Spinsterhood Gets a Modern Makeover
Even though Kate Bolick makes a solid case for older women on their own, the tropes and mindsets of the past are hard to overturn.
“You are born, you grow up, and you become a wife.”
“But what if it wasn’t this way?” asks Kate Bolick, the author of Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own.
What if women did not have to worry about getting married, or agonize about when and if it will happen—two questions, Bolick claims, that will hound a young girl into her adult life, regardless of where she was raised, or her religious association.
“Men don’t have the same problems,” she argues.
And she’s right. They don’t.
So what if women were like men? What if marriage was not an end goal, but simply a choice—a choice to not settle, a choice to not search, or even the choice to forgo waiting for Mr. Right to magically appear?
What if women could save themselves and carve out a life of their own—on their own terms, and be content with that choice, or at least free from the judgment of others?
Bolick’s book, which reads more like a memoir than a manifesto on the single life, manages to deliver an honest confession about the perils of being alone. She does not gush. Instead, she tells.
She recounts childhood and puberty with a wry and self-deprecating fondness, homing in on how young girls are quickly evaluated on their looks—and marketability. Then, there is the confusing joy of hormones and high school, and the gradual transition into college, and the debauchery and free love that follows. From that, women come to a point where they can settle, push on, or wait. Does one venture out into the real world, where Solo cups of beer and parties are not always present or available? Or should we resist and go our own way?
In Spinster, readers will find a voice that is honest about her ambivalent relationship to marriage. She admits that she has had moments of anxiety about ending up alone. Spinsters are human after all!
Bolick complements her memoir with a tribute to her literary heroes, who she refers to as her “awakeners.” Maeve Brennan, a staff writer for The New Yorker, Charlotte Perkins Gillman, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edith Wharton, and Neith Boyce, who penned a column for Vogue called “The Bachelor Girl” in 1898 —all make up this impressive roster.
Although the passages about her literary influences—the women who made her look outside of herself and question the status quo—are enjoyable (everyone likes to know where a certain writer gets his or her influence), the best passages are her own recollections, where her voice comes through— a voice that is sure and, yes, feminine.
For Bolick, spinster-hood is a choice, not an inevitability.
Nor does it start to loom until one actually becomes an adult, which she claims is not until you’re 40.
And, if you’re 40 and unmarried? Have you missed your “chance”?
Not for Bolick. She threw a party, celebrating her independence. Before her 40th birthday, she had written her 2011 claim-to-fame article, “All the Single Ladies,” in The Atlantic. The article caused a firestorm of debate about whether women were truly content to be alone, leaving behind the traditional roles of wife and mother, to become contented spinsters. And it led to a book deal for Bolick.
Questions surrounding the decline in women getting married or getting married later surfaced. Was this a trend or a result of women becoming more successful than men? So why settle? Or were the pickings too slim by the time you are in your 40s, or even your 30s? Or was there something else at work in her article?
So four years later, we get Spinster. Not the single lady, waving her hands to Beyoncé’s anthem. But for all of the focus on women’s empowerment and the new feminism, “spinster” still has a sting to it. Sure, things have changed, making the much pitied spinster a thing of the past.
But has the stigma really gone away in our feminist-enlightened times? Don’t we still conjure images of the neighborhood cat lady, or the porch-rocking crank, resentfully taking care of one parent or both parents when the word (which we all reflexively avoid) is uttered? Have things really changed since Neith Boyce wrote her Bachelor Girl papers for Vogue more than a century ago? Probably not.
Because spinsters—whether they are confined to the country, or a stuffy apartment, are still a part of society, and in every community and family. And society still judges women—even women who claim they don’t care.
Bolick was judged in 2011 with her article in The Atlantic, and so was Anne-Marie Slaughter in 2008, with her Atlantic article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.”
Slaughter had been a rising star, an important and well known player working alongside the most powerful woman in American politics, Hillary Clinton. Then she walked away, not in retreat, but assertively and unapologetically, and then lived to write about it. It was her choice.
Bolick may differ from Slaughter in that she is not married and has no children—but she is similar in that her decision to remain alone has been her choice—and she has made this choice unapologetically.
Like Slaughter, she recognizes how culture can quickly shape a woman’s view of herself. And part of that view includes marriage. Her “awakeners” certainly had their own view of themselves. They were not silent or submissive in their decision to question the status quo or to fulfill some expectation. They could be disappointed with themselves, but themselves only.
It’s much easier to label a single woman than it is to define her, or even let her define herself.
In an interview, Bolick said, “We have a silence and uncertainty around the unmarried state.”
Spinster simply seeks to widen the conversation about women who choose to opt for a different life. Like Slaughter, Bolick realizes that she can’t have it all. She recognizes how damaging these absolutist principles can be to women. But, the option to make a choice, even if in defiance of society’s expectations, offers a different kind of power and freedom. Which she believes is worth treasuring, rather than fearing.
I wonder if men can do the same.