distaff [ˈdɪstæf] n.
1.) A cleft staff about 3 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.) As the type of women's work or occupation.
4.) 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.
5.) attrib. and Comb., as distaff-business, distaff-right, distaff-woman; distaff side, the female branch of a house or family; distaff's or St. Distaff's day, the day after Twelfth Day or the Feast of the Epiphany, on which day (Jan. 7) women resumed their spinning and other ordinary employments after the holidays; also called rock-day; distaff cane, a species of reed, the stems or canes of which are used for distaffs, arrows, fishing-rods, etc.; distaff thistle, a name of Carthamus lanatus (Cirsium lanatum), from its woolly flowering stems (O.E.D. 2nd Ed.).
Etymology: Middle English distaf, from Old English distæf: dis-, bunch of flax + stæf, staff.
"Women predominate not only, I think, because of matriarchal considerations, or claims to divine paternity, but also because Boiotian tradition leans in every way toward the distaff side. Yet, through entry and identification of the heroine 'like her who...,' one can file the heroes too, and their exploits, and so compose an account of the heroic age using a method different from Homer's and scarcely derived from him" (Hesiod: The Works and Days, Theogony, The Shield of Herakles, Richmond Lattimore, 1959).