Spinster was a term for a female spinner of thread. Spinning wool was a job women could do, in medieval times, to make enough money to live well and independently. Following from this, a spinster came to mean, quite simply, an unmarried woman.
During the 16th Century, partly as a result of Martin Luther’s writing being widely circulated (aided by the new printing press), which detailed the link he saw between marriage and being devout, spinster began to have a negative connotation. By the 20th Century, despite 400 years of women proving otherwise (see Elizabeth I), spinster meant not just an unmarried woman but had become a term of judgement – a spinster was an unmarriageable woman – quite the opposite of the word’s historical meaning.
(Image: Illustration by Jan Pieńkowski from The Sleeping Beauty)