This past weekend I was re-reading some articles by Howard Zinn about the badly documented role of women in American history. His piece focused specifically on American history but the same can be said of any other place, I guess.
However, what did catch my attention was a tiny remark in his article about the women employed as spinsters in textile manufacturing plants during the mid to late 19th and early 20th centuries. The women employed in these plants learned the craftsmanship behind spinning wool. At the time this craftsmanship was one of the very few available that allowed women to live independently of a male wage. Since most of the women employed in these textile factories were independent and not married, the term spinster became synonym of a non partnered woman.
Here is where history becomes relevant to our contemporary issues: spinsters were fundamental in the worker’s rights movement in the first part of the 20th century. The Lowell Mill Girls (as they are commonly referred to) was a proto-union group employed at the Lowell Textile Mills. They published their own literary magazine (with pieces ranging from political analysis to satire to poetry and fiction). And they staged one of the first strikes in labor struggles demanding the improvement of salaries and working conditions.
The spinsters of Lawrence, Massachusetts staged one of the most significant strikes of its time. The strike, which lasted more than two months and which defied the assumptions of conservative trade unions within the American Federation of Labor that immigrant, largely female and ethnically divided workers could not be organized, was successful.
We also owe a good part of the women’s suffrage movement (which also spread to Europe) to several activist spinsters that were involved in Unions and political campaigns.
I don’t really know how a word that used to denote women of independence and political action came to be used in a derogatory manner. However, thanks to serendipity, Howard Zinn’s pointer and a bit of digging, I can see how being called one could also be a source of pride.