I work part-time in a bookstore, and was captivated by both the title and cover of Kate Bolick’s new book, Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own on our shelves.
A woman, presumably Bolick, sits smiling on an antique sofa in a beautiful dress, holding an antique tea cup. It is at once nothing like the image the word “spinster” typically calls to mind, and at the same time, an image which could easily have been pulled out of a daydream about my own future self.
Bolick begins by saying, “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 to decide she simply doesn’t believe in marriage. No matter. The dual contingencies govern her until they’re answered, even if the answers are nobody and never.”
An English major turned freelance writer and editor, Bolick uses the book to chronicle the lives of a series of “awakeners” in her life – historical literary-minded women from whom she could draw inspiration and strength following the death of her own mother in Bolick’s early adulthood. Each of these women married late and briefly, spending long stretches of time in the independent solitude our culture paints with the brush of spinsterhood. Both the reality of the lives of these women, and the fictions Bolick crafts in her own head about them, offer alternatives to the narrative that every woman is destined to be someone’s wife, first and foremost.
As a queer woman, my own set of awakeners is different from Bolick’s, but I understand the urge and necessity to create an ancestry – to find women who have broken society’s mold and created a life uncentered from marriage, mothering, and domesticity. In fact, now that gay marriage is a reality in the United States, neither bisexuality nor lesbianism will offer a form of protection against the looming spector of marriage for women in the way they once did.
I recognize that Bolick’s words and history might speak to me more than others. I was born in the Northeast, if not New England proper, and am attempting to forge my own path as a freelance writer. We are both white women from middle class backgrounds. At times, I found myself jealous of Bolick’s ability to piece together a life of independence and solitude in New York City as a writer and editor (including renting a studio apartment there), something I’m not sure is still possible in the current economy, or at the least only to a privileged few.
And Bolick is not unaware of her privilege. While every woman must make sacrifices on the road to self-sufficiency, racial and economic factors make spinsterhood a choice not all women can consider, let alone achieve. Which is part of the problem. Men are able, for the most part, to travel through life not giving much thought to marriage until they find themselves in a serious relationship. But the wage gap, unplanned pregnancy, and the social stigma of being an older, single woman make it more difficult for women to avoid contemplating marriage, even though women often end up losing more of their autonomy by becoming a wife than a man does by becoming a husband.
As a woman who has answered the looming question of marriage with a firm “No!” I’ve shared longings similar to what Bolick calls her “spinster wish.” I’ve had my share of roommates by necessity, but it’s been a longtime daydream to somehow manage to find a way to live alone in my adulthood. Though I currently have a romantic partner, our relationship doesn’t bear the traditional markers our culture tells us such a connection should. I enjoy my own space as much as intimacy, and cannot imagine cohabitating in the future without the freedom of my own bedroom and bank account.
Bolick is charming, vulnerable, and often critical of her own life choices. For years, she shamed herself for being unwilling and unable to settle down with what seem to be perfectly acceptable men, until she was able to accept her own drive towards independence. Whether or not it would be true, Bolick finds the idea of marriage at odds with her creative drive, and chooses a career in writing over having a husband. For while society tells women we can “have it all,” the struggle of balancing a career and a family still places an undue burden on women, who often continue to bear the brunt of child-rearing and household tasks.
By telling her story, Bolick becomes an awakener herself, providing a modern-day example of what a woman’s life might look like if she centers it around herself and not a romantic partner. At the end of the book, Bolick asks, “Are women people yet?” and unfortunately, it seems the answer is still no. Until such time as the answer is yes, Bolick holds up the word spinster as a talisman, saying she hopes that for women the word can mean “holding on to that in you which is independent and self-sufficient, whether you’re single or coupled.”
We are living in a time where there is increasing awareness of queer relationship patterns as well as polyamory. Perhaps Bolick’s version of spinsterhood can offer up yet another narrative outside that of monogamous heteronormativity. There are as many ways to create relationships as there are people to be in them, and we need as many different narratives as we can get our hands on. No one should ever have to choose between love and personal autonomy. I would like to believe that those who really love us would give us the space to be ourselves, whether that means a room of our own, separate houses, or even reducing the value placed on marriage as a cultural construct.
I would recommend Bolick’s book to any woman who has felt within herself the spinster wish, or who grapples with unconventional desires regarding love and romance. Bolick’s writing is conversational, honest, and filled with the strength which comes from charting one’s own path and owning one’s own destiny. Building emotional support structures, following your passions, and creating a pattern of life which brings you joy is something everyone should strive for, and not give up when entering into a romantic relationship. Bolick’s book looks forward to a time where the spinster is not a future self to be feared, and a single life does not mean one devoid of love. Any single woman needing a little boost of strength to make it through the day should grab this book, and hold on tightly. There is hope. There is joy. There is possibility. You are not alone.