I may be unmarried at 47, but don’t call me a spinster
Why do people think there's something wrong with a woman who hasn't married? It's hard to believe a ring on your finger is still the ultimate stamp of success.
Published 13/06/2014 | 02:30
Every birthday I have celebrated since the age of 35 has brought with it one guarantee – among the cards will be one depicting an old crone in fingerless gloves, surrounded by dozens of cats. It's a joke apparently, directed at the fact that I am a single – because all unmarried women eventually turn into crazy cat ladies, don't you know.
I like to think I have a healthy, self-deprecating sense of humour, but I have to admit that the joke is wearing a bit thin.
We live in a time when we have made great strides forward in the acceptance of alternative lifestyles, relationships and families. From same-sex marriage to gay adoption, polyamory and celibacy, you name it and anything goes. Yet when it comes to the spinster, society just can't seem to make its peace with us. The stereotypical image of long ago of the oddball woman in the village who makes people feel a bit uncomfortable still sticks. The notion of the happy, unattached female is a myth as far as most are concerned.
In addition to smelling of cat's pee, we are seen as sad, lonely and unfulfilled. For me to reach middle age, as I have at 47, and not to have married means there must be something wrong with me. And, my word, do people like to have fun trying to work out just what that could be. Too fussy, too independent, too smart are just some of the defects of which I have been accused over the years. It's hard to think of any other circumstance where being clever and able to take care of oneself would be considered a bad thing for a woman but, when it comes to attracting a mate, they are total man-repellents I am told. And while we are on the subject, being funny and sarcastic hasn't done me many favours either, apparently.
For many, the belief that if a woman has never found a husband then she only has herself to blame is a long-held one and it's a subject that the writer Sara Eckel explores in her latest book It's Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You're Single.
Fed up of the vitriol directed at single women, the author dismantles the most common criticisms and argues that the reason most women aren't married by a certain age is simple: they just haven't met the right man and they refuse to settle for the wrong one.
Eckel writes of the many times when, like me, she has been called on to justify being without a partner. It's something I call "the taxi driver interrogation" because, in my experience, taxi drivers are the worst offenders, often slack-jawed in dismay that a "lovely girl like you" hasn't been snapped up.
There have been so many occasions when I've revealed that I'm single only to have the person I'm talking to say: "Really? But you seem so nice." That's because I am nice. I don't kick puppies for fun or push old ladies down manholes – I just don't have a husband and it doesn't bother me half as much as it seems to bother everyone else.
My honest answer to the question "Why did you never marry?" would be the same as my answer to why I've never visited Canada, ridden a horse or broken my arm: I don't know, it just didn't happen.
This horrible blame game is something Eckel calls "single shaming" and it's a curious phenomenon that seems only to be directed at women.
The unattached woman is to be pitied and mocked while the unattached man is to be envied and respected. A simple game of word association is enough to hammer home the point. Think of the word "spinster" and what images pop into your head? Now do the same with "bachelor". A Miss Marple figure surrounded by cats and coupons for us and a suntanned hunk in a sport's car for him – am I right?
I also can't recall ever having seen a single self-help book on the shelf aimed at rescuing men from the curse of bachelorhood. But any single woman looking for help in getting hitched can choose from about 120 titles on Amazon, including the bestselling Why You're Not Married ... Yet by Tracy McMillan. In this, she states that the six main reasons women aren't snapped up are because we're either: bitches, liars, sluts, shallow, selfish or just not good enough. It is meant to be light hearted but the message is clear: not married equals damaged goods.
Of course, if women didn't buy these books then they wouldn't get published and I admit that in my 20s and early 30s I thumbed through a few of them myself.
However, as soon as I realised that the lesson from every volume was to act dumb and lower your expectations, I lost interest.
One book suggested that the next time I needed a lightbulb replaced or a plug changed, instead of doing it myself I should knock on the doors of all my neighbours and try to find a single man to do it for me. Hardly humiliating at all. I think I would have died of embarrassment long before I found an unmarried man to come and screw a 40w bulb in for me. Yes, it would be useful to have had a man around to do odd jobs. But in the absence of one, rather than sit in the dark, I learned to do them for myself.
As I entered my 30s, I did feel that the time was right to settle down, particularly as I wanted children, but what I never considered doing was compromising on what I was looking for in a man by settling for any old bloke – as so many of my friends did.
I had two long-term relationships in my 30s, but when it became clear that we weren't quite right for each other, we went our separate ways. It was at that point I was accused of the greatest of all single woman crimes: I was too fussy.
It always seemed so bizarre to me that the very same people who warned me that I shouldn't be too hasty when it came to things such as choosing a new sofa, changing jobs or booking a holiday also cautioned me for being too choosy and unrealistic when it came to finding a spouse.
"Lots of women marry dull men, you've got your girlfriends to have fun with," was the sage advice of one elderly relative. It seems that while it's OK to be fussy about soft furnishings and trips abroad, when it comes to your life partner you should just grab whatever is on offer and worry about it later.
Our cause isn't helped by the word "spinster" itself; so often used as a term of abuse and ridicule. Neither have we been done any favours by some of the fictional characters who were meant to be our champions yet ended up being given "happy ever after" endings by their creators. Creators whom, I can only assume, equated being unmarried with failure.
Take Bridget Jones: after a 15-year hiatus, Helen Fielding reintroduced us to the singleton's poster girl last year only for us to learn that she had married Mark Darcy. OK he'd snuffed it and she is now a widow – but at least she made it down the aisle. So not a complete loser, then. Or there's Carrie Bradshaw, from Sex and the City, who in the 2008 film married Mr Big – the man who ditched her at the altar, married another woman behind her back and generally treated her like dirt. Fair's fair though, she was 41 and at that age when beggars can't be choosers.
It's hard to believe that in 2014 a ring on the finger is still seen as the ultimate stamp of success for women.
There's a scene in the film Airplane when it seems likely that the plane is going to crash and an unmarried female flight attendant asks a passenger if she's frightened. "Yes," replies the woman. "But at least I have a husband."
OK, it's a comedy. I laughed. But try living with a version of that joke for half of your life and see if you're still smiling.
The good news at least is that once you get past 45, the single-shaming decreases. This is mostly because people consider you a lost cause and love to repeat the statistic about how you have more chance of being killed by a terrorist than of getting married.
Maybe I'll get married late in life, maybe I'll be blown up on a hijacked plane. Who can say? What I do know is that I'm not some misfit or freak of nature. I don't sit at home Miss Havisham-style in a dusty old wedding dress poring over photographs of the ones who got away.
More importantly, neither do I have any cats. I hate them.