The Female Prose Writers of America: With Portraits, Biographical Notices, and Specimens of their Writings/Elizabeth C. Kinney/Old Maids
We might say “maiden ladies!”—but wish to redeem two plain monosyllables from a certain undefinable stigma that they have borne too long. Old implies years, and years imply wisdom; why should we despise the one and not the other? Why, unless it be that the word old, when coupled with maid, is held up as a bugbear to frighten girls into hasty and injudicious marriages; or is perverted into another term for a shrivelled, vinegar-faced spinster, in whose nature the milk of human kindness has been soured by disappointment, and turns to acid every sweet that it comes in contact with. Words being but signs of ideas, if such is the apparition conjured to the mind of any by the phrase old maid, we cannot wonder that it seems formidably odious. To us, very different associations are connected with it: the stigmatized name seems almost sacred, conveying to the mind, as it does, the image of a pure, patient, doing, and enduring spirit, well nigh divested of the selfishness that, innate, controls the infant, the child, the belle, and even the wife and mother—that ideal of perfected woman!—in short, the embodiment of disinterestedness.
And who that will take off the glasses of prejudice, look around, and call up recollections of domestic life either at home, or in other homes, can fail to discover some female form and face—possibly attenuated and wrinkled by time and care—moving about the house from morning till night, ever bent on some errand of good to its inmates: now nursing the sick; now contriving some delicacy for the table, or to gratify the juvenile appetite; now bravely leading on to the fight a soap and water regiment, at that semi-annual internal revolution called house-cleaning, herself in the thickest of the fray; now arranging wardrobes for the Spring and Autumn comfort of all the household—save herself; now remaining through the heat and noxious atmosphere of a summer in the city, to keep the house in safety, while its proprietor, children, and even servants are enjoying cool sea-breezes, drinking at fountains of health, or roving in the free air of the country; now out watching the moon, with weary but sleepless eyes, the uninvited, awaiting the return of invited guests from some party or masquerade; in brief, spending and being spent in the service of perhaps a sister, a cousin, or a niece, whose return for untiring, disinterested affection, is the selfish love that considers its recipient invaluable, not as a gentle, unpretending associate, but as a reliable convenience!
But let us look at the causes, as well as effects, of single life in women. If the histories of all old maids were written, what disclosures of female heroism would be made! In how many cases could celibacy be traced, not to want of personal or mental attractions; nor of admiration or love; but to that heroic nature which, though capable of the deepest and most enduring passion, has the fortitude to live alone, rather than be bound, not united, to an uncongenial being. And if “He that ruleth his spirit be greater than he that taketh a city,” surely she that ruleth her heart is greater than she that taketh a name for the sake of a name; or to avoid one stigmatized indiscriminately.
Love is the instinct of the female heart: almost every woman who has lived to see thirty years, has felt the outgoings of affection’s well-spring; but hers is not often the power of choosing, though it is of refusing. Who may tell the inward conflicts, the unuttered agonies, the protracted soul-sickness of conquered passion? But when a true woman once triumphs over an inexpedient or unreciprocated attachment, she triumphs over self, and becomes, that noblest of feminine spirits, the disinterested friend of mankind! Be sure that the scandal-monger, the tart-mouthed old maid, is one whose inner heart has never felt the wound that opens a passage for human sympathies to flow out; but is smarting under superficial mortifications, that, like poison introduced only skin-deep, fester and irritate continually. Rare are such cases, and yet few as they are, they infect the general mind, so that old maid, thus considered, is a noun of multitude, including all who choose or are destined to live single lives. And how many unhappy marriages are the consequence of this opprobrium!
Even the single-hearted piety of unmarried females is derided. Who has not heard such ribaldry as this, “O, she’s getting religion now that she can’t get a husband?” But it is the inspired Apostle who says, “The unmarried woman careth for the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit.” Thus do we see oftenest in the single woman that perfect love to God, which manifests itself in love to all his creatures.
For our part, we venerate the very name of Old Maid—its heroism, its benevolence, its piety! Ye, who are blessed with an Aunt Fanny, an Aunt Polly, or an Aunt Betsy—names too venerable to be spelled with the modern ie, which in your own, perchance, is substituted for the old-fashioned y—do ye ever think that, though unwedded, she has a heart alive with all human sympathies? Ah, you cannot but feel this in her countless ministrations for your comfort. But do you ever realize that she feels, not loved for herself in return, but for her deeds, and weeps silently under the consciousness that when her lonely, loving life ceases on earth, not she, but her offices of kindness will be missed and mourned for?
Such are some of the obscurer subjects of the vulgar prejudice against “Old Maids;” and if these noiseless, yet immortalized individuals, “whose names are written in the Book of Life,” are such invaluable members of the household and of society; what shall we say of Hannah More, of Joanna Baillie, of Maria Edgeworth, of Jane Taylor, of our own Miss Dix, and of a host of others, whose names are written in the universal heart; some of whom “do rest from their labours,” and all of whose works shall live after them? For ever honoured, and through these renowned, be the sisterhood of Old Maids.