This isn’t a word you see as often as you once would, but some writers seem to like it for some purposes. Here are a couple of recent hits from The New York Times:
Her apple-cheeked robustness seemingly hollowed out by the final curtain, Ms. Piper vaulted in a single performance to the top ranks of distaff talent in a town where women across the spectrum of age and experience reigned supreme in 2016. —Matt Wolf, “In a Year of Surprises on the London Stage, Women Held Pride of Place,” January 3, 2017
Trump is surrounded by a bitchy sewing circle of overweight men who are overwrought at the prospect of a distaff Clinton presidency. —Maureen Dowd, “Girl Talk at Trump Tower,” October 1, 2016
Another recent NYT hit refers to Batwoman as “a distaff crimefighter.”
Distaff is an old-fashioned or newspaperese word for ‘woman’ or ‘female’ or that sort of thing. Sometimes you’ll see references to “the distaff side.” Those who use it likely see it as a handy synonym to enlist in that texturbation they like to think of as “elegant variation” (also known as tawny-gourd-ism; see pontiff and temblor). It seems to be lacking in negative connotations or connections. I mean, what, exactly, is this word distaff anyway? What does it mean? Where does it come from? I’m here to ’splain it for you.
First off, the staff in distaff is the staff in staff, as in shepherd’s staff and flagstaff.
Next, although it is pronounced with a “short” i as in dis (so not “Di staff”), the di is not short for dis- or de-. Which means that distaff does not mean ‘without a staff’. No, it’s from Old English dise (also spelled dis), which is an old Germanic word referring to a bunch of flax for spinning. “Here, spin dis!” A distaff is a staff about 3 feet long that was used for holding flax or wool for spinning into thread. The spinner held the staff under the left arm and drew the flax or wool through the left fingers, and twisted it into thread with the right thumb and forefinger as it was wound onto a spindle.
Oops! Did I say spinner? Sorry, the word is spinster.
Does that sound familiar? Like, hmm, a word for an “old maid”? Yeah. Spinning, you see, was woman’s work – or, anyway, work for women who didn’t have a husband to take care of. Starting in the 1600s, spinster was even the official legal designation in England for a woman who was still unmarried. That was how her name was to be written: “Elizabeth Harris, of London, Spinster.” And of course every spinster had a distaff – after spinning wheels were brought in, the distaff was mounted on the spinning wheel rather than being held under the arm.
Have a look at the shirt you’re wearing. Presumably it’s made of fabric that is composed of threads woven together. Imagine every one of those threads being spun by hand (and then woven together with a loom, and the resulting fabric cut and sewn together by hand). Until the Industrial Revolution, that’s how it was done. It required a lot of very dull work. Badly paid dull work, if clothing was to be at all affordable. Work for women who had nothing better to do – because they weren’t allowed to do anything better. Like, you know, work on rockets.
That’s an anachronistic ha-ha, but the irony is that they did have rockets back when distaffs were used. Remember that spindle that thread was wound onto from the distaff? It was called a rocket. The space projectiles that came later were so named because of the resemblance of shape. (The distaff was also called a rock – different origin than rock as in rock climber or rock as in rock the cradle.)
Well, now women can work on the newer kind of rocket on the staff of NASA. Or, if they want, they can work on the older kind of rocket and rock. Or whatever else. I’m sure a few women – and maybe some men – spin because they like the craft of it. I’m also sure far more now go to “spinning classes” involving stationary bikes. Women have infinitely more things they can do than carry the distaff’s burden and be known as spinsters.