Editor’s note: One of our writers, Chiara, recently posed the question: What’s a good word for a single woman that doesn’t have a negative connotation (so, not “spinster” or “old maid”)? Here’s an answer from Aaron at the Guy Friends Podcast.
We’re looking for a word that captures that positive parts of being single. We’re talking about youth, possibility, optimism, as much sex as you can possibly want with no attachment or responsibility to anyone except yourself. What we’re looking for here, then, is a female equivalent of “bachelor.”
Bachelor is a pretty great word. It’s old, which gives it a classic feel that doesn’t make me embarrassed to hear other people use it. It doesn’t imply that one is looking for a relationship (contrast “available”), implying instead the opposite. Bachelor doesn’t sound like a temporary status, it sounds like a career. More importantly, it sounds like a choice. “Spinster” sounds like you got locked in a dungeon.
How do we account for that difference? The short answer is that, perhaps not surprisingly, society treats men and women differently. Bachelor, after all, wasn’t always a positive word. The early meanings have to do with being inexperienced. After it gained the “unmarried man” meaning in the late 1300s, it still carried with it a negative connotation — it really was the male equivalent of spinster. Of course, by modern times bachelor had taken on its current connotation, i.e., a free-wheeling life of dating around (and loving it). At a certain point in history, it became okay, nay, admirable to be an unmarried man. It’s taken much longer for the same to be true of women.
By contrast, “spinster” has essentially atrophied, mostly because single women don’t generally spend their lives sewing anymore, and also because it’s a horrible and mean word that has no real use in modern society. Every time I have heard the word used, it has been a lady using it in reference to herself (“I stayed at home this weekend, I’m such a spinster.”) And I would say not to do that, except I think that most people just avoid the word altogether. It just doesn’t map to a concept that still exists; I don’t know a ton about feminism, but I do know that there are some women out there who have higher goals in life than getting married to a landed young man. Bachelorette, similarly, makes some feel icky just because we’re using the diminutive “ette” to refer to a female. Plus, this isn’t the Dating Game (where that term was popularized), so we’re not talking about a woman who is searching tirelessly for a boyfriend. We’re talking about a woman who is secure and happy in her independence.
My recommendation, then, for the woman who is looking for a clean, simple, female equivalent of bachelor is, well, to just use bachelor.
This word is so close to what we’re looking for. Everyone already has the right associations with “bachelor,” and there’s nothing inherent in the word that means it has to apply to men. Women are, as I understand it, now capable of being young and single by choice. Bachelor is a word that has come to mean just that. We don’t have to waste time or energy coming up with a catchy, pithy, immediately understandable alternative when we already have one sitting there. And if you feel gross about having to borrow a male concept instead of coming up with your own, consider that this wouldn’t be the first time in history that bachelor was gender neutral, and the etymological history has nothing to do with being male and everything to do with what you’re doing (source: Wiktionary, Being a Nerd). Think of it as the reclamation of a term that should have been gender neutral in the first place.
If we want to start using bachelor as it was meant to be used, the question becomes “How do we separate ‘male’ from bachelor?” The answer is that this word can change like all other words change; via usage. If you like it, just start applying it in the ways you’d want it to be used. Use it to when you want to bask in your bachelorhood, when you tell your friends you want to be a bachelor forever, when you talk about how you wish you had more bachelor friends to go out with, whatever. Use it long enough, and the word will just change, both for you and the people you talk to. The idea being, of course, that it spreads naturally. We don’t need a Santorum-esque internet campaign because everyone already know what the word means. All it needs is a little push.
Here’s all I’m saying: if we all start using it this way now, we’re going to have 3000% more co-ed bachelor parties by 2017. That’s a world I want to live in.
A version of this post originally ran on the Guy Friends Podcast.