Kate Bolick’s ‘Spinster’

The solipsistic spinster

I’m a 60-year-old heterosexual woman who has never been married. That’s a trifle unusual, though these days one over-25 adult in five in the United States shares that status. Actually, throw in the divorced and widowed, and we unmarried folks are over half the adult population.

Edith Wharton, whose marriage, apparently, doesn't count.

My spinster status is not now and never has been a big deal for me — the fact that I don’t have a car has a far greater impact on my day-to-day life than the fact that I don’t have a husband — though apparently not all members of the sisterhood have achieved my level of equanimity. Case in point: Kate Bolick, who takes almost 300 pages to analyze her own decision not to marry from every possible angle in Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own.

She interweaves three separate but more or less related topics: an examination of the cultural/economic changes in spinsterdom in American society; mini-biographies of five women she regards as personal role models; and her memoir of life as an unmarried woman. The order in which I list them reflects the ascending level of importance she gives them, judging by the respective numbers of pages devoted to them, from least to most. It also reflects the degree of solipsism involved, from least to most. Lastly, and surely not coincidentally, the order reflects the degree to which her topics irritated the living hell out of me, from least to most.

Bolick touches briefly on the domestic effects of the Industrial Revolution, which changed the nature of household economies simultaneously with the changes in national economies. As women entered the paid workforce, they married later or not at all — by 1890, 34 percent of women were unmarried. That percentage dropped steadily, bottoming out at 17 percent in 1960, before ascending again to the current 53 percent (14). The pros and cons of marriage (and thus the cons and pros of spinsterhood) in the context of changing socioeconomic conditions in the United States over the last 200 years would make a fascinating study — if someone knows of such a book, please drop me a line; I’d love to read it.

When is a role model not a role model?

Since, as all good feminists know, the personal is political, Bolick also meditates on the stories of those who have trod the “career over family” path before us, examining the lives of five women:

Unconsciously at first, and eventually with something resembling intention, I began the very long process of re-creating [the conversations she’d had with her mother, who died unexpectedly when Bolick was 23] — not with other, real, live women, who could only ever be gross approximations of the mother I missed, but with 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. (5)

These “awakeners,” as she calls them in a term borrowed from Edith Wharton — one of the five — were all writers: The others are poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, essayist Maeve Brennan, columnist Neith Boyce, and writer/reformer Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Bolick apparently finds them illuminating with regard to the issues around spinsterhood in her own life — despite the fact that all five of them were married at one point or another. “I don’t accept all the blame for this,” Bolick writes blithely; she’d been unaware of the marital status of three of them to begin with, and “Edith Wharton chose me, not the other way around, so her marriage doesn’t count” (285-286).

So Bolick, in her book on spinsterhood, examines the lives of five women who weren’t spinsters, ignoring plenty of women who really were. Just off the top of my head, there’s Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott, if she wanted to stick to writers; Mary Cassatt and Coco Chanel, if she were willing to open things up to women engaged in nonliterary artistic pursuits; and Florence Nightingale, Jane Addams, and Susan B. Anthony if she wanted to look at women living other kinds of creative, involved lives. But no — she stays with her five, because they’re the ones she wants to consider, regardless of whether or not they qualify as models of spinsterhood.

An unmarried woman

Similarly, her life as a spinster seems to qualify as such mostly in her own mind: All of her adult life, from college to her present age of 44, she has gone from one relationship with a smart, good-looking, successful, and supportive man to another. Even in the brief hiatuses between long-term, exclusive relationships, she’s dating up a storm: “Sometimes it felt as if I couldn’t walk down the street without winding up on a date,” she humblebrags. Advised by a friend to put her social life on the back burner and get some writing done, she “made it all of two weeks before uncloistering myself” (236-237).

For the 47 percent of you who are not single, let me assure you — her experience of an active social life and a series of fulfilling relationships does not reflect the experience of all single people, many of whom struggle with loneliness and disconnection. Her obliviousness to her level of privilege (reminiscent of the infuriating Eat, Pray, Love) makes it hard to relate to what she presents as a struggle.

“Whom to marry, and when will it happen — these two questions define every woman’s existence. . . .[They] govern her until they’re answered, even if the answers are nobody and never,” Bolick writes in her opening paragraph. Her entire book is mostly about her inability to accept her own answers to them, leaving Yoda’s words echoing in my mind: “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”

Our readers respond

Dan Rottenberg

of Philadelphia, PA on August 26, 2015

Kate Bolick's decision to generalize about spinsterhood based on her personal history plus those of five "spinsters" who were actually once married reminds me of In Defense of Marriage (1984), in which Art Carey concluded that marriage is "the best arrangement man has come up with for structuring relationships, organizing family and kin, and...being the best you can be" — this on the basis of one divorce and one year of his second marriage.

Rick Soisson

of Phialdelphia, PA on August 26, 2015

Nicely done. And I'll echo Dan Rottenberg's notion here: Perhaps we have too many books and articles now that seemingly ignore the fact that one's life experience (including the sloppy sort of work that ignores marriages to praise honorary "spinsters") may not be typical of anything. If Edna St. Vincent Millay didn't choose to write about marriage/spinsterhood, perhaps Kate Bolick might have paused, or at least revised.

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