The Old Maid Stigma Needs Banishing
It’s an Outdated Cultural Expectation
I love the 1946 classic movie It’s a Wonderful Life.
I love Jimmy Stewart, the time period depicted, and the black and white nostalgia. I love the hidden messages. It’s no secret that the movie was suspect because of supposed socialist leanings. The town miser and sole rich guy, Mr. Potter, made everyone else suffer financially, using his money to get his way.
Apparently, It’s a Wonderful Life was once considered by J Edgar Hoover’s agents to be sneaky anti-American propaganda. Even though the movie was popular with the masses, earning five Oscar nominations, it was one of over 200 movies under investigation at the time for possible communist attempts to promote socialist values and denigrate the upper class.
Of course, there’s still a big percentage of Americans who fear socialism, often confusing it with communism and claiming that capitalism will save the day. We may never resolve that misconception among the middle class. Because the rich certainly enjoy their special handouts, and the poor desperately need whatever little bit of support our government is willing to provide.
It seems that only the middle class carry this deep mistrust.
If indeed a socialist message was hidden in the story lines of It’s a Wonderful Life, however, I think it’s also fair to say that there were other cultural influences that came from this all-time favorite movie as well.
I’ve watched this movie at least a dozen times.
It’s a Xmas favorite. Yet, it took me quite a few viewings before I was struck by one particular scene above all others. Do you remember the scene where the angel showed Jimmy Stewart what his wife’s life (played by Donna Reed) would’ve been like if he hadn’t been born?
Yeah, that scene.
Donna Reed was shown walking home from work one night in the dark. Not so much walking home, but scuttling home like a little rat. And get this. Of all the horrible circumstances that could befall a woman, the writers decided that Donna Reed’s misfortune would be that she was an OLD MAID librarian.
Can you even imagine how hideous her life was without a husband, children, working all day among books, and being forced to earn her own money?
Believe me, that message, whether intended or not, certainly set off a round of laughter on my part.
Maybe the writers were men. I mean probably the writers were men. Maybe in 1946, being an old maid was considered the scourge of womanhood. Yeah, I think maybe it really was, and so when asked to use one’s imagination, the writers drew a likely scenario from the hat. A woman should want to be married, have kids, and stay home to raise them.
That’s what women did in 1946. Not only did men expect them to behave accordingly, but most women expected it, too.
In fact, if you were a woman who had a few passionate interests of your own, something beyond your six kids and husband, you were a misfit among the women in your community. And, if you were a widow and couldn’t find a second man to care for you and your children, you were pitied but no one seemed to think it could ever happen to them.
Americans didn’t prepare their daughters to take care of themselves. Unfortunately, Americans also hated social programs designed to help those in need. So, childhood poverty was the highest among single mothers whose husbands either died or left them.
Being born a girl was risky business in the “wonderful-life” era.
You’re probably thinking that things have changed by now. And you’d be partially right. This is the best day and age to be a woman in many parts of the world. Just think about this. Women had only won the right to vote 26 years prior to the making of It’s a Wonderful Life.
We’ve come a long way since then.
We finally have more rights. We can pursue our own dreams, just like a man. We can take care of ourselves monetarily not just subsist. We can choose to not have children, live with someone without a marriage license, and divorce if we want. We earn more money than ever before and can go to college, build careers, or start businesses if we choose.
We can even remain single for as long as we like without being shamed. Or can we?
Trust me, I’m thrilled to have been born a girl in this time period. I don’t find the lives of women in the 1940s to be remotely romantic. Yet, I’m not convinced that in 2022 women can remain single or childless without experiencing social shaming at worst or at the very least a level of misconception about their intentions.
I have numerous single women friends.
Some live on their own in their own houses and have their own careers. Others live with a man but don’t have kids. Both tell me that they experience a kind of prejudice for lack of a better word. They tell me that there is a feeling of pity or misunderstanding that comes from other women. I suppose men, too, but they deal with this strange response to their life choices on a regular basis from their women friends, acquaintances, and relatives.
I’m not surprised in the least. I’m married and have two kids, so I passed the social test, but I’m also a lifelong observer of human behaviors. This attitude toward women is a deeply engrained social expectation that women have carried with them for centuries.
It doesn’t disappear overnight.
All you have to do is follow women on Facebook and soon you’ll see what I mean. It’s almost funny at times. Women, of all ages, are constantly posting photos of their kids, boyfriends, and hubbies. (I hate the word hubby and always have) They love to announce that their years of dating has paid off. They’ve finally found their “other half”, their soul mate, the love of their life. Then we are forced to see the photos of them hugging, kissing, frolicking, vacationing, eating, and smiling nonstop with joy and happiness. Other women look at the photos with yearning, feeling deprived of the fairy tale life our culture promised us.
Until it’s time for a breakup or even worse a divorce.
Suddenly, he’s the monster from the underworld (sometimes that’s not an overstatement) and they’re dealing with trauma and grief. That is, until the next guy comes along to save the day.
Oh, happy day. THIS is the ONE not the other one. At last. They’ve found their missing half. They were only half a person without a man and kids.
And don’t get me started on the baby pictures and the regular reporting on their child’s accomplishments. You’d think they’d be hesitant to expose their child to a online presence knowing about identity theft and other issues we face in the modern world heavily influenced by sharing too much information. But the social pressure to brand oneself is far too strong. And, for women, it’s not our careers or our hobbies or our personal accomplishments that give us worth.
Nope! to this day all those things take a distant second place to whether we have a hubby and children.
Now don’t get me wrong, please. I love kids. In fact, I strongly prefer the company of kids and dogs to adults. My entire career centered around kids. I was an elementary teacher and principal for almost 30 years. I love the authenticity of children. No social branding or attempts to conform. Well, that is, until we beat them into compliance, metaphorically or literally, so that they eventually “choose” to lead the same life everyone else is living.
When I bump into a woman who has her own interests, passions, and strong opinions about what she wants from life, I’m deeply inspired.
If she’s independent, earns her own money, has a well developed sense of self worth, and loves to explore her options, we can generally find lots of things to talk about. Her hubby won’t be one of them and neither will mine.
I’ve been around long enough to know that my granddaughter has many more choices available to her than I did back in the day.
I was right on the cusp of the good girl bad girl era. We were not only told that being an old maid was the worst thing that could happen to us, but we were also told that unlike a man we were supposed to guard our virginity.
What a struggle to maintain a balance between the two.
We wanted a husband, but our boyfriends wanted sex. We might have wanted sex, too, but we were supposed to be the moral gatekeepers. If we indulged in sex, hopefully it would be with a future husband. If we got pregnant out of wedlock, we’d have to quit school and hide in shame. If the boy refused to marry the girl, the child would be stigmatized as well.
Fortunately, the short-lived but highly influential hippie era pretty well put an end to those ridiculous cultural expectations. I was a teen in the 60s and benefitted as a woman from being born in the 50s rather than a previous decade. Whew!
It’s all so damn silly, isn’t it? Humans are hellbent on making life harder than it already is with an endless array of often pointless even unfair rules and regulations.
Yet, as silly as it is, people remain dead serious when it comes to their cultural expectations. Our brains are so easily influenced and when you add biology into the mix as well as the selfish gene, well, suffice it to say, it takes a long time to crack that tough exterior that defines us.
A few will defy customs at their own risk, but the vast majority will not.
We have a long way to go before women are given permission to choose their own path free of social stigma. A man is a bachelor, denoting a debonair quality, a woman is considered unfulfilled. Old maid may not be the favored description designed to label a single woman these days, but the social response remains much the same.
I declare, a woman could be the first president of the United States, (I’m still waiting) but people would still be sidetracked by whether she had a hubby or not. No husband and childless? Well, that alone might make it difficult for many Americans to relate with her.
I’m waiting for the day when total bologna is no longer viewed as the truth.
Since I’m a lifelong observer of human behavior, however, I know that’ll never happen. Nope. We’ll come up with another stupid set of expectations and impose them on the next generation because that’s how humans operate in groups.
Must be why some of us prefer to go it alone whenever possible.
It’s a Wonderful Life is a great movie but there are lots of lessons embedded in the story lines. Some were intentional messages. Others are merely a historical red flag alerting an observant person to the social changes that have taken place over the years. It ain’t It’s a Wonderful Life anymore. It ain’t even Leave it to Beaver or Happy Days.
Or haven’t you noticed?
Teresa is an author, world traveler, and professional myth buster. You can find her books on Amazon.