In yet another example of inequivalent words for men and women in the same position, we have “spinster.” Unmarried adult women are pitiful “spinsters,” while unmarried adult men are eligible “bachelors.” As the name suggests, a “spinster” is a person who spins thread, and originally, it applied to both men and women in that profession. Eventually, it evolved to refer to an unmarried woman who had to occupy her time or financially support herself by spinning thread or yarn. In fact, it became the official legal term for a single woman starting in the 1600s. This remained the case in England and Wales until 2005, when they also retired the word “bachelor” for a single man, according to a 2017 article in Smithsonian Magazine.
Hearing the word “governess” may conjure images of the classic 1964 movie, The Sound of Music, and Julie Andrews, who played a nun-turned-governess in the musical. This context – a governess as a woman who takes care of children – is actually pretty sexist when you look back at its origins. Unsurprisingly, it is the female equivalent of a “governor,” or someone who rules or governs over a place or group of people. At least it was in the 15th century. But as time went on, the domain of a governess went from having authority a territory or jurisdiction (in the geographic and political sense) to supervising and caring for children. Yet again, it reinforces the idea that women can be in charge of children and household duties, while men oversee everything else.
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