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By Nancy Wick
As a kid in the 1950s, I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up, but there was one thing I didn’t want to be: an old maid. In the small, blue-collar town where I lived, being a woman who didn’t get married meant that people saw you as pathetic, suspicious even. After all, there must be something wrong with you if no man had claimed you. You were unwanted, a shriveled-up old prude.
This attitude caused me to ponder the old maids in my family, starting with my mother’s two sisters, who came to our house every Christmas because we were their only family. Esther didn’t fit the stereotype at all. She was tall and always a bit overweight, but she never seemed self-conscious about that. When she arrived with her “grip” (that’s what she called her suitcase), it was as if a strong bracing wind blew into our quiet, subdued house. She’d smile and begin chatting immediately—about her job, her city, her friends. She’d take us all out to eat, and she and Mother would have fancy drinks like manhattans or daiquiris.
Esther’s eyes were a deep brown and full of warmth; when she looked at me I felt seen. She listened when I talked—unlike my parents, who always seemed to have their attention somewhere else. And she had a life of her own. Esther had an office job with an oil company, and she was brave enough to transfer from her hometown of Pittsburgh, where she’d lived all her life, to Philadelphia when the company relocated, even though she was in her fifties at the time. I listened in wonder as she told us about the move and was thrilled to tour her new apartment when we visited.
Harriet, on the other hand, was the living embodiment of an old maid’s undesirable reputation. She was five feet ten—not fat, but kind of poochy in the middle, a look that was accentuated by her sway-back posture. Her pale blue eyes were hidden behind glasses, her lips set in a permanent frown. Her dresses—she never wore pants—all looked the same: full-skirted numbers with tiny flowers on them. When she visited she typically sat with her arms folded and rarely joined in the conversation. If she did, it was usually to complain about someone she knew who had treated her badly—someone I’d never met and didn’t care about.
Harriet spent her life working in a shoe factory and living with her mother until her mother died, and then she lived alone. She had no friends. She never seemed to go anywhere or do anything, but my mother reprimanded me when I said Harriet was boring. She told me that Harriet had no money to travel or participate in fun activities. Yet, I got the distinct impression that Mom didn’t like her much either; she just felt obligated to include her.
There was another old maid who was even more present in my childhood than Esther and Harriet. This was Aunt Millie, who was actually my father’s aunt, though she wasn’t that much older than he. She was a short woman with brown spots on her wrinkled skin and steel gray hair fluffed around her face. She had the sharp blue eyes that so many in the Wick family had, and age had not dulled her mind. Her body must have deteriorated a bit though, because she rocked from side to side when she walked.
I don’t know what Millie spent her earlier life doing, but in my childhood she took care of old people, living in their homes until they either died or moved to a care facility, at which point she had to move too. For a time when I was in elementary school she lived with us, and I enjoyed her company. Millie loved children and was a good storyteller. But my mother didn’t want her there, so ultimately my dad told her she had to move out. Others in the family seemed a bit wary of Millie. They made sure she had a ride to all the family gatherings (she didn’t drive and couldn’t have afforded a car anyway), but they knew if they gave her much encouragement she’d be wanting to move in with them “just for a few weeks” that would turn into months or even years. So they treated her as an eccentric character—someone to indulge but not really love.
As a kid I was confused by Esther and Millie’s single status, since both were lively and fun. My mother said only that Esther had never had a boyfriend. Much later, my sister and I speculated that she might have been a lesbian because she had a very close attachment to another woman with whom she lived for a while. But of course, in Esther’s lifetime, such a thing was never spoken of. As for Millie, she was said to have thought herself too good for her suitors—or maybe as the youngest daughter in her family she was stuck taking care of the old folks.
I didn’t ask any questions about Harriet; the answer seemed obvious.
Now, I marvel at the assumption behind my questions—that any reasonably attractive woman with a good personality should be married, and if she isn’t, she must have some hidden flaw, an unknown challenge in her life. It never even occurred to me that these women might have liked being on their own and chose to remain unmarried.
As I grew older, I considered the situation in my family and wondered if old maidenhood was somehow hereditary. After all, my mother’s two sisters had never married, and she herself had not married until she was thirty-one. Therefore, I didn’t take it for granted that I would get married. What if no one wanted me? Would I have an empty life like Harriet, or an insecure one like Millie? As for Esther, she was more extraverted and had a sunnier disposition than I did. Could I achieve as good a life as she had without a partner? Then I started school and got my first dose of old maidism, a variant of sexism. It came in the form of Miss Mayes.
Miss Mayes was the music teacher for the whole school district and went around to all the elementary schools in our small town giving lessons. We’d see her maybe once or twice a week, and I generally looked forward to her visits because I liked singing (despite having a lousy voice) and listening to music.
Though she was probably only in her fifties at the time, in my eyes Miss Mayes was very old. Her gray hair was pulled back into a bun and she wore rouge in two circles on her cheeks. She dressed in severe, dark-colored suits with sensible black lace-up shoes. I can remember her in my second grade classroom, demonstrating a melody for us; what had probably once been a fine soprano voice cracked on the high notes. A chorus of stifled giggling broke out, which Miss Mayes chose to ignore.
“She’s an old maid,” the little girl next to me whispered, making a face and using the same tone she would have used to call Miss Mayes an idiot—part derision, part pity.
I shrugged and half smiled, not wanting to join in the put-down but not wanting to defend the teacher either. Still, I got the message loud and clear: an old maid was fair game for cruel jokes.
Yet, on the face of it, what were we doing when we called Miss Mayes an old maid? We were saying, “You’re old and you never married.” To which the answer might be, “So?” It’s not a crime, after all, to not get married. A man living alone and supporting himself would be admired, not reviled. An unmarried woman, on the other hand, must be defective in some way.
Given the statistics of the time, there might have been a reason for thinking that. Ninety-five percent of women born between 1921 and 1940—those with children in the 1950s and 60s—got married at some time in their lives, more than any previous or later cohort. They also got married earlier, were more likely to have children, and had more children than any generation before or after. So in my childhood world, being married was the overwhelming norm.
And it seemed that Miss Mayes paid the price for not adhering to that norm. Years after she taught me in elementary school, I learned that Miss Mayes and her sister, who lived together, were found in a squalid apartment and had to be institutionalized. Poor lonely old maids, I thought when I heard this; nobody cared about them so nobody knew.
The possibility that I might wind up like Miss Mayes became more threatening during junior high school, when boys and girls began to pair up and I found myself on the outside looking in. My peers mingled at dances and flirted at parties which I did not attend. I spent those years as a recluse, reading in my room, convinced that no one would want me because I was skinny, flat-chested, had sprouted pimples and wore glasses. And I was reminded of the dire fate I seemed to be heading toward by my required participation in home economics classes, a reflection of the school district’s assumption that every girl would need to know how to manage a home because every girl would certainly be getting married.
As the dating scene heated up in high school, I was still left out. And I encountered an old maid who was a bit of a mystery—my English teacher, Miss McKee. She was an attractive woman in her fifties, trim and petite, and we girls were all abuzz when we found out that when she was a student at the same high school, she had been senior queen. It was the title reserved for the prettiest and most popular girl—and now she was an old maid schoolteacher. What could have happened to leave her in this state? We speculated about it endlessly, and somehow it never occurred to us that she might have wanted to remain single. We were sure she must have been jilted and never got over the heartbreak.
Looking at Miss McKee, I realized that good looks and even popularity didn’t guarantee that a girl would find true love, so what chance did I have? The same year that Miss McKee was my teacher, I got my first boyfriend, but it only lasted a few months. When he dumped me it confirmed my worst fears about my desirability and my family curse. I was back to feeling lonely and hopeless about my prospects.
I make it sound as if I was obsessed with finding romance, and in a way I was. But from an early age I also knew that marriage was not going to be enough for me. I wanted to go to college. I wanted a career and a marriage. Yet, I was terribly afraid that I was doomed to old maidenhood. The thought hung over me like a pall. I’d wind up like poor old Miss Mayes, living in a seedy apartment with twelve cats.
My fear ought to have abated in college as I pursued the degree that would qualify me for the career I wanted, yet I wasn’t as career focused as I should have been. I studied and got good grades, but what I cared about most was who I was going out with on the weekends. This attitude was reinforced when I joined a sorority, where the talk was always about boys and parties. There was a tradition of holding “candlelights,” a ceremony in which a member would announce an engagement or similar relationship commitment. The girls would stand in a circle and sing sweetheart songs while a lit candle was passed around. The candle would go around once for lavaliering (wearing a necklace signifying “going steady”), twice for pinning and three times for engagement. When it got to the girl in question, she would blow out the candle and everyone would squeal and hug her.
My senior year of college was marred by panic. I had always assumed that I would meet a man in college and marry him upon graduation—that was the pattern I saw all around me. But, poised to earn my diploma, I was alone and my liberal arts degree wasn’t worth much in the world of work. What was I going to do? That spring, the sorority held its traditional Senior Banquet. At this event, the juniors concealed lemons under their clothes and had to run the gauntlet on the way to the dining room through a line of seniors trying to find them. All the lemons that were not found were given to the girls who were not engaged. We were supposed to eat them for dinner. Now there was a message.
My distress over what to do when I graduated was relieved when my adviser suggested I apply for a fellowship to graduate school. My application was successful, and the next year I found myself studying for a master’s degree. But even then, my focus remained stubbornly on finding a partner. That’s why, when a good-looking fellow graduate student put the moves on me, I was vulnerable. Never mind that he was married; he wrote me poetry, called me “my pretty,” told me we would be together forever. I believed him. In spite of all the impediments, I thought he was rescuing me from that terrible fate of being alone in the world.
Of course that didn’t work out. I stumbled through my twenties, finding a way to make a life for myself in spite of my fears. Still, I approached thirty with a great deal of trepidation. Surely now I was officially an old maid. That was in 1977. Today on Wikipedia, you can find this Q&A: “How old is an old maid?”
The answer: “A spinster is an unmarried woman who is past the usual age for marrying and is considered unlikely to marry. An eighteen-year-old single woman would not be considered a spinster in contemporary language, but a single, forty-year-old woman may be considered a spinster. The term is synonymous with ‘old maid.’”
So the age of old maidenhood seems to have gone up, but there is still an age designated.
At thirty, I didn’t much resemble the old maids of my childhood. Unlike some of them, I had a college degree and a profession. I wasn’t stuck doing factory work or taking care of old people. I also had a home of my own and I had a love life—one that included sex. I had been raised to believe that a woman should wait until marriage, but the sexual revolution struck in full force when I was in college, and that—combined with not getting married early—had convinced me that I was just as entitled to a satisfying sex life as a man. Though I didn’t think of it that way then, I was refuting the idea from my childhood that an old maid is “primly fastidious” or “a dried-up old prune,” as one of the dictionary definitions puts it. As a sexually active single woman, neither of those descriptions fit me.
So why did I still feel stigmatized, inadequate somehow because I hadn’t managed to marry? In part it was the environment. I lived in a town of about 150,000—big enough that everybody didn’t know everybody else, but not big enough to have much of a singles scene. The majority of the people I met were married, and the few single men around seemed to realize they were a scarce commodity and took advantage.
But some of the stigma was inside me, planted there by the attitudes that surrounded me in childhood. As feminism blossomed during my college years, I embraced the idea of women as equal, independent human beings that I’d always believed in but didn’t have a name for. In my mind I was convinced that it was perfectly fine for a woman to be unmarried, but old messages die hard, so my feelings were a different matter.
As it turned out, I didn’t marry until I was nearly forty, and I have to say that my years as a wife have been happier than the ones I spent on my own. I wonder, though, if my single years could have been different if I hadn’t equated being single with being deficient, if the specter of being an old maid hadn’t been held up to me as a bogeyman.
You don’t hear the term old maid as often anymore. Young women may still meet their husbands in college, but they are marrying later, taking time for some solo adventures first. Still, one day in 2007 I opened the student newspaper at the college where I worked and read a column by a young woman who was about to graduate. She wrote that she was still single, with no prospects in sight:
“This freaks me out, because when I was a little girl, my mom told me I’d meet my future husband when I went to college…. [She] still asks me why I don’t have a serious boyfriend, and I can’t help but feel like I let her down—like my college degree is somehow incomplete without an accompanying marriage license.”
The idea that marriage is the only way to happiness for a woman is alive and well, all these years later. In her column the student went on to say that while life is better if it’s shared with someone, it’s “not so bad” if you’re alone, but I had the feeling she didn’t quite believe it.
That’s why I wrote to her, saying the words I once needed to hear: “Don't let anyone tell you that there's something wrong with being a single woman. Find a job that offers you opportunities to grow, indulge in freewheeling pursuits not available to people with mortgages and children, and have yourself a good life on your own terms. When you meet the right man, you'll know.”
And even if you don’t meet him, I might have added, that doesn’t make you an old maid; that makes you an independent woman.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.