I’m trying hard not to hate Kate Bolick because she’s beautiful. But there she is, on the cover of her new book/ode to the single woman, Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, perched on the edge of an antique velvet sofa with a cup of tea in a patterned china cup—how spinstery!—dressed in a cocktail dress and heels with her hair in long, glossy auburn waves, like in a shampoo ad. The whole photo is meant to appeal to the sort of retro thinker who never learned that a woman needs a man the way a fish needs a bicycle, who will say, “How can she possibly be single?” (Translation: this woman has chosen her singleness!)
Now, if this ode to spinsterhood were written by me, the cover photo would show an unkempt slob sprawled on a vintage 1975 woven plaid couch inherited from her parents, wearing a pair of flannel pajama pants and a holey T-shirt she’s had since college with no bra, hair uncombed, in the company of either a cat or a dog (depending on which decade this picture was taken), a book in one hand, a bag of potato chips or peanut butter M&Ms in easy reach of the other, because who the fuck does a woman at home alone have to impress? And because the world is unkind, certain people would see the title “Spinster” and think “No wonder.” (Translation: in the marriage market, here lies the clearance rack.)
If we were men, though, Bolick would be considered choosy, and it would be explained that the fact that I read is a sign of a fine mind and that I clean up real nice. As a critic, I know I should not be making this book All About Me when, technically, it’s about Bolick’s own long-standing obsession with the question of whether a woman has to marry, and about the five woman writers whose work has guided her exploration of this question. (And also technically, I should add that I currently live with a boyfriend, who would be very insulted if I failed to mention him. But I never anticipated anything like this would happen. I still feel very much my own person, very . . . spinsterish.)
But, as Bolick states, Austenishly, at the beginning of chapter one of Spinster,
Whom to marry, and when it will happen—these two questions define every woman’s existence, regardless of where she was raised or what religion she does or doesn’t practice. She may grow up to love women instead of men, or decide she simply doesn’t believe in marriage. No matter. These dual contingencies govern her until they’re answered, even if the answers are nobody and never.
So there you go: no exceptions! Every woman who has ever lived has had to think about this. (Even nuns are brides of Christ.)
She continues: “Men have their problems; this isn’t one of them.”
In her scathing review of Spinster in Slate, Laura Kipnis argues that this sort of thinking seems unhelpfully retrograde. “All this seems far too sweeping. Is marriage really the basis of female ontology in 2015? The thing that defines every last one of us?”
Well, OK, fair enough. We 21st-century Americans—the audience that Bolick is addressing—are blessed to live in a time and place where it’s acceptable for a woman to stay unmarried past the age of 25, to earn her own living, to live separately from her parents and even alone if she can afford it, and where her marital status can be entirely irrelevant in the course of her daily life if she feels like it because she no longer has to be a Miss or a Mrs., simply a Ms.
But I will grant Bolick that, even though marriage no longer as necessary as it used to be, and that now it seems like the decision about whether to have children has a greater and more permanent impact on a woman’s life, many of us, both hitched and single, still see marriage as a major marker in the great circle of life, and it’s hard not to read a book on the subject and keep yourself with arguing with its author and thinking about your own personal experiences and how they stand up against her experiences, examples, theses, statistics, etc.
I began arguing with Bolick very early on, in the opening chapter in which she recounts how, when she reached puberty and grew breasts and was ogled for the first time by a pair of college boys in the swimming pool at her grandparents’ retirement complex in Florida, she realized that soon she would “have to cede the private kingdom of [her] imaginary life to the demands of that larger empire,” the land of mating, where marriage was the inevitable and ultimate goal.
“But what if,” she wonders, “it wasn’t this way? What if a girl grew up like a boy, with marriage an abstract, someday thought, a thing to think about when she became an adult, a thing she could do, or not do, depending? What would that look and feel like?”
I was reading this on the train on the way to the office, and I looked up, and said, to the Bolick in my head, “Lady, I’ve been thinking about this since I discovered feminism when I was 12. This is why Charlotte Brontë’s heroines were always so pissed off and why Virginia Woolf wrote A Room of One’s Own and Wendy Wasserstein wrote, well, just about everything she wrote. What took you so long?”
It is true, however, that, for Brontë and Woolf and Wasserstein (and many, many, many others), the very personal marriage question was tied to larger political goals, like the right to education, contraception, a job with a decent income, and all the other rights (white, heterosexual) men take for granted. Bolick, like many white, middle-class women who came of age after the 1970s (including myself), takes them for granted, too. So Spinster is less about the basic necessity of marriage and more about the search for personal fulfillment and about how that’s possible for a single, childless woman.
The problem is that Bolick’s exploration of the issue is simultaneously too general—because it attempts to address all women—and too specific—because it uses the lens of Bolick’s experience and the experiences of five woman writers she admires—to be very satisfying. The whole book reads like a 300-page article in a glossy women’s magazine, a jumble of research, helpful statistics, mini biographies of spinsters of the past, filled out with a great deal of—probably too much—detail about Bolick’s own dating history and the evolution of her personal philosophy of spinsterdom. (And it did, in fact, start off as a cover story for the Atlantic, where Bolick is a contributing editor.)
Some of the factoids Bolick discovered in the library are pretty interesting. The term “spinster” first appeared in the 1600s in Europe to describe a girl who earned her living spinning thread, one of the few respectable professions for unmarried women. It did not become pejorative until colonial America, when everyone was expected to breed and reproduce as much as possible to build the new country. In the years after the Civil War, which left a surplus of unmarried women, a group of women in Massachusetts (historically the most spinster-filled state in the union) petitioned the state legislature for a loan to start up their own self-supporting agricultural village, a sort of small-scale Homestead Act. They were denied. In the 1910s, the novelist Fannie Hurst and her husband arranged to live in two separate apartments in the same building, which seems to me a brilliant strategy for avoiding roommatelike—and romance-killing—arguments about cleaning and bills and allowing people who work from home to get on with it without interruptions.
The five women—whom Bolick refers to as her “awakeners”—are interesting too. All five were writers, and all five eventually married (though many of the marriages didn’t last, and the ones that did were highly unconventional), but they all thought deeply about what it meant to be a woman living alone.
Edna St. Vincent Millay, brought up by a single mother, famously burned her candle at both ends. Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote the 1898 short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” about a woman driven mad by marriage (she wrote it just before she divorced her husband, incidentally) and the novel Herland about a country populated by women who reproduce by parthenogenesis. Neith Boyce had an irreverent autobiographical column called “The Bachelor Girl” in Vogue in the 1890s, in which she proclaimed, “I never shall be an old maid, because I have elected to be a Girl Bachelor.” Edith Wharton wrote The House of Mirth, one of the great single-girl tragedies, but found personal fulfillment after her divorce from her husband. Of course, her money made this much easier. Maeve Brennan, who for many years wrote a column for the New Yorker as the Long-Winded Lady, did not have money and instead had the misfortune of living during the mid-20th century, an era highly inhospitable to single women. Her last years were a spinster nightmare: she developed schizophrenia, she took in too many cats, and she was reduced to sleeping in the New Yorker‘s offices.
For Bolick, these women form an imaginary sisterhood of singleness. But her own story does not quite compare, either because her life is still a work in progress and its narrative arc is not yet apparent, or because her intention “to be personal without being confessional” (as stated in an author’s note) keeps her reflections deliberately shallow. Or maybe, although she can be engaging, she’s really not all that interesting.
In any case, Bolick had a typical middle-class upbringing with kind and encouraging parents and a friendly younger brother. Her mother died when she was 23; this remains the greatest sorrow of her life. She has always been bright and athletic and gregarious and popular, both with girls/women and boys/men. Her career as a writer and editor has had its ups and downs, but, overall, has been satisfying. She has a warm and supportive circle of friends.
If men are like buses, as Alison Lurie wrote in The War Between the Tates, arriving less frequently as time goes on, Bolick’s dating life thus far has resembled Michigan Avenue at rush hour. She has had plenty of adoring boyfriends, and found plenty of men to date between boyfriends; she has kind words for the ex-boyfriends, less for the casual dates. (Men in New York, she learned, insist on paying and demand sex as compensation.) She has cheated on a boyfriend, but refuses to be the other woman. She has cohabited and lived alone. She enjoys sex, but, in the book at least, reserves her greatest ardor for her apartment, a light-filled studio in an old house in Brooklyn Heights. Even a discovery of a dead and rotting body in the building soon after she moved in could not disillusion her. Of all of these things, I must confess, the thing that most excited my envy was that apartment. (Does the landlord allow dogs?)
Bolick has never appeared to endure a long night of the spinster soul. Well, OK, there is that summer after she dumped the boyfriend she cheated on and then got a really bad sunburn and couldn’t stop crying, so her brother gallantly moved in with her for a few weeks. But that breakup was her choice. She never seems to worry that her unmarried state is a sign that she is rotten inside and doomed to remain forever unloved and unwanted. She never seems to wonder if she’s taking up too much space or if she dares to take up more. Her family doesn’t treat her like a perpetual adolescent (assigned to sleep on the couch during family vacations, for example, while the married sibling gets the bedroom with a door). If she ever did the great tally of how much she has spent to attend other people’s weddings, she doesn’t write about it. (She does, however, throw herself a big 40th birthday party.)
Spinster might have been a better book if Bolick had included the voices of other women who aren’t dead, like her five awakeners, but who are still trying to make their own way in the world the way she is. But that is not, apparently, the book she wanted to write. This book is about her working through something she’s been thinking about for most of her adult life. At the end, she finally concludes, “writing it made me see that the question I’d long posed to myself—whether to be married or to be single—is a false binary. . . . [It] doesn’t even belong here in the twenty-first century.”
Brava! (This does sort of render a lot of the material that came before it irrelevant, but I do understand that book contracts must be fulfilled.)
But then she continues:
The question is now something else entirely: Are women people yet? By which I mean: Are we finally ready for a young woman to set out on the long road of her life as a human being who inhabits but isn’t limited to her gender? . . . Until this answer is an undeniable yes, a girl actually can’t grow up like a boy, free to consider the long scope of her life as her own distinct self.
Arrrggghhhh! Really? We’re back to this again? After all this reading and thinking and writing, Kate, have you learned nothing? Women have managed to think of themselves as distinct selves for centuries, despite political and legal and financial and physical oppression. We are distinct selves now. And look at yourself, in your lovely apartment, having the career you have always wanted! That is not the problem. The problem is that so many people—ourselves included—consider these distinct female selves inferior and not as worthy of respect as male selves.
Your final solution, that the word “spinster” be reclaimed as “shorthand for holding on to that in you which is independent and self-sufficient, whether you’re single or coupled” is a fine one, but doesn’t really solve the problem you just laid out. But I guess you shouldn’t feel too bad about it. Women have been fighting this for centuries, as long as we’ve been thinking of ourselves as distinct selves. (If we didn’t think of ourselves as distinct selves, we wouldn’t be demanding rights.) Maybe we should just take Spinster as a signpost: at last, women can take it for granted that they can grow up to have rooms of their own, even if men still own a lot of the buildings. v