In her 20s, writer Kate Bolick fantasized about what she called her spinster wish — her desire to let her interior life flourish and to be driven by her own beliefs and goals, not a shared agenda with a partner. Now in her 40s, Bolick has become an unofficial spokeswoman for never-married modern women living that wish. Her new book, “Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own,” is packaged as social science and feminist theory, but it’s more memoir than anything else: how one woman made a life of her own.
For the first half of her adult life, Bolick was a serial monogamist — perhaps she longed for spinsterhood because it seemed far from her personal experience. As she recounts her various pairings and breakups, Bolick supplements this personal relationship history with biographical information about a handful of long-dead women who embodied the spinster wish: poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, essayist Maeve Brennan, columnist Neith Boyce, novelist Edith Wharton and social visionary Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
They have in common, Bolick writes, “a highly ambivalent relationship to the institution of marriage, the opportunity to articulate this ambivalence, and whiteness — each of which was inextricable from the rest.” She spends a lot of time explaining how their romantic relationships (or lack thereof) affected the work they were able to produce. She also devotes several pages to elaborate descriptions of their custom-built estates — a diversion that seems odd until you remember that Bolick was formerly executive editor of the home-décor magazine Domino.
When Bolick finally acts on her spinster wish and breaks up with her boyfriend at age 28, she tells herself, “Yes. Just a few years like this. Then I’ll fall in love again and really settle down.” Instead, she finds herself mostly single throughout her 30s.
The 2011 Atlantic magazine cover story that presumably landed her this book deal was focused on the idea that there were hundreds of eligible women like Bolick — pretty, educated, healthy, emotionally stable and in their late 30s — who might never marry. Not because they too had harbored spinster wishes but because there were simply no eligible men. Single women were now forced to choose, the headline declared, “between deadbeats (whose numbers are rising) and playboys (whose power is growing).”
Yet the book is less about the dating grind or modern gender relations than it is about what it means to be a single woman beyond your 20s. “Those of us who’ve bypassed the exits for marriage and children tend to motor through our thirties like unlicensed drivers, unauthorized grown-ups,” she writes. Some days, you’re an outlaw on a joy ride. “Other days you’re an overgrown adolescent borrowing your dad’s car and hoping the cops don’t pull you over.”
The notion that being an unmarried woman — especially a highly educated white woman with a stable family, a good career and a close network of friends — is to be some sort of outlaw may resonate with some readers, but it rings slightly hollow when you step back to consider the bigger picture.
Bolick doesn’t present many statistics on how single life has changed over time, but her situation is increasingly common. The percentage of American adults who have never married has steadily risen since the 1990s, and one in four young adults may never marry, according to a study last year by the Pew Research Center. Marriage rates have been similarly low in some American communities, including among African Americans, for quite some time. Fortysomething white women who have never married may feel like outliers, but their struggle is not unique.
Bolick makes clear up front that “Spinster” is not a wide-ranging political or cultural history of single women in America. But because she frames it as a personal story rather than a sociological survey, she isn’t forced to grapple with manifestations of singledom that lie outside her direct experience. She’s free to erase the proud legacies of lesbians and nuns, to name just two groups of women that make only cursory appearances in the book.
For this reason, “Spinster” will probably resonate most with women who are most like Bolick and leave others struggling to connect with her version of spinsterhood.
That version isn’t about a lifetime without men or even about the lack of marriageable partners, she clarifies near the end of her book. It’s a way of describing a certain type of independent, self-sufficient woman who is not defined by her relationship status. Perhaps Bolick feels this caveat is necessary because she is now in a relationship with a man. Whatever her motivation, it’s impossible not to notice that Bolick, like the historical women who have inspired her, is able to transcend categorization and find freedom in singlehood because she has a certain amount of economic security and social privilege.
“Single” means something quite different when you’re a New York magazine editor than it does when you’re a mother on public assistance or a woman with debilitating mental-health issues. I would have appreciated a bit more recognition of this fact. If the “spinster wish” is, at its core, a longing to be a “human being who inhabits but isn’t limited by her gender,” then it’s a wish we all share.
Friedman is a columnist for New York magazine. She lives in Los Angeles.
Making a Life of One’s Own
Crown: 308 pp., $26