Men who live alone have a special name for their homes: bachelor pads. But what do women who live alone have, other than the ability to absorb and discard endless comments about when they’re going to get married? In Curbed, solo-living advocate Ashley Fetters looks at the history, stereotypes, and trends around women who choose to maintain their own spaces.
Solitude is often considered a privilege when we can afford to choose it and a punishment when it’s thrust upon us, and the same seems to extend to solo-living situations: Moving out to a place of one’s own for peace, quiet, and privacy is an occasion for congratulations, while living alone as a result of being abandoned or left behind is a much more pitiable affair. In other words, there’s an assertive, active image of living alone and there’s a sad, passive image of living alone.
And as anyone who’s read Simone de Beauvoir might intuit, it’s easy to assign a certain masculinity to the “active” and a femininity to the “passive”—hence, for example, the disparity between the mischievous way one might say “bachelor” and the pitying or scornful way one might say “spinster” (no matter how much work women like Kate Bolick have put into arguing that spinsterhood is something to aspire to).
There’s been a tendency over the last century or two to imagine the solo-living man as someone who has chosen peaceful privacy and the solo-living woman as a sort of flawed societal leftover. Or perhaps more alarmingly, a woman who has chosen to reject her preordained role as helper to a husband and family.
From setting the talking points in interviews to addressing negative publicity before it leaks, an effective communications agent can help build a troubled brand and save a CEO. After doing her job in Silicon Valley for over two decades, Margit Wennmachers has helped companies like Skype, Etsy, Facebook, and Amazon shape their public identity.
For Wired, Jessi Hempel makes Wennmachers the focus of an article, instead of letting Wennmachers be the one behind the article, to describe how communications agencies shape our perception of startups and their founders, and how communications works. As tech’s old reputation changes from a group of nerdy outcasts to a greedy power center run by sexist, gentrifying capitalists, she’s now helping shape the narrative of tech itself. She’s angling for something driven by the old maxim that “with great power comes great responsibility.”
Controlling the message of tech has become both easier and harder. In the early days, Wennmachers needed to hustle to put the firm’s founders at the center of tech conversations, which often happened in the pages of a short list of reputable publications. Yes, Andreessen Horowitz had a blog, but its most powerful ideas were conveyed by the traditional press. Consider Andreessen’s iconic August 2011 missive announcing that “software is eating the world,” which became the rallying cry for the generation of tech startups that followed. It was first published as an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal.
That media ecosystem has now been upended and the path to success has changed. Wennmachers’ ability to push out a narrative no longer depends on having an editor’s ear. Andreessen Horowitz can advance its own editorial ideas through blog posts, podcasts, social media, and a newly launched YouTube channel independent of the media, connecting directly with people starting or building companies.
Its founders write frequent blog posts, and they have access to enough social channels that they no longer need a Wall Street Journal to push out their perspective. A former WIRED editor produces a regular podcast that is downloaded and listened to by a wide audience of aspiring founders, business people, policymakers, and tech enthusiasts. “The running joke of the firm is that we’re a media company that monetizes through venture capital,” Andreessen says. It’s a joke, but also an inevitable evolution of Wennmachers’ role—in which a communications lead begins to look much more like a media tycoon.
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. Read more…