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.

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.

Can you talk a little bit about the process of how this book came into being in a practical way? You tried to write about these historical examples during a writer’s residency almost 10 years ago, but it didn’t go well. Then there was your 2011 piece in the Atlantic, which tackles this issue from a different angle and which garnered a huge amount of attention. How did you come to weave those two threads together in this book?

When I did that residency in 2006, I was writing about three of the women and the ways in which they had thought about marriage versus not marriage, and what they made me think about. But when I sat down to write it, all I would do is cry because I felt so close to these questions and so afraid still of what my life was going to look like. The material was just too terrifying. It also felt a highly idiosyncratic project, like: who cares? These three forgotten woman, and then I’m some nobody woman, writing about them. It felt like a very indulgent project. I didn’t have anything larger to say than that for some reason these three women had really made an impression on me in the ways in which they thought about and conducted their lives; they’d meant so much to me and had created a conversation inside of me that I was having with myself.  But I see now in retrospect that because I didn’t understand the context in which I was living, I couldn’t create a useful friction between their lives and mine. And so I put that project aside, but I never stopped thinking about them or thinking about the project as a whole: single women as an archetype and the malleability of romantic arrangements and how our times dictate what we think is appropriate.

So that was what I was thinking about as a hobby, you know, for all those years. And then in 2011, Scott Stossel at The Atlantic asked me if I would write a cover story about changing marriage trends, contemporary marriage trends, and specifically how men’s worsening economic prospects were changing the face of dating, marriage and the family. So that was the assignment.

Did he know that you really had been thinking about this in a deep way when he asked you?

No.

Really?

Isn’t that crazy? I mean, we knew each other, and I guess I must have talked about this to some degree over time, but he didn’t know how interested I was in it at all. It was really that he was approaching me as an unmarried woman. At the time I was thirty-eight or thirty-nine and he just thought I would have an interesting perspective or would want to take on this assignment. You know, I should ask him why he asked me to do that specific assignment! Anyway, he wanted me to write it in the first person, drawing on my own experiences as an unmarried woman in her late thirties. And I think that, generally speaking, he intended to personalize and humanize and make more accessible these changing statistics that were taking place and were becoming more apparent because of the recession.

So I started researching and recording it and the whole time I was thinking, how am I possibly going to write this in the first person? Because the reason I am an unmarried woman in her late thirties has nothing to do with men’s worsening economic prospects, which was the gist of the assignment. So I didn’t know what that link-up would be until I came across the statistics around single people, which I hadn’t seen before and at the time weren’t quite as widely publicized as they are now. When I saw those numbers for the first time, my heart started racing. It was that amazing journalistic scoop feeling, when you’re like, “Ah, this is the story.” So I called Scott and told him the story was about single people in America and why we have more of them than ever before. He’s an amazing editor and he said, “Well, if that’s what you think, then go with that.”

As I began researching that reality and looking into recent historical trends about single people, I felt like the women I’d tried to write about before were perched on my shoulder, taking in all of this information with me. And for the first time, I was able to put myself into a contemporary context that I hadn’t understood before. In doing that, I was able to see that each of these women had herself existed within a different contemporary context. And so that’s what really brought the women in that old project back to me.

So the article came out, and I did not anticipate the kind of response it would get. One of the outcomes was that I started getting emails from young women all over the world. It really hit in other places like Australia and the U.K., and they all sounded like me when I was in my twenties. They were asking me questions that I had asked myself. And I realized that I was old enough now to write the book I’d attempted in 2006, that I had enough distance. It sounds so corny, but I really felt that these were all my little sisters and I could be a big sister, I could inhabit the authority of a big sister. And that if these women were asking themselves the questions I had asked myself then, that book that I had wanted then still needed to exist.

It’s interesting that you mention Scott Stossel coming to you with the original assignment because of your own singlehood. Because there’s a line in the book: “Today, nearly every female writer I know has had to decide at some point whether or not she’ll accept an assignment to write about her dating life, a conundrum that is almost never presented to men.” Was there any part of you that bristled at the implication that, in this Atlantic piece, you would need to publicly divulge a lot of information about your dating life?

[Laughs] I know, I definitely recognize the irony. That I had basically not written about my dating life all this time and now, suddenly, I was about to do this cover story for a national magazine was absurd. But I felt, at the same time, that it was a great opportunity because The Atlantic had been initiating and shaping a lot of the public conversation around women today, and I felt glad that I would be given the chance to bring my own point of view. As far as that line that you’re quoting, I’d felt on principle that I did not want to write about my dating life, just because it was something that women were asked to do and men weren’t. But personally, it didn’t bother me at all. And that was because I was walking a very fine line of personal writing in that piece where I was drawing on my own personal experience but I wasn’t being confessional. And so it felt like I was just kind of plucking examples to make points, but I wasn’t revealing anything essential about my soul.

Parts of this book echo Janet Malcolm’s style: Unlike her, your writing is memoiristic, but like her, you tell the story of how you researched and came to understand the biographical material you’re writing about. That is, the content is revealed through the process by which you learned it. Was that a conscious similarity?

Oh, it was definitely conscious. [Laughs] I only wish I could be like her—I wish I didn’t have to be so personal, but it’s just the way that I am. She is so good at using herself as this guide and narrator, bringing you through a process and through material, without revealing herself. And that’s what I hoped for at the beginning with my book. I wanted to operate in the tradition of Janet Malcolm. But it turns out I can’t. [Laughs] I’m just personally or anecdotally oriented or something. And I also felt that, because I was writing about a topic I felt so attached to and intimate with, and which is so personal, it required that I put as much of myself in as I was comfortable with.

Why do you wish you didn’t need to? Why is there some moral good attached to not writing personally?

I came of age as a writer with a lot of very conflicted ideas around personal writing. In college, I had been a poet and thought that’s what I was going to do. When I stopped writing poetry, I was very drawn to personal essays because I’d written in the first person as a poet and I was very comfortable writing out of my own subjectivity. The personal essay felt like a natural extension of that—just turning poems into prose, basically.

But at the same time—I graduated from college in ’95—there was this memoir boom, and then the memoir backlash. There was so much bad memoir writing and I didn’t want to be part of it and I didn’t like it. And I also felt like there was an implicit danger that I was too young to be writing out of my own personal experience because I didn’t have any perspective on anything. And I felt if I paid too much attention to writing in that vein I wouldn’t actually learn how to become a writer.

So I resisted it for a really long time. I would very occasionally write personal essays because I do love them so much, but I wanted to learn how to do other things. So that has something to do with it.

In the book, you mention the writer Annie Dillard’s concept of the “gregarious recluse,” which I loved. Could you talk about that place in between introversion and extroversion?

When I was applying to graduate school, one of my editors at The Atlantic described me as an extroverted introvert in his recommendation, and I loved that. I had never thought about myself one way or the other in that regard, and that seemed to nail it. The balance between my introversion and extroversion has been really tricky for me. I really had to train myself to stop constantly talking my ideas instead of writing them down. I had to learn how to internalize, how to hold on to stuff more, in order to express it through my writing rather than through a conversation with friends. But then, at the same time, when I’m researching and reading, I need to talk to somebody about my ideas—it helps me shape and develop my ideas, and then writing helps me clarify them and organize them even further.

As far as my experience as a person who moves in and out of romantic relationships, I think some people are absolutely wired to be inside of a couple, to have a primary partner who they’re connected to at all times, just as some people should not be in relationships at all because they’re best left on their own. I’m someone who likes connections but also needs a lot of time by myself, and it has been tricky over the years to find boyfriends who are comfortable with that balance. I tend to be drawn to men who are fairly introverted, because they need their own space as well.

I’m also very social and love spending time with friends, and I can really invest too much time in that and not enough time in my own work or my own writing or, sometimes, my own self. I think I’ve gone through phases where I’ve used friendship as distraction from things that scare me. It’s probably no mistake that it took me this long to write a book. Part of it is that I was just really afraid to, and it was a lot easier to hang out with my friends than to sit down and write something.

Afraid of what exactly?

I just didn’t think I could do it. Oh, my God, I absolutely did not think I could do it. I was scared it would be terrible or that I wouldn’t even be able to get the words out. And for a while it was really hard to get the words out, to get the words inside my head onto the page. It’s such an ugly process.

It also requires tremendous discipline. I was so in love with New York City and experiencing the city, but in order to write the book I really had to remove myself from a lot of the activities that bring me pleasure to be able to get enough sleep to get a workday in. I found, unfortunately, that I write best in 12- to 14-hour jags. And I could only do that by cutting out most everything else.

You write in the book not only about how great and fun it can be to be single, but also how difficult it can be: for one thing, you have an overabundance of time.

As the years went on, I started to feel more deeply how being a single adult is different than being a single young person. In your twenties, everybody’s single and figuring it out at the same time, and I had avoided a lot of that by staying inside of these long-term relationships where I spent all my time with just one person. As I progressed through my thirties, I started to realize that being happy single required more intentions than I had been aware of. You have to really organize your life so that all of your time is productive and sustaining, because otherwise it’s very easy to get lonely. Particularly when you reach that stage of life where so many of your friends are marrying off and beginning to have children, you just have more time than they do. That time alone can be so rewarding and so sustaining but, on the flipside, it’s haunted by the specter of loneliness. It’s really easy to be ambushed by a lonely or scared feeling. The way to protect against that, I found, is to make your life as full as you can and really exercise the right you have to all this time. You have to put thought into it. Once I did that, it my life felt much more stable and enriched.

Which brings up the major theme of learning to cultivate your own judgment as an adult. Opting into set institutions, like marriage, on a predetermined timetable is not only comforting, but it also sort of relieves you of the need to consciously decide that this is something that you really want. Is that right?

Yes, absolutely.

And it’s valid, too, in a way—I mean, cultivating your own sense of judgment is really unpleasant work, I must say!

Yeah, it is—and I think it’s the only way toward maturity and actually growing up, particularly in a time that is so fixated on youth culture and staying forever young. We have so many different options of ways of living, but we tend to choose just a very particular few. In order to remain open to the possibilities available to us, we have to cultivate our own internal moral compass and set of judgments and values, and that is itself the process of maturing in a positive way and creating an adulthood that feels vibrant instead of resigned.

Could you talk a little bit about how you figured out the structure of the book?

I knew all along that the structure would be my own coming of age as an adult. I think of that as a coming of second age, because the classic coming of age is growing from childhood into young adulthood, and this is really my growing from young adulthood into middle adulthood. I knew that that would be the arc, and I wanted an arc because I wanted this to be a work of narrative non-fiction.

Each woman appears in the book as she appeared to me in real life, in that order. I think of them as little romantic plots on their own: I would fall in love with a woman and have a relationship with her and learn all I could, and then the next one would come along. And each woman came with her own arc, so it’s five mini-arcs inside of my one longer arc.

But it took me months to figure out how to actually do it, because the chronology in which these historical women entered my life put them out of chronological order in terms of American history. So I then had to create another chronology of ideas, basically, and determine which woman was going to represent which ideas I wanted to express. I made a huge chart on the wall and mapped it out, which took me months. So Neith Boyce speaks to the theme of work, Edna St. Vincent Millay is sex, Edith Wharton is intentionality of space and how we organize our lives and the home, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman is really bringing all of those themes together and pushing them forward and politicizing them in a way that those other women didn’t. And then Maeve Brennan, whom I put in three chapters interspersed throughout the book, took a long time because she’s such a sad story.

You note in the book multiple times that all of these women are white. Many also happen to have red hair, like you. Do you anticipate there will be a backlash anyway?

Yes, that’s what I expect. When I realized that the book was so white, I thought, “Oh God, this is terrible.” I considered including a woman of color, and I really wrestled with that for a while, but I decided I just couldn’t because I was telling a true story, and this was how it went, and it’s no mistake that I was drawn again and again to white women because their experiences were the ones I could most easily inhabit. I think it’s a necessary flaw of this book. I wish I could have done it a different way, but I didn’t see how I could have. And so in a way I welcome the backlash because we do need to talk in a broader way about the varieties of the single female experience.

In researching this book, you really had to research yourself and your own past, including reading your old journal entries. What was that like?

I couldn’t read the journals for long stretches—I could only handle a few pages at a time. And that was particularly the journals from before my mother had died, because I think of life as a before and after: before she died and after she died. Re-acquainting myself with the self I had been before she died was really hard for me because I was much more hopeful in certain ways. It wasn’t just the innocence of youth, it was just the innocence of not having something bad happen.

She died quickly, we hadn’t seen it coming, and it upended my sense of the world. It took many years to learn how to internalize a lot of the strength that she had given me. In certain ways, her dying was the beginning of my adulthood, but it also knocked my adulthood off course because I spent the rest of my twenties grieving her and feeling very lost and alienated and alone, with a major loss of confidence in myself and my place in the world.

When I see my 21- and 22-year-old self writing in a journal, one of the things that was shocking to me was how consistent my voice is. I was writing sentences that I would write today. It made me sad to think that it took me so many years to regain the confidence to just continue being myself.

At the end of the book, you write, “I grant that a wholesale reclamation of the word spinster is a tall order. My aim is more modest: to offer it up as shorthand for holding on to that in you which is independent and self-sufficient whether you’re single or couple.” Were you being modest in calling your aim modest? Because the way the book is being packaged—you are pictured on the cover, looking like a super-sexy neo-spinster woman—does send the message that it’s a reclamation of the word “spinster.” And I’m not at all opposed to that.

[Laughs] It’s funny, because I wrote that before the book was packaged. I’m in love with the archetype of the spinster and what she represents to me, but I don’t expect that everybody will be. So if people want to reclaim it, I think that would be so cool. But I did feel modest, like I’m not going to make a rallying cry and insist that we all reclaim it.

The dating experiences you chronicle in the book are amazingly varied, and it seems as though you were dating all the time. Were there times that you wanted to be dating but it just wasn’t really happening at that particular moment?

No, I was always dating. It was varying degrees of seriousness, obviously, but I was just meeting people all the time. I’m just so interested in other people and so game and also so invested in giving people a chance. I don’t write people off very easily. Of course there were periods where I was miserable, I was dating and not finding anybody I liked or somebody was breaking my heart or something was confusing and I was really upset and distraught about it. It’s not like it was a big, fun world of dating. It was complicated and rocky and up and down. But I pretty much always had some version of something going on.

You describe at various points fighting your own tendency to merge completely with the people that you dated, and how cultivating boundaries within the confines of a monogamous relationship is difficult to master. What is your current relationship like in that regard?

I think one reason this relationship has been successful and lasted for as long as it has is because we are both very independent people and need a lot of time to ourselves and respect that in the other. All the way through my youth and through my twenties, my way of coupling was full-on merging with the other into a kind of co-dependency. That’s the only way I knew how to do it. And so the only way I could figure out how not to do it was to not have boyfriends. For a while, for many years, I didn’t want boyfriends. I was dating and I wanted to be with men and spend time with men and have romance in my life, but I didn’t want boyfriends. And what I meant by that was I wanted to be experiencing the opposite of that kind of merging codependency that I had known for so long. Over the years, I became able to maintain a sense of separateness, but usually, the other person didn’t like it. One reason my current relationship has worked so well is because he is not a merger at all and so he’s allowed me to find and kind of revert to my natural state of autonomy while also being coupled with him.

Is there anything else you really wanted to talk about?

Well, I was thinking more about structuring the book around the biographies of these five women, by which I mean the actual biographies written about them as well as just the lives themselves and the work that they had done. What I was trying to do in the book was then offer up myself as a biography alongside these five other biographies so that in a sense the book is a replication of an internal conversation I’ve been having with myself for all of my adulthood so far. And I thought, well, if I put my own biography down onto the page, the reader will hopefully have the experience of absorbing the conversation that I’ve been having in my own head, and she’ll have the example of my biography as something to respond to and react to.

Right! As I was reading the book, I became in my own mind an active rather than passive character in my own life.

Yes, excellent.

It worked.

Yeah. So now, when I’m bracing for the negative reactions to come, I feel that it’s just part of this game: I put myself on the page, and people are not going to like me, or they’ll disagree with things I say or did. And that’s what I opened myself up to, so I’ll have to deal with that when it comes.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.