Dykes, old maids and the summer of 66

This summer, British television has been reliving the glory days of 1966, when London was swinging and England’s footballers won the World Cup. My own memories of the year are rather less glorious. 1966 was the year when I turned eight; it was also the year when I first heard the word ‘dyke’.

It happened when I was eavesdropping on a conversation between my parents (a bad habit I developed at an early age). My father used the phrase ‘those dykes’ in a passing reference to two women who lived in the posher part of the village. I knew who he meant: they weren’t part of my parents’ social circle, but the village was the sort of place where everyone knew everyone by sight. But I had no idea why he called them ‘dykes’. When I asked my mother later, she said: ‘he just meant they’re old maids: they live together because they never got married’.

I’m not sure if my mother was just trying to avoid the issue, or if she genuinely disagreed with my father about the nature of the women’s relationship. Looking back, I really don’t know if they were lesbians. There was nothing about the way they dressed, spoke or behaved in public that set them apart from other women of their age and class—women I knew to be married because they were addressed as ‘Mrs So-and-So’. ‘Those dykes’ might have been a couple, but equally they might have been friends, or even sisters, who had chosen to pool their resources. It’s pointless to speculate, since I’ll never know their story. But it’s interesting to consider the way such women were talked about back then, and how differently we talk about them now.

In 1966, my father’s phrase ‘those dykes’ was markedly pejorative: even without knowing what it meant, I could tell it was not meant kindly. My mother’s phrase ‘old maids’, by contrast, though also negative in its connotations, was not too offensive to be uttered in polite company, or to an eight year-old. The difference reflected the differing levels of stigma attached to the two classes of women. Both were considered ‘unnatural’, but the unnaturalness of the lesbian was more extreme: she inspired disgust, whereas the unmarried and unmarriageable (but presumptively heterosexual) woman inspired–in varying proportions–pity and contempt.

In the 1960s there were still women around who were understood to have been denied a ‘normal’ life because the men they should have married had been lost to the carnage of World War I. These women were pitied rather than despised; some were admired for the way they had channelled the energy that should have been devoted to their families into various forms of community service. But when people spoke in that vein, they didn’t generally use the term ‘old maid’. What that term evoked was much more negative: sexless, downtrodden church-mice, or censorious old biddies whose nasty, interfering ways were the products of bitterness and sexual frustration.

In search of more evidence about the usage of ‘old maid’ 50 years ago, I paid a visit to COHA, a historical corpus of American English where you can track words and phrases decade by decade. In the 1960s section there are 42 occurrences of ‘old maid’ (giving it a frequency of just under two occurrences per million words). A couple of these, on closer examination, were not examples of the ‘older unmarried woman’ sense, but rather references to an old person who worked as a maid (or in one case, to a closet formerly used by the maid). But once those had been excluded, almost all the rest were clearly negative in the ways I’ve already described. Here’s one from a mystery novel that was published in 1966:

There’s usually one to every couple of blocks or so. The snoopy old maid with nothing better to do than look out of the window most of the day.

But by the end of the decade there are signs of change. One interesting example crops up in a 1969 Good Housekeeping article by Dr Joyce Brothers, entitled ‘Women who don’t need men’.

How can we explain the fact that so many women don’t seem to need men? Well, for one thing, the world has changed. A hundred years ago, a woman had two choices: she could marry, devoting herself to the intensely real, demanding business of childbearing and housekeeping (and maybe helping her husband plow the land and fight off Indians); or she could spend the rest of her life in her parents’ house, tatting doilies. No wonder the “old maid” became a comic-strip caricature—a tiresome old busybody with no place in the social scheme. Today, of course, a woman has multiple choices. If she doesn’t wish to marry, she can have an intensely real life as a research chemist or an officer of a bank. Furthermore, she doesn’t need a husband to enjoy sex. Moral standards are more lenient than they used to be and a woman’s private life can remain just that…

With the sexual revolution in full swing and feminism resurgent (Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl had appeared as early as 1962, and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique a year later), it seemed the old maid might have had her day: unmarried women’s lives in 1969 were no longer about tatting doilies and minding other people’s business.

In the 2000-2010 section of COHA the old maid not only makes fewer appearances than she did in the 1960s (the number of tokens falls to 26, and their frequency dips below one per million words), it’s also striking that many examples explictly locate her in the historical past:

She was only 36. Considered an old maid at one time, but not now.

In an age when women were wives before they were 21, she was already an old maid.

In 2016 I think I’d be more surprised than affronted to hear myself, or any other woman, referred to unironically as an ‘old maid’. If I did hear it, though, I would assume that the speaker intended to cause offence: the connotations of the term have, if anything, become even more negative. One key attribute of the old maid was her lack of sexual experience (historically, ‘maid’ meant ‘virgin’), and today, large parts of western culture consider abstinence from sex far more unnatural than a preference for same-sex partners. You could say that the old maid has swapped places with the lesbian: as the latter’s sexuality has become more normalised, the former’s abstention or exclusion from sex has been further pathologised.

Which brings me to the recent history of the word ‘dyke’.

In the 1960s section of COHA there are only five examples of ‘dyke’ meaning ‘lesbian’ (two taken from play scripts and the rest from a single 1968 novel), and all of them mark it clearly as a pejorative term.

It was a terrible thing to say. But the old dyke got my goat. Jerry said, ‘You shouldn’t call her names like that. You don’t know if she’s a dyke or not…’

But by the middle of the 1970s ‘dyke’ was no longer pejorative in every context. Many lesbian feminists not only regarded it as an acceptable term for in-group use, they actually preferred it to ‘lesbian’. As the linguist Julia Penelope explained the distinction in 1974,

A dyke is a woman committed to revolution, the most radical position. A lesbian is committed to a more liberal position, and she is more willing to compromise and work within the system. A gay woman affirms her commitment to a gay community, and sees nothing wrong with working with men.

Not all radical lesbian feminists preferred ‘dyke’, however: in the early 1980s I knew some who avoided it because they couldn’t get past its history of being used in the way my father used it, to express disgust. Then as now, opinions differed on whether words with that kind of history can ever really be ‘reclaimed’.

Another issue was who had the right to use in-group terms. Even women who did call themselves and each other dykes often objected to outsiders using the word. The same patterns are found with other reclaimed, historically offensive terms relating to ethnicity or disability. It’s usually only in-group members who have an unconditional right to use them (with some latitude sometimes given to trusted allies), and there are always some in-group members who object to them being used by anyone.

In the case of ‘dyke’ the arguments about reclamation are still ongoing. The examples in the 2000-2010 section of COHA include one, from an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, referring directly to the view that ‘dyke’ is no longer pejorative:

She wants to erase the negative connotation to the word “atheist” just as homosexuals have reclaimed slurs like “queer” and “dyke.”

I don’t think it’s a coincidence, though, that this view is attributed to someone who isn’t herself a potential target for homophobic insults. Those who are potential targets know that ‘queer’ and ‘dyke’ can still be slurs: it depends on the context, the speaker and the intent. In the week I’m writing this (in August 2016), it’s been alleged that some constituents of the lesbian Labour MP Angela Eagle held a meeting in her absence where she was referred to as ‘Angie the Dyke’. This has been described as a ‘homophobic slur’ both by those who allege the phrase was uttered and by those who insist it was not.

Looking through the 21st century examples of ‘dyke’ in COHA I was actually surprised by how many clearly were being used as slurs:

Your mama works in the closest hardware store, doesn’t she? What is she, a dyke?

[The] caller said he knew where she lived on campus and would kill her for being a “filthy dyke.”

There are a couple of cases where ‘dyke’ is evidently intended to be jocular rather than insulting:

‘Did you tell them you were a dyke?’ she asked with as much humor as she could muster.

I’d expected to find more of these; I’d even thought they might be more numerous than the pejorative cases. But in the mainstream sources sampled for COHA, the balance seems to tip the other way. The pejorative and ‘reclaimed’ uses coexist in contemporary English, and adjudicating their competing claims can be tricky–a point that was dramatized during the noughties by a legal dispute involving ‘dyke’.

In 2003 the San Francisco Women’s Motorcycle Club, unofficially known as ‘Dykes on Bikes’, applied to trademark their nickname. The US Patent and Trademark Office turned down their application on the grounds that the word ‘dykes’ was offensive and disparaged lesbians. The group contested this judgment, arguing that ‘dyke’ functioned, as the veteran activist Joan Nestle put it, as a symbol of ‘community and self-affirmation’. Apart from Nestle, those who submitted evidence in support of this argument included the cartoonist Alison Bechdel (creator of ‘Dykes to Watch Out For’) and the lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower, who had researched and written dictionary entries for ‘dyke’ and ‘bulldyke’.

In 2006 the original decision was reversed–and then immediately challenged by a Men’s Rights activist who claimed that the term ‘dyke’ was ‘scandalous and immoral’ and ‘a symbol of hate towards all men’. The complaint was eventually dismissed, but it took until 2008 for the trademark to be granted.

The fact that ‘queer’ and ‘dyke’ can still be used against gay men and lesbians does not necessarily mean that attempts to reclaim them have failed. To put it another way, we should not assume that successful reclamation requires the total eradication of the earlier, pejorative meaning. At any point in time there will be variation rather than uniformity in the meanings with which a word is used: semantic change is not the result of one meaning suddenly being replaced by another, but a more gradual process in which the balance between coexisting variants shifts. Eventually a once-dominant meaning may drop out of use entirely, but that’s unlikely to happen in the space of a few years. A more realistic approach is to ask whether non-pejorative uses are becoming more frequent, and if they’re moving into the mainstream, so that in time they will predominate in the input received by speakers acquiring the language. With ‘queer’ I’d say that shift is definitely happening. With ‘dyke’ it may be less advanced, but both words have moved further along the path of reclamation than, say, ‘slut’, ‘bitch’, ‘whore’ or ‘cunt’.

Some of those words offer a useful reminder that reclaiming pejorative terms is not always the right thing to do. ‘Slut’, for instance, is a word that I would argue needs to be abolished rather than reclaimed. The problem isn’t the negative connotations attached to the word, it’s the fact that the category exists at all. The idea that we need any label–positive, negative or neutral–to identify a subclass of unchaste or promiscuous women is entirely a product of the sexual double standard. In a society that took women’s sexual autonomy for granted, the concept of a slut would become meaningless, and the word would fade into obsolescence.

That’s more or less what’s happened to ‘old maid’: its use has declined along with the relevance of the category it labels. That category was produced by the restrictions which historically prevented most women from living outside male-headed households while also remaining both respectable and financially solvent. In some societies those restrictions are still in place, but in modern western societies they have largely withered away. I say ‘largely’ because their traces do survive in certain cultural assumptions (e.g. that ‘normal’ women will find a spouse or partner before they reach a certain age, or that a heterosexual wedding is a happier and more significant occasion for the bride than for the groom). But there is no longer a material, structural basis for the idea that a woman who remains single has, as Joyce Brothers put it, ‘no place in the social scheme’.

When a social category becomes socially irrelevant, the label(s) attached to it will survive, if at all, only in archaic references (any mention of a ‘debutante’ or a ‘kept woman’ locates us either in the past or in some particularly retrograde corner of the present) and fossilized metaphors (‘lepers’ in contemporary English are more likely to be social outcasts than people with leprosy). When I did an online search for ‘old maid’, most of the top results were references to the card game (though as I scrolled down further I also discovered the quilt pattern ‘Old Maid’s Puzzle’ which I’ve used to illustrate this post). The old maid as we knew her in the real world of 50 years ago has now passed, it seems, into history. And a good thing too, IMHO: not everything was better in 1966.