'Spinster'? What About 'Peddler'? A Gender Inequality in Terms of Commitment

12/07/2011 08:44 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

Women have long endured a burden of accommodating noted imbalances in gender expectations. Domineering, masculine perspectives on political, economic, and social institutions arguably molded these inequalities. So pronounced have these formative voices been that echoes are still heard even in modern linguistic applications and usage. The age-old term "spinster," for example, continues to be used to deride unmarried women -- past their prime, and left spinning in the tower.

Unmarried men, however, seem to have escaped a comparable term of such cloaked, pejorative connotation describing the decisions they have made regarding commitment. Rather, we have retained the empowering "bachelor" as we grow older in solitude, seemingly free from a similar, one-word, cultural articulation of the questions or doubts society has as to the rationale or reason for that single-life status.

Even more, those men who do commit to a partner for years still secure acceptance if a sudden need to move on from that commitment should arise. In the heterosexual community, men might take a mistress or choose divorce. In the gay community, there might be an open relationship, or no relationship. This makes some degree of sense, as marriage has not been an option for same-sex couples -- therefore, neither has divorce or the societal expectations that denote "commitment" under the heterosexual conventions of marriage. From both orientations, such men manage to abandon ship with terms like "lothario" giving buoyancy to their descriptive life preservers. Women who make similar decisions tend instead to hear extremes, including "whore" or "tart." What is good for the Gander is not necessarily good for the Goose.

A reason for this difference in reproach could be that men are shielded by the very constructs we've created. Men are not subject to a single term or word like "spinster" that creates a middle ground for discourse and description, a word that at once possesses comparable capacity to deliver subtle critique and jab by simply manipulating the application of an otherwise benign word.

I have more recently heard "spinster" being exchanged both in levity and in earnest all too casually among acquaintances and friends of mine, predominantly those from the gay community. It is grating. I do not hear this term used by women to describe or address their single, female friends (gay or straight) -- like the sometimes self-empowering "bitch." I do not hear it from my heterosexual male friends when discussing a woman's marital status. That is not to say these latter groups do not use it, but its concentrated presence in the former demographic is what brought the term to my attention for this context and has left me facing doubts and questions of irony. And, rather than resonating as humorous, this term in said dialogues struck me as odd and rather sad, considering that so many of these men are old enough, and much more single, than they might realize when calling the kettle black, or "spinster."

At the same time, however, the single status of many gay men and women is understandable, considering the institution of marriage precluded same-sex unions until very recent, historic, milestone amendments to these laws -- internationally and domestically. However, does that mean that the absence of the institution of marriage has also prevented a mentality of commitment between its members? Or, has it resulted in a calloused resentment projected outward in criticisms of those (women) who have seemingly had the choice and opportunity but not pursued it?

When matrimony is used, discussed and assessed through the traditional lens of social or religious expectations, it predominantly follows the archetype of a wedded pair being heterosexual. That being said, the aforementioned legislation legalizing same-sex marriage will justly open the establishment of marriage to all persons regardless of gender, orientation, or identity. And, as with every good, there come unforeseen by-products. Regarding this discussion's tie-in to the topic of linguistic applications, the legislation will inadvertently broaden society's capacity for skepticism of what to think -- and how to articulate it -- if and when people are unable to commit to a relationship, with or without paperwork. Now that sexual orientation is not a conclusive hurdle, the why can expand.

We have enough names and descriptions for women's behavior or relationship status. However, a great disparity exists in the available characterizations for men. Now that all people are slowly being allowed to marry, regardless of sexuality, the timing seems important to introduce an equal playing field -- a counterpart -- for the linguistic application of "spinster" to women. For men, "bachelor" is far too celebratory in its connotation. Therefore, we should begin to embrace, employ, and apply a word more suitable for men, one that is less forgiving than "bachelor" and at least balances "spinster": so what is dished out to the Goose can be dished out to the Gander.

In that, I propose an extension to the definition of "peddler." "Peddler" originates in an era and period of history close to that of "spinster" and similarly evokes a lonely, isolated profession ever less common in contemporary times. It also captures a stereotypical male tendency toward clandestine mobility in their commitments. It can also deliver the same sort of twisted and cloaked jab as does "spinster," both words benign until applied within a cultural context. The male populace can surely benefit from learning what it feels like to have other people use this type of term to describe or scrutinize their relationship status; one that may or may not be what it appears, or why it appears, to be so.

None of this is to say I think "spinster" should be used at all; I don't. I think it is rude, out of place, and really inappropriate. So is "peddler," I admit. However, until "spinster" is eliminated, there should exist a comparable term of equal weight for observational critique of men. "Peddler" could be just what it takes to get the wheels turning on a rethink of gender expectations in commitment, and also a label toward which some men may not want to steer, so instead, put on the breaks.