This Woman’s Experience is a series of blog posts about what growing up and life in general was like for women who were born before 1965. It’s intended to show the young women of today how it used to be. They need to know this.
The Old Maid
Hard to believe now, but when I was a teenager in the early 1970s, it was still very common to call a woman who hadn’t married by her early twenties an old maid.
So prevalent was the idea that a woman staying single was a social pariah, that there was a popular card game called Old Maid. The loser of the game was the old maid. We played it all the time as kids—it was on the shelf right next to Monopoly, Parcheesi, and the checkers set—and thought nothing of it.
It was believed a woman who wasn’t married was either ugly, stupid, had an objectionable personality, or didn’t bathe regularly—or all the above. Something clearly had to be wrong with her, and she got whispered about.
The name given an older woman who’d never married was spinster. The word just sounds awful, doesn’t it? The name for a single man was and is bachelor. No stigma to that—ever—not now, not then. In fact, he was quite sought after, instead of shamed like the women.
In the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life (which I love and watch every Christmas eve), in George Bailey’s alternate reality, where he was never born, he asks the angel Clarence to show him what became of his wife, Mary Hatch. Clarence said to him, “You’re not going to like it, George. She’s an old maid.” And he said like it was worse than being a convicted murderer on death row. George reacts with abject horror, as though it was indeed much worse. Mary is shown all buttoned up in ugly clothes and wearing severe black-framed glasses (although she didn’t wear glasses as an adult in her life with George?), and she’s a librarian—which was known as the signature loser job for a woman who couldn’t attract a husband back then.
There was a Foghorn Leghorn cartoon (and I loved and still love all those Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons) that had a scrawny, desperate old maid chicken (woman) who was easily seduced by Leghorn. He was fooling her, didn’t mean it, and we laughed at his deception and at her gullible reaction.
So when I tell you it was prevalent, it was PREVALENT! It was everywhere. TV shows routinely made fun of single women and suggested they were desperate to the point of panic. Married women on TV and in movies were always trying to fix up their poor and unfortunate single friends. Mary Tyler Moore’s best friend Rhoda made more disparaging comments about herself and being single than the others did on the show.
It all worked really, really well. The last thing a brainwashed girl like me wanted was to go through life being thought of as a misfit. The social pressure to be a good girl and a good wife was enormous. But it’s only in looking back I realize that pressure was an influence on me. It was just the way things were.
The women who, beginning in the late 1960s, started to organize for women’s rights were disparaged in my little world. They were unfeminine. Probably disgruntled. Mad because a man dumped them—undoubtedly because of their objectionable qualities. In small towns like mine, that was the way everyone thought. Decent women turned up their noses at the very idea of protesting. Apparently, the bloody efforts to give them the hard-won right to vote by their forbears were totally forgotten. How the hell had those women been received? Not well, either.
The 60s & 70s women’s libbers were very brave to speak up at a time when most other women thought they were vulgar and mannish for daring to upset the apple cart. I didn’t admire them or think they were brave at the time, of course, being the perfect little robot. Is it any wonder I married at twenty? I had no business doing that, but I remember thinking it was my only option, and I was strongly encouraged to do so.
Now I thank God for the courage of those feminists. I can’t imagine going back to how things were. We still have a ways to go, and I do hope we soon have women representing us in government and business in the same percentages as our presence in the population. Over fifty percent, please.
I believe the only way to get through the slings and arrows life throws at all of us is to find the humor.