distaff, n. /ˈdɪstɑːf/ Forms: OE distæf, ME distaf, ME dysestafe,
1. A cleft staff about three feet long, on which, in the ancient mode of spinning, wool or flax was wound. It was held under the left arm, and the fibres of the material were drawn from it through the fingers of the left hand, and twisted spirally by the forefinger and thumb of the right, with the aid of the suspended spindle, round which the thread, as it was twisted or spun, was wound.
2. The staff or ‘rock’ of a hand spinning-wheel, upon which the flax to be spun is placed.
3. a. As the type of women's work or occupation.
b. Hence, symbolically, for the female sex, female authority or dominion; also, the female branch of a family, the ‘spindle-side’ as opposed to the ‘spear-side’; a female heir. -- Oxford English Dictionary
The distaff is a symbol of a woman's never-ending work -- especially when you consider just how much stinking spinning a woman had to do to keep up with the needs of her household. Before the introduction of the spinning wheel, women kept the fluffy wool or flax or cotton they were spinning on the distaff -- which they held in their left hand (or in the crook of their left arm). In fact we sometimes see that "distaff" is a synonym for "left." A woman carried her distaff and her drop spindle with her wherever she went. Thus the O.E.D. makes clear that distaff is a synonym for woman -- because for thousands of years one would never have seen a woman without her distaff and spindle.
Spinning was such a required part of a community's life in the days before the Industrial Revolution that spinning was one of the few ways a woman could make her own money and perhaps live independently without a ruined reputation. Thus we also have the word "spinster" -- originally (as early as the fourteenth century) a description of a female's occupation, and eventually a legal term that referred to any unmarried woman. The derogatory meaning of the word evolved beginning in the eighteenth century, with the rise of factory spinning and looms, and the decline of the cottage-based profession. The Church of England, upon the reading of the banns for a marriage, described the unmarried woman as "a spinster of this parish" until 2005; the usage persists informally in many parishes.
Image credit: "The Spinner" by William-Adophe Bouguereau (1873)