Recommended article: "New Light on Maids 'Leading Apes in Hell'"
Author: Gwendolyn B. Needham
Related SMNTY episode: "How much is virginity worth?" and others
I teach British Literature at a community college in Texas, and while preparing for a class I read a poem by Katherine Philips (cool lady!) who wrote "A Married State." Her last line ["There's no such things as leading apes in hell."] sent me on a JSTOR spiral to understand what was going on. I came across an old article about the quote and what exactly it meant.
It really sheds some interesting light on our cultural aversion to spinsterhood or virginity in general. The article argues that it's all because of the English Reformation and the need for the Protestants, and Henry VIII as well as his children, Edward and Elizabeth, to distance the English population from the "Popish practice of celibacy" by basically denouncing all celibates as heading directly for hell and that "he who vows chastity is an infidel."
At first it seems to be about both men and women who vow chastity, but as so many unpleasant religious and cultural things do, it eventually shifts to the idea that MAIDS are the ones who will be doomed to lead apes around hell.
As religious celibacy ends in 1536 the need to tar priests with this brush ends, and since male virginity is so often seen as a joke and also improbable, but female virginity (when she resists giving it up) is a threat to the order of things, it begins to be associated with the social and economic burden of "old maids." Although, luckily, this saying is now obsolete, it seems to reflect and strengthen the fears our culture has had for so long of spinsterhood!
I find it frustrating and also fascinating that this symbol, virginity, can be at first upheld as an ideal and then disparaged as something foolish and dangerous. Just another example of an impossible dichotomy for women to live up to!