Kate Bolick, the forty-something author of Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, has had a series of long-term relationships. She loved those men. In the relationships, she writes, she “found so much meaning and satisfaction.” Yet each time, when the natural next move was to cross the threshold into official matrimony, she never took that step.
She had what she calls a spinster wish. She savored the fantasy of the single life “not because I didn’t want such [romantic] relationships, but because I also wanted to find other avenues of meaning and identity.”
Spinster is a generously candid and gorgeously written account of Bolick’s own story: one of loving coupledom while also being drawn to singlehood. It is not her story alone, though. Reaching back a century or two, Bolick finds stories of women of letters who lived out loud, unconstrained by the proper and expected ways of doing things.
Today, there is no column in any major magazine that is a joyous, unapologetic celebration of single life, but there was in 1898, when Vogue first started publishing Neith Boyce’s “Bachelor Girl.” Decades later, Maeve Brennan wrote about single life in the city for The New Yorker. Boyce and Brennan are the two lesser known of the five women Bolick calls her awakeners. The others are the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, the novelist Edith Wharton, and the social reformer Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
When my colleague Wendy Morris and I asked 760 college students to predict how happy they would be if they married or stayed single, on average they expected to be extraordinarily happy if they got married and rather miserable if they stayed single. Their predictions were strikingly different from the actual happiness of people — which, it turns out, is at very similar levels regardless of whether they marry or stay single. That so many smart young contemporary adults generated such a stigmatized view of single life was sad. So, in a way, is the need for a book describing the attractions of “making a life of one’s own” in this, the twenty-first century.
Yet here we are. Our society is so saturated with matrimania (the over-the-top hyping of marriage and weddings and coupling) and singlism (the stereotyping, stigmatizing, and discrimination against people who are single) that positive portrayals of real single women are shockingly scarce. Also missing are robust histories and cultural analyses of single life, and stacks of studies of the social science of singlehood, analogous to the endless and relentless and overwhelming scholarship on marriage.
And so I especially welcomed the significant historical and cultural observations that Bolick interweaves with her own story and those of her awakeners. As she notes in an interview about Spinster, she researched “the single woman’s place in the social order, and how it’s changed across time” and found that “the specific economic, political and cultural conditions of each era determine who the single woman can be, and how she’ll be perceived.” Those perceptions were not always as negative as they often are today.
So what does it mean now to live single? How can we think about single life in affirmative ways rather than conceptualizing it merely as the absence of marriage?
Spinster is not a self-help book, so there are no enumerated lists of the components of a good single life. Bolick’s beliefs about the matter are evident, though. People likely to savor single life are drawn to solitude — they like having time to themselves and maybe a place of their own, too. Meaningful work is important. So is the financial means of supporting yourself, and the emotional security of having people in your life you care about and trust.
“In the best instances,” Bolick suggests, spinsters forge “an intricate lacework of friendships varying in intensity and closeness that could be, it seemed, just as sustaining as a nuclear family, and possibly more appealing.” (A decade ago, in The New Single Woman, Kay Trimberger suggested a similar set of components of a satisfying single life.)
Perhaps most importantly, a fulfilling single life is an intentional life. It is thought out and planned and designed and redesigned, just the opposite of defaulting to the prescribed sequence of marrying, decamping to the suburbs, and having children.
Bolick’s characterizations of a meaningful single life are strikingly similar to the preferences of people who see themselves as single at heart. But neither Bolick nor any of her awakeners identifies fully and unreservedly as single at heart. They are all a bit too enamored of coupled life. As I made my way through Spinster, I was crestfallen to discover that one after another of these five extraordinary historical figures had all tried marriage, at least for a while. For a tribute to single people who start dreaming about a life of their own during childhood, and then actually live their dream for all of the days of their adult lives, we’ll have to wait for another book.
Still, this is a book I expect to return to often. Already, I am building a mental list of topics I’m likely to blog about. I want to share Bolick’s collection of telling historical observations about the rise and fall of singles, and the changes over the centuries in the sizes of our families. I’m intrigued by the many different images of single people I read about in Spinster, the unconventional categories of loners, and the different names that have been invented for single women and single men that go way beyond spinster and bachelor. Posts of fun facts, witty quips, and insightful quotes will practically write themselves.
Spinster is also rich with descriptions of creative ways of living, such as the communal living arrangements designed by and for single people and the practice of living apart from a serious romantic partner, even a spouse.
Bolick’s writing has that generative quality about it. “All the Single Ladies,” Bolick’s 2011 Atlantic magazine cover story, broke the internet with its huge popularity and the torrent of responses it inspired. Spinster will be like that, too. It will be a book club favorite and a media sensation. You may as well read it, because if you don’t, you are just going to have to pretend that you did.
Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own
Crown, April 2015
Hardcover, 336 pages