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Celebrating Singlehood and Reclaiming the Word ‘Spinster’

Jessica Gross | Longreads | April 21, 2015 | 4,797 words

An interview with Kate Bolick about the single women in history who helped her understand how she could live on her own terms.

Posted inNonfiction, Profiles & Interviews, Story

Celebrating Singlehood and Reclaiming the Word ‘Spinster’

An interview with Kate Bolick about the single women in history who helped her understand how she could live on her own terms.
Photo: Willy Somma

Jessica Gross | Longreads | April 2015 | 19 minutes (4,797 words)

In 2011, Kate Bolick charted the sea change in our cultural attitudes toward marriage in her Atlantic piece, “All the Single Ladies.” Interweaving personal experience—she was 39 and single at the time—with reporting, Bolick posited that we are marrying later or not at all, with many women exercising their ability to have children without partners or, again, not at all.

The piece generated a huge response. In Bolick’s new book, Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, she approaches single adulthood from a slightly different angle. The book is part memoir: Bolick describes breaking away from a serious, cohabitating relationship in her late twenties, exploring her ambivalence about partnership, and wholly reconsidering her view of marriage. Along the way, she presents the stories of her five “awakeners,” the historical single women who shaped her thinking. These were the essayist Maeve Brennan, the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, the columnist Neith Boyce, the novelist Edith Wharton, and the writer and activist Charlotte Perkins Gilman. By considering these women’s biographies and cultural contexts, Bolick began to better understand her own.

I’ve been single for most of my twenties—I’m almost thirty now—and I’ve tended to think of it as some kind of flaw. Reading Spinster, I not only saw clearly this underlying belief, which wasn’t totally conscious, but also realized that being single was actually a choice I had made. Does that ring true to you as the heart of what this book is about?

Yes, without a doubt. The book started for me when I was in my late twenties and living with my boyfriend and we moved from Boston to New York so that I could go to graduate school. I started wondering, what does a life look like if you’re not married? I was really struck to realize that there were no positive depictions of single women in popular culture. At that moment in time, in 2000, it was either Carrie Bradshaw or Bridget Jones. You were either frivolous and fabulous or desperate. And either way, you were definitely trying to get yourself coupled. Sex and the City was in a way celebrating singlehood, but it was also singlehood as long as it’s a way station to something else. And so it began that way, with becoming interested in at least learning more about a different way of being that I wasn’t seeing reflected around me anywhere. Yet I knew that culture had given us positive examples in the past, particularly during the second wave of the women’s movement. So where did that go?

It was during that sort of amorphous period of wondering that I came across Neith Boyce, who felt like a profound discovery: I hadn’t even known people were talking about this in the late 1800s. The clarity of her voice at a time that I thought of as being so repressive for women made me see how much we’re shaped by the time in which we live and the assumptions that we grow up with.

So that’s a long way of saying yes, but it was more this kind of internal questioning, and then smacking up against this external example from history.

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