The word “spinster” refers to an unmarried woman, and is most often synonymous with the stereotype of the past-her-prime old maid, a woman who hasn’t made a good match and who’s doomed to live an unfulfilling life. Well, that’s just stereotypes talking, because… hey, what’s wrong with that, exactly? The answer is absolutely nothing. Pop culture has given us some pretty great spinsters (although on average they do fall within a specific, homogenous, moneyed, and white demographic). So here are our 30 favorite writers, artists, and fictional characters who show the freedom that comes from living an unmarried life — female characters who are defined by their wants and desires, and not characterized through the simple scrim of their relationships.
Sabrina’s Aunts, Sabrina the Teenage Witch
Sabrina the Teenage Witch may be a tale as old as Archie comics, but the ne plus ultra version of Sabrina’s 600-year-old aunts come from the long-running Melissa Joan Heart series: ditsy Hilda (Caroline Rhea) and whiskey-voiced Zelda (Beth Broderick), sparring back-and-forth with Salem the animatronic black cat.
Dare Wright, author of The Lonely Doll
Wright was a photographer, writer, and sometime model whose been a cult name since her 1957 children’s book, The Lonely Doll, bewitched and spooked a generation of readers. In Jean Nathan’s book, The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll: The Search For Dare Wright, we learn more about the woman behind the book. She was a single and reportedly a virgin throughout her life, a woman who deterred suitors with a made-up story about her “great love,” a pilot who died in the Korean War.
Maude, Harold and Maude
We could all learn a lot from Ruth Gordon’s free spirit, Maude, in this perfect Hal Ashby film about a love affair between an old woman and a young man obsessed with death. She’s full of great aphorisms about how to live life, including this one: “Vice, virtue. It’s best not to be too moral. You cheat yourself out of too much life. Aim above morality. If you apply that to life, then you’re bound to live life fully.”
Samantha Jones, Sex and the City
The horny heart of this HBO series, Samantha provides the puns and wacky sex scenes, but she’s also a fantastic friend. She was never going to get married, and she values her freedom above monogamy (even when it’s with an Absolut Hunk like Smith Jerrod). She is a boss, she knows what she wants, and she values her own self-made family above all. Spend the rest of the day trying to do Kim Cattrall’s Samantha voice and feel like a queen.
The Boatwright sisters, The Secret Life of Bees
You know what’s cool about the Boatwright sisters, in both Sue Monk Kidd’s novel and Gina Prince-Bythewood’s film? These ladies band together and create a thriving community of their own in a time (civil rights-era South Carolina, 1964) when the world was against their mere existence. The strength of these sisters — August, May, and June — is life-changing for Bees‘ small, scared, and abused young protagonist.
Rachel Cooper, The Night of the Hunter
Ever meet pure evil? Richard Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter is evil made flesh, LOVE and HATE tattooed on his knuckles, chasing after children that he made orphans for a pot of gold. Well, thank god for the strength of Rachel Cooper, a tough old broad who takes in stray children. She doesn’t buy Harry’s shit for one minute, sleeps with one eye open and a shotgun on her lap, and delivers the film’s most enduring line: “Children are man at his strongest. They abide.”
In both real life and the endless amounts of historical interpretations, Queen Elizabeth (1533-1603) was known as The Virgin Queen since she never married and never had a heir. And you know what? She kept her power, never ceding it to a man.
Without the work of Austen, arguably one of the top five spinsters in the game, storytelling and the marriage plot would be a whole lot different. During her short life, she had suitors, and her ribald and witty letters (and novels) showed that she was no prude. High standards and a fear of childbirth may have put her off marriage — and the world of letters is greater for it.
The Brontë sisters: Emily, Anne, and Charlotte
Oh, the Brontë sisters! They were poor. They weren’t really marriage material. So you know what they did? They worked and left behind some deathless prose, with hella dreamy crazy dudes, from Mr. Rochester to Heathcliff, and straight-up feminist bonafides, like “forgotten sister” Anne. Heroes, the lot of them.
Phryne Fisher, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries
To fans of The Babadook, yes, that’s the same actress, Essie Davis, all dolled up for this delightful Australian series (now streaming on Netflix). Fisher, a glamorous Australian aristocrat, doesn’t need a man, as she’s too busy being the best: solving crimes, flying a plane, being a bohemian, and not giving a fuck.
Lady Edith, Downton Abbey
Robert: “Poor old Edith. We never seem to talk about her.” Cora: “I’m afraid Edith will be the one taking care of us in our old age.” Robert: “Oh, what a ghastly prospect!”
Marilynne Robinson’s matchless, haunting, magnificent book (which also inspired a currently hard-to-see film, Housekeeping, with Christine Lahti in 1987) is about a matriarchy, where men barely figure in the picture. Two orphaned sisters are taken in by their maiden aunts, but it’s their third aunt, the transient Sylvie, who changes things, encouraging young Ruthie to start a life on the road.
Nora, The Woman Upstairs
Claire Messud’s brilliant 2013 novel wrestles directly with the very idea of spinsterhood. We are introduced to Nora as a spinster, or “the woman upstairs,” as she puts it, the nice lady in the apartment above with a cat and a job and no family. The book is the story of what she does with that feeling, and how she comes to terms with what she wants out of life; but in the beginning, people’s expectations of “the woman upstairs” make her furious, and inspires the initial should be notorious, Notes From the Underground style-rant:
“I’m a good girl, I’m a nice girl, I’m a straight-A, strait-laced, good daughter, good career girl, and I never stole anybody’s boyfriend and I never ran out on a girlfriend, and I put up with my parents’ shit and my brother’s shit, and I’m not a girl anyhow, I’m over forty fucking years old, and I’m good at my job and I’m great with kids and I held my mother’s hand when she died, after four years of holding her hand while she was dying, and I speak to my father every day on the telephone — every day, mind you, and what kind of weather do you have on your side of the river, because here it’s pretty gray and a bit muggy too? It was supposed to say “Great Artist” on my tombstone, but if I died right now it would say “such a good teacher/daughter/friend” instead; and what I really want to shout, and want in big letters on that grave, too, is FUCK YOU ALL.”
Miss Rumphius, Barbara Cooney
A children’s book by the great author Barbara Cooney, Miss Rumphius tells us about a woman who uses her precious life to bring more beauty to the world, bringing lupine plants up and down the wild coast of Maine.
The Lady Vanishes
A frequently told story, based on the novel The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1938 adaptation is all about the disappearance of an elderly spinster. It turns out that disappeared Miss Froy is actually an amazing, adventurous secret agent. Team elderly spinster in this case.
Lolly Willowes; or The Loving Huntsman, Sylvia Townsend Warner
A “story about a witch” first published in 1926, Warner’s book concerns a spinster who moves away from her family and to a house in the country in order to take up, well, witchcraft. Cool, feminist, a secret classic, and completely about what it means to have a room of one’s own.
Write, possibly, the best American novel of all time. Assist on one of the towering pieces of American nonfiction. Even though the world wants to co-opt you, make sure to keep control over your own life, living by modest means in your small Alabama hometown. Lee is fascinating, enigmatic, and she’s always lived life on her own terms — as the controversy over last year’s The Mockingbird Next Door revealed.
We all think of her as America’s ur-spinster, the madwoman in the attic, but as this Slate article suggests: “The Dickinson spinster sisters, [next door neighbor] Sue informed [her sister], ‘have not, either of them, any idea of morality.’ Sue added darkly, ‘I went in there one day, and in the drawing room I found Emily reclining in the arms of a man.'”
Plus this poem is pretty dirty:
Wild nights – Wild nights! (269) Wild nights – Wild nights! Were I with thee Wild nights should be Our luxury!
Futile – the winds – To a Heart in port – Done with the Compass – Done with the Chart!
Rowing in Eden – Ah – the Sea! Might I but moor – tonight – In thee!
Little Edie, Grey Gardens
Edith Bouvier Beale was Jacqueline Onassis’ cousin, and she made history once the Maysles brothers filmed her, a socialite and a model who left the city to return to the Hamptons, living and her mother living in elegant ruin for the documentary Grey Gardens. She has remained a figure of fascination ever since, and the source of endless good advice:
Here’s what Flannery O’Connor thought of marriage: “‘She would of been a good woman,’ The Misfit said, ‘if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.'”
So it’s probably good that we got her deathless prose instead.
Elsa has no interest in men. She’s too busy figuring out her amazing power and coming to terms with it, building a magnificent ice castle and belting “Let It Go.” She’s the breakout star of Frozen, aka crack for every child under eight, and her lack of definition through romantic relationships is a big part of it, I think. She’s just trying to be the best Elsa she can be. Men (or women — Frozen stands up to a queer reading, too) shouldn’t figure into it.
Jean Brodie, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
“As you know, I’m in my prime,” said Jean Brodie, the teacher at the center of Muriel Sparks’ 1961 novel, the basis for a movie starring Maggie Smith and also a perennial theatrical experience. You think it’s about an inspirational teacher, but rather, it’s about an unconventional woman, whose methods shape the women her students become. She’s a sharply drawn mystery, in both the book and the movie, and well worth knowing.
Charlotte Bartlett and Eleanor Lavish, A Room With a View
A maiden aunt and the bohemian writer, respectively, wreaking havoc and running around Florence! Bartlett and Lavish both stand in opposition to Lucy Honeychurch, the bright young thing at the center of E.M. Forster’s work, due to rebel against English society by falling in swooning love, pondering the “eternal yes.” In the lovely film adaptation, Maggie Smith and Judi Dench are ample comic relief.
Professor Minerva McGonagall, the Harry Potter series
Alyssa Rosenberg on McGonagall:
“I’ve always loved the way Deathly Hallows opens up McGonagall to us in a pair of scenes — it’s some of Rowling’s leanest, tightest writing. We’ve known for years that she has been Dumbledore’s ally, affectionate towards the Potters before their deaths, a tough, fair teacher even given her Gryffindor partisanship. But it’s in those two scenes that we get to see her be a Gryffindor — and a real person. First, there’s the duel, the moment when she gets to stop being patient and gets to stand up in defense of her values. We get to see her be a superior witch in a non-academic setting. And after she wins, there’s that terrific line when she explains what’s happened to the school: “He has, to use the common phrase, done a bunk.” That line alone is just perfect, her shaking off her formality and declaring her allegiance. And it’s glorious.”
One of Agatha Christie’s seminal creations, Miss Marple uses her time as an elderly spinster quite well, solving crimes everywhere she goes. She has not much in the way of family, is constantly underestimated, and uses her sharp intelligence to figure out just who did it. As a result, we have story after story, and adaptation after adaption: there’s a Miss Marple mystery out there for you.
The Magnificent Spinster, May Sarton
Written when novelist Sarton was in her seventies, this novel is about a woman named Cam trying to write the biography of “the magnificent spinster” in her life, her seventh grade teacher, Jane Reid. It’s a celebration of women across generations.
Louisa May Alcott
It should surprise no reader, forever disappointed by Jo not ending up with Laurie in Little Women, that Alcott lived a complicated life, remaining single throughout her days. She was busy writing for money, and deeply involved with the transcendental community of Concord, Massachusetts. Her sexuality was a mystery (although she certainly wrote some randy things for money) — my favorite theory is that Laurie is based on Henry David Thoreau, on whom she had a crush, rumor has it — and she remained circumspect regarding relationships throughout her life.
“Eleanor Rigby,” The Beatles
Don’t forget your girl Eleanor Rigby, wondering “all the lonely people/where do they come from?” But listen to the Aretha Franklin cover if you want to hear what, to me, sounds like an Eleanor Rigby who’s just fine with her life:
Excellent Women, Barbara Pym
The excellent woman of the title is Mildred Lanthbury, a spinster who gets overly involved in her neighbor’s lives. The result is hilarious, and The Guardian has written lengthy love letters to its genius: “it says something about human aspirations… we all have our hopes; we are all, to an extent, and unless we are very lucky, unfulfilled in some parts of our life; we would all like things to be just a little bit better for us.”
Marilla Cuthbert, Anne of Green Gables
Whether in the book or played by Colleen Dewhurst in the Canadian miniseries, spinster Marilla, who lives on a farm with her brother Matthew, is the key to Anne of Green Gables. She’s not ready to be a mother; she’s just looking for a boy to help with the chores. And as she opens her heart to this wild young girl, our hearts break and bend, too.