Love & Sex
Spinster is a horrible word. Despite a popular culture revolution, begun by Sex and the City and pushed along by shoe fetishisation, the hero-worship of Manolo Blahnik and dancefloors full of girls jiggling to Beyonce's Single Ladies, we still haven't found a neutral word to replace it.
There is no female equivalent to ''bachelor''. I reject ''bachelorette'' as being too girly. It's self-conscious. It feels like we're apologising for ourselves by being cutesy about it. So I argue for a reclamation of ''spinster'', mostly because spinsters are not going anywhere. In fact, they're growing in number.
Societies across the globe, as they develop and educate their women, have increasingly large spinster populations. And like it or not, a country's spinster count is a measure of its development. The more educated a society, the more sole females it has. Let's call it the spinster-o-meter, and put it down a social indicator, along with GDP and rates of child mortality.
The New York Times this week reported that Iran, one of the world's most repressive Islamic states, is home to increasing numbers of solo women. Ten years ago this was almost unheard of, but now it's commonplace. Young un-married women are flocking to the cities and setting up in apartments of their own. Sure, they may wear wedding bands to stave off awkward questions, but they're still doing it.
They're doing it because they can, and given the freedom to choose, it's what they would prefer. It is a particularly significant trend for a society which places the utmost moral, religious and social importance on marriage for women, and where single women still face persecution. The Iranian state's mistake, of course, was promoting university education for its citizens.
According to the NYT, women account for nearly 60 per cent of the country's university enrollments.
Once women have their sights raised and their incomes elevated, marriage becomes far less appealing. When they no longer need to marry for financial protection, women will seek alternative reasons to tie the knot, and they won't always find them.
This is a universal trend - it happened in the West following the feminist revolution of the '70s, and the liberalisation of divorce laws. It's happened in Japan, where marriage and birth rates are in catastrophic decline , and now it's happening in the Middle East. Some social conservatives argue that these trends - female liberation and the relaxation of divorce law - corrode marriage and therefore society.
I think it's more that they have exposed marriage as being un-useful to a growing number of women who, given the (educated) choice, opt out of wedlock. Education begets freedom, and the flipside of freedom is infinite choice.
Or as the British writer Jeanette Winterson's (evil) mother once told her: ''The trouble with a book is that you never know what's in it until it's too late.''
Of course, we don't want a society made up of too many spinsters. Families are still the most important social unit, they are the optimal environments for raising children, and they provide the love and support we all need to thrive. Societies with a surplus of young, unmarried men experience elevated rates of crime and social unrest. Coupling, marriage and families are beneficial to the greater good.
But until society - Iranian and Australian - catches up with the cascade of consequences unleashed by educating women, there will be large populations of spinsters. As one of my favourite female cumudgeons, the American writer Florence King, once wrote: "He travels fastest who travels alone, and that goes double for she. Real feminism is spinsterhood."
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