find the love of their life in high school, college, or a bit beyond that, get married and live happily ever even with life's usual ups and downs. Some people start out madly in love and then grow apart. I'm well aware that a marriage is work at any age. I had a widowed aunt who remarried while in her 60s and she struggled with getting my uncle to take regular showers. She also resisted marrying him at first, telling him, "you'll change." And he did. He went from cooking dinner for her before the nuptials to waiting until she got home so she could start making supper for him. 

I just know, however, that for me personally I'm appreciative of the fact that I didn't meet anyone, marry them, and have children while in my 20s (and that I didn't have kids. No offense to the parents out there, but I was born without a biological clock. It doesn't mean I don't like kids or won't date someone with children; it just means I've never wanted to give birth to one. Weird? Maybe, but I'm just being honest. Basically, I'm like the female version of George Clooney -- a smart man who waited for the right woman before getting remarried, by the way.)

I wasn't dating material in my 20s, let alone marriage material. I had low self esteem, little confidence, and if I went out with a guy that I really liked but didn't get a second date, I took the rejection personally. I also no clue what I really wanted in a partner other than the fact that he had to be a good guy. In fact, it wasn't until I turned 40 that I feel I really came into my own as a woman; there's no comparing my confidence to where it was back then and I even dress and carry myself differently then when I was in my 20s. Dating disappointments and time have allowed me to determine exactly what I want in a partner; what feels right and what doesn't. I also know what my deal breakers are and what quirks a man may have that I'm willing to put up with (everyone has quirks or habits, but some are more tolerable than others.) Not to mention the give-and-take that relationships require and the communication and honesty needed to work out disagreements. It's the kind of perspective most 25 year-olds simply do not have...or at least, certainly not the perspective I had when I was 25. 

Today I'm 43, single, and have believed for a while now that most people should NOT get married before a certain age...I'm going to be bold here and say 40 (OK, maybe 35 or 30 if you know you really want to become a parent.) I just think some people are better off getting to know themselves first and what they want in a partner. I know a lot of women in their 20s dream about their big wedding day, but I think the decade can be better served by getting a career off the ground, paying off any college loans, and saving some money -- not finding someone to tie the knot with, unless you do happen to have a great partner already that you're confident with. 

I'm also proud to be able to honestly that I have no baggage which is definitely unusual for someone my age. No children, and no crazy ex-husbands. That can definitely be a plus for the right guy. And I still do believe that there is a great guy out there who is available, right for me, and a great match with chemistry, a connection, and mutual attraction. 

Right about now I'm sure there's someone saying, "But Pam, didn't you hear that unmarried women over 35 have a greater chance of being hit by a meteorite then walking down the aisle? Didn't you hear that all of the good ones are taken?" Yes I have, and I hear similar limiting beliefs from other women, especially about what jerks men are -- but that's all they are: beliefs. You may have decided to believe it for yourself and therefore make it your reality, but I have personally recently chosen to change my perspective and adopt more positive beliefs. Just this weekend via Facebook, I saw where a woman I know through Meetup got married for the first time a few weeks ago. She's 42, by the way. 

(Very non-retro related side note here: for those who are interested in the law of attraction and that "woo woo" stuff, I'm reading an awesome book I can't recommend enough called Deliberate Receiving by Melody Fletcher. She goes into detail about the nitty gritty of negative core beliefs, why people believe them, and how to change them for yourself thus changing your life.)

And I think as some married people get older they start to realize how smart it is that us single 'uns hold out for the right partner. A family member -- whose husband is driving her crazy these days -- advises me to savor being single for as long as I can. 

So fellow single (and divorced) ladies, rejoice. There's nothing wrong anymore with being single and waiting for the right one to manifest in your life. The Old Maid is dead. May she rest in peace. 


  1. Interesting post.

    But doesn't the lower divorce rates of decades past prove that lower marriage age worked better?

    Also, if I'm not mistaken but pregnancy health risks do increase the older a women is when she gets pregnant.

  2. Hi Dar - actually, the divorce rate has been declining in the U.S. since the 70s and 80s and is now the lowest it's ever been. Apparently the 50% stat that often gets cited hasn't been true for a while. Here's just one article that outlines a few stats and the reasons behind it:

    As far as waiting to have kids, my mother had me at the age of 42 and I turned out just fine. :) I was an unexpected addition to the family. They do say the risks go up if you're an older mother but you know what? I believe there are risks today no matter what your age. A perfectly healthy, pregnant 25 year-old can come down with preeclampsia.

  3. Great piece Pam--I know this was geared towards single women, but there's a bit of a stigma attached to single guys (like me) as well. I'm 53, never married--and for much of my thirties & forties I'd have cousins, aunts, other relations, coworkers wondering if I was gay, and one time I overheard my mom tell someone "Doug's a onfirmed bachelor" Haha--what?!

    I didn't set out to remain single, it just happened. I came close a couple times to thinking about marriage (when I was 29, again when I was 41) but it wasn't meant to be & I'm fine with it. I haven't ruled the idea out, but I'm not searching either. One nice thing about my age is, I stopped caring what others think :)

  4. Hi Doug - thanks! I admit I did think of you and other single men after writing the piece, although I don't think there was much of a stigma towards single men like there was towards women back in the day (however, movies like "Marty" would seem to indicate that there was.) I didn't set out to be single, either, but I'm actually really grateful today that I never got married at 25 and had kids. I've been enjoying this freedom all of this time and have really gotten to know myself in recent years and what I want out of life and a life partner.

    As far as not searching -- that's actually the right thing to do, in my opinion. You should do things that *you* want to do and that make you feel good and I've always believed (and know it to be true) that you can meet/attract someone any time and anywhere....couples do meet in unusual ways, not just through online dating sites and singles events. It's all stuff I've read about in my law of attraction books, but it has rang true for a lot of people...and it always happens when people least expect it. It's because they're happy and totally focused on something else, not beating the drum of "I'm single and miserable and where is my partner?"

  5. Wow, really liked that last line--thanks for the good response, Pam!


Powered by Blogger.