A New York Times Book Review Notable Book
“Whom to marry, and when will it happen—these two questions define every woman’s existence.”
So begins Spinster, a revelatory and slyly erudite look at the pleasures and possibilities of remaining single. Using her own experiences as a starting point, journalist and cultural critic Kate Bolick invites us into her carefully considered, passionately lived life, weaving together the past and present to examine why she—along with over 100 million American women, whose ranks keep growing—remains unmarried.
This unprecedented demographic shift, Bolick explains, is the logical outcome of hundreds of years of change that has neither been fully understood, nor appreciated. Spinster introduces a cast of pioneering women from the last century whose genius, tenacity, and flair for drama have emboldened Bolick to fashion her life on her own terms: columnist Neith Boyce, essayist Maeve Brennan, social visionary Charlotte Perkins Gilman, poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, and novelist Edith Wharton. By animating their unconventional ideas and choices, Bolick shows us that contemporary debates about settling down, and having it all, are timeless—the crucible upon which all thoughtful women have tried for centuries to forge a good life.
Intellectually substantial and deeply personal, Spinster is both an unreservedly inquisitive memoir and a broader cultural exploration that asks us to acknowledge the opportunities within ourselves to live authentically. Bolick offers us a way back into our own lives—a chance to see those splendid years when we were young and unencumbered, or middle-aged and finally left to our own devices, for what they really are: unbounded and our own to savor.
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Kate Bolick is a contributing editor to The Atlantic. She was previously the executive editor of Domino magazine. She lives in New York.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
There, Thought Unbraids Itself
Whom to marry, and when will it 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. These dual contingencies govern her until they’re answered, even if the answers are nobody and never.
Men have their own problems; this isn’t one of them.
Initially the question of whom to marry presents itself as playacting, a child pulling a Snow White dress from a costume box and warbling the lyrics of “Someday My Prince Will Come” to her imaginary audience of soft-bottomed dwarfs. Beauty, she’s gleaned, is her power and lure, a handsome groom her just reward.
Next she deduces that a flammable polyester gown with tulle underskirts does not an actual princess make, and that beauty is in the eye of the beholder—which is to say, she discovers her market value. For me it was the morning in second grade when I understood with a cold, sharp pang why I disliked gym class, even though I was the fastest runner and could do the most chin-ups. As our gym teacher, a man, led us toward the playground, I saw that he didn’t playfully tease me the way he did my friends—the pretty ones. And so I learned, I am not pretty.
With puberty comes yet another opportunity for self-inventory. In fourth grade, I was second in my class to develop breasts, which I hid by wearing two heavy wool sweaters simultaneously all through an exceptionally warm spring—intuiting, rightly, that when the world saw what my body was up to I’d be thrust into a glare of visibility I wasn’t prepared to meet.
Fifth grade: buck teeth. Sixth grade: braces. Seventh grade: popularity. I’d always found friendship easy, with boys and girls both; now I was also getting romantic attention and the two beams of social approval wove themselves into a crown. During class, my friends and I traded intricately folded notes about our crushes and practiced writing our someday surnames in fancy cursive letters. When I saw the high school girls’ soccer team circled for warm-ups, one girl at center leading the stretches, I decided that someday I, too, would be team captain.
Eighth grade brought with it hourglass proportions, which I learned while swimming in the pool at my grandparents’ retirement complex in Florida. Two college boys appeared out of nowhere, cannonballed into the water, then shot to the surface, wet heads gleaming. “Gotta protect that one,” they leered, loudly enough so that my mother, reading on a lounge chair, could hear. I blushed with pleasure and shame—and the shame of pleasure. What did it mean? Later she explained my “nice figure.”
And so the approach of ninth grade made me mournful and agitated. I suspected that thirteen was the last, outermost ring of the final stage of childhood, and that those idle diversions I’d never thought to question—long hours paging through picture books trying to spot an overlooked arm reaching out from the rubble of Pompeii, or “praying” to the Greek gods (the most plausible deities, I’d decided)—would soon seem immature, unsuitable. When I turned fourteen and began my freshman year in high school, I’d have to cede the private kingdom of my imaginary life to the demands of that larger empire, where the girls who were already drinking beer and having sex were writing new laws I didn’t want to play by but couldn’t ignore.
Braces and breasts—and so a girl becomes, if not one of the pretty ones, attractive. To boys, I mean. College sees a few more adjustments—baby fat melts away; the late bloomer sprouts curves; the blandly pretty cultivates envy for the beautiful’s chiseled bones—and then the real games commence, carrying on from campus through her twenties and thirties.
Some get the matter over with as quickly as possible, out of love or duty or fear. I’ve had friends who consider themselves plain tell me they seized the first husband they could get, leaving the playing fields open to the pretty and the hot. Others postpone the inevitable as long as possible, each passing year more thrillingly uncertain than the last. Their evasions are inscrutable to the romantics, who lie in wait, expectant, anxious.
It’s hard to say which is more exhausting: the sheer arbitrariness of knowing that her one true love could appear out of anywhere, anytime, and change her fate in an instant (you never know who’s just around the corner!), or the effortful maintenance (manicures, blowouts, bikini waxes, facials) that ensures she’ll be ripe for the picking when it happens.
Eventually, whether you choose or are chosen, joyously accept or grudgingly resist, you take the plunge.
You are born, you grow up, you become a wife.
But what if it wasn’t this way?
What if a girl grew up like a boy, with marriage an abstract, someday thought, a thing to think about when she became an adult, a thing she could do, or not do, depending?
What would that look and feel like?
In 2012, I read that modern America’s first iconic single woman and my favorite girlhood poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay, had lived in my hometown in the early 1900s. Obviously, Google Earth wouldn’t do. I rented a car and drove the five hours north from my studio apartment, in Brooklyn, New York, to the house I grew up in, on the coast of Massachusetts.
The news had astonished me, both the exciting nearness of a woman I admire, and that I hadn’t known it already. We the people of the historic seaport (so heralds a sign on the highway) of Newburyport put great stock in our civic past; it’s how we compensate for having no contemporary relevance. Every schoolchild is taught that George Washington once spent a night in what is now the public library. John Quincy Adams slept everywhere, apparently. Yet we don’t stake our rightful claim to one of the twentieth century’s most famous poets.
Admittedly, it wasn’t Millay’s poetry that had inspired me to make the trip. When I was twenty-three my mother died unexpectedly, and in the months that followed I’d been gutted to discover that without our conversations, which I’d always assumed would be there for the having, I had absolutely no idea how to make sense of myself.
Unconsciously at first, and eventually with something resembling intention, I began the very long process of re-creating our conversations—not with other, real, live women, who could only ever be gross approximations of the mother I missed, but real, dead women, whom I could sidle up to shyly and get to know slowly, through the works they left behind and those written about them.
By now, including Edna Millay, there were five such women: essayist Maeve Brennan, columnist Neith Boyce, novelist Edith Wharton, and social visionary Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
I’d come to consider them my “awakeners,” a term I’d borrowed from Wharton, who used it in her memoir, A Backward Glance, to describe the books and thinkers who’d guided her intellectual studies. Granted, mine was a more sentimental education. I’d encountered each awakener at a different stage in my own coming-of-age as an adult, which, I could no longer deny, I finally was. I’d just turned forty.
I’d made a very big deal of the birthday. Those of us who’ve bypassed the exits for marriage and children tend to motor through our thirties like unlicensed drivers, unauthorized grown-ups. Some days it’s great—you’re a badass outlaw on the joyride that is life! Other days you’re an overgrown adolescent borrowing your dad’s car and hoping the cops don’t pull you over. Along the way I decided to take as faith Erik Erikson’s famous theory of psychosocial development, which maintains that age forty is when “young adulthood” ends and “middle adulthood” begins, and I vowed that when that day came, I’d properly celebrate my place in the order of things, no matter how unsettling it felt to accept I was no longer young.
For six months my friend Alexandra and I planned a seaside clambake for forty of our mutual friends and closest family, to be held several towns south of Newburyport the first weekend in July. Alexandra is married, with two children, and, possibly because of this, handled our wedding-like preparations with more sangfroid than I, who had never hosted a big event, and fixated on every last detail, most fanatically, the exact-right motif.
It should be simple, I decided, and nautical (an anchor, a clipper ship, a crab) yet also . . . iconic, representative of transition, one door opening as another closes (Janus), or perhaps straddling two worlds (a centaur, a minotaur) but female obviously (not a harpy; a Valkyrie?).
That it took me so long to arrive at the obvious made my final preparations all the more manic. The night before the party I stubbornly carved a mermaid into a linoleum block—a skill last deployed as a YWCA camp counselor the summer before college—poured a pan of black ink, and doggedly printed her shapely silhouette onto forty red-striped cotton dishtowels, one for each guest, while my new boyfriend, S, gamely affixed homemade mermaid stickers to matchboxes, somewhat alarmed, he later admitted, to witness what happens when, as my family has long put it, I get a bee in my bonnet.
My heart hummed. Hadn’t I wished as a girl to be a mermaid, and wasn’t I a mermaid now? Never before had I been so liminal: astride the threshold between young womanhood and middle adulthood; in love but living alone; half invisible, half statistical reality—as in, over the course of my own lifetime the ranks of unmarried women (and men) had grown so swiftly that it reached a record high, turning what had felt, in my twenties, to be a marginalized status into a demographic so enormous it was no longer possible to question our existence.
The next morning the caterer, my childhood friend Martha, who’d reinvented herself as a feast-maker, arrived with buckets of lobsters and clams. Our friend Alison, an antiques dealer, laid the rented tables with black-and-white gingham cloths and silver candelabras. Like me, they were both unmarried mermaids, as were all but one of my female guests.
Without a doubt I was forcing myself toward epiphany, come hell or high water, but it worked. The night itself was clear and warm. Watching my family mingle with friends from every stage of my life, some they’d known forever and others they’d never met, I began to sense a shift in my perception, a growing awareness that I was now in possession of not only a future, but also a past. It was almost a physical sensation, as if everything I’d ever thought or done had been embroidered onto the long train of a gown that now trailed behind me wherever I went.
When I looked over my shoulder to inspect this feat of silken wizardry, there they were, my five ghostly awakeners, holding it aloft.
I’d never regarded all five women together before, as a group, and in the weeks following the party I found that I couldn’t stop. The oldest was born in 1860, the youngest in 1917. One was from Ireland, but they’d all spent their adult lives in America (at least through young adulthood; one decamped to France in her forties). Though all were writers of various stripes, none had been friends in their lifetimes.
These women had been with me for over a decade, and yet still they were mostly abstractions, spectral beings confined to the invisible sanctum that exists between the reader and the page, as if they weren’t once real people who’d walked this same earth, negotiating their own very different personal and historical circumstances.
Discovering that Edna Millay had actually walked the streets of Newburyport, the only place to which I feel an intense, visceral attachment, as if it’s not merely my hometown but a phantom limb, ignited a desire to bring all five of my awakeners back to life, so to speak. Getting to know them, really know them—visit their homes; read their letters; smell their perfume—was a task long overdue. I wasn’t sure what I’d learn by seeing Edna’s house, for example, but given how sensitive I am to my own surroundings, I knew it would somehow deepen my understanding of who she’d been.
I drove the first hour of the trip in silence; the snarl of exits and on-ramps that quarantines New York City from the rest of the state requires militant attention to the GPS. But once I’d hit the highway, I turned on the radio and toggled through the stations, a baggy American songbook.
I’d happened upon my five awakeners with a similar hopscotch of happenstance and instinct, and until well past New Haven I suffered a variant of commitment phobia, or buyer’s remorse, tallying up all those who might have been, musicians and artists and thinkers just as interesting as the ones I’d chosen.
This ad-hoc approach had discounted scores of perfectly acceptable candidates. For instance, Mary McCarthy, many a bookish girl’s imaginary avatar, even though one morning I found myself looking in the bathroom mirror thinking a passage from her Intellectual Memoirs as if it were my own: “It was getting rather alarming. I realized one day that in twenty-four hours I had slept with three different men. . . . I did not feel promiscuous. Maybe no one does.”
But crossing from Connecticut into Massachusetts, I remembered that McCarthy a) had been a touch too coolly imperturbable at the exact moment I needed warmth and b) grew up in Seattle and Minneapolis, two cities I know nothing about.
All four of my native-born women had strong ties to New England.
Besides, I decided, isn’t that how falling in love so often works? Some stranger appears out of nowhere and becomes a fixed star in your universe. My susceptibility to the seeming poetry of random chance is both blessing and curse.
By now it was late evening. I took the exit for Newburyport and continued along High Street, a wide boulevard of pretty eighteenth- and nineteenth-century houses, toward the center of town. As always, the buildings of my youth were exactly where I’d left them. The deceptively dignified-looking Newburyport High School. The tiny, shingled Lynch’s Pharmacy, where I was always greeted by name. St. Paul’s Church, home of my Montessori kindergarten and later, my mother’s funeral. The sweet red-brick façade of my grammar school.
Four of my five awakeners were redheads.
Not until I was driving through my blindingly white hometown did I realize that the only characteristics all five women had in common were a highly ambivalent relationship to the institution of marriage, the opportunity to articulate this ambivalence, and whiteness—each of which, arguably, was inextricable from the rest. During the period I was drawn to—primarily, the turn of the last century—vanishingly few women of color were given the privilege to write and publish and, therefore, speak across the decades.
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