Spinster author Kate Bolick on her new book, the false divide between marriage and independence, and Carrie Bradshaw.

What Does It Mean to Be a Spinster?

What Does It Mean to Be a Spinster?

What women really think.
April 23 2015 4:46 PM

Not a Carrie

Kate Bolick on being single in the Sex and the City age and the “spinster state of mind.”

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Author Kate Bolick

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Willy Somma/Penguin Random House.

In 2011, Kate Bolick wrote a cover story for the Atlantic called “All the Single Ladies.” The piece caused a bit of a sensation, hitting as it did the common funny bone of a certain kind of white-collar professional woman today, for whom the question of a life “of one’s own” still raises a host of anxieties.

Bolick was offered the inevitable book deal that accompanies the stratospherically successful magazine article. But instead of simply expanding the piece, she wrote a book she’d been thinking about for years, one in which she places her own single life in dialogue with those of five 20th-century female writers who’ve haunted her: the Vogue columnist Neith Boyce, the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, the novelists Edith Wharton and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and the New Yorker columnist Maeve Brennan.

The result is Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, and it’s been garnering heavily divided opinions. In Slate, Laura Kipnis complained that, “Here is someone who wants to be unshackled from convention, but is tied to such used-up ideas.” But in the New York Times Book Review, Heather Havrilesky wrote that Bolick’s book “sets forth a clear vision not just for single women, but for all women: to disregard the reigning views of how women should live, to know their own hearts and to carve out a little space for their dreams, preferably a space with 11-foot ceilings.”

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I’ve known Bolick for a few years now, so when we sat down to discuss her book, it was more as friends than as a journalist challenging her subject. Our conversation ranged from the singlehood issue to a mutual preoccupation of ours: the way in which women perennially turn to certain other female writers as guides for their personal lives. What follows is a condensed and edited transcript of an hour’s conversation.

People seem to really want a polemic on this subject: “Live single! Live married!” Your book doesn’t really fit into that paradigm. Who did you mean to write it for?

Personally, I’m not interested in reading polemics or writing them. It’s just not how I live in the world. But because it is still, even though it shouldn’t be, a polarizing topic, invariably it’s framed as coming from a polemicist’s place.

I wanted to try writing a book that was hitting a different note and capturing my own “struggle,” or complexity around these questions. Not only do we do a disservice to conversation in general when we polarize it or misrepresent it in the packaging, we do so to this topic in particular when we treat it as if only women who have figured out all the answers, or are representing a specific amount of clarity, are allowed to talk about it. 

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I think we’re past the need for that kind of heroine. So I wanted to try to write a book that was more interior, and personal, and reflective, and questioning. And speaking to that more confused or ambivalent or ambiguous place around these questions. 

You’re right; there hasn’t been a lot of space for women who feel pulled between these two poles, marriage or total independence.

That’s partially why I think it’s pernicious to be holding up strong, resolute heroines as feminist warriors for the self. I see that as pernicious as an airbrushed image in a magazine. It makes you feel that you can only be that way. If you’re a badass, if you’re a rebel, if you can go your own path. But if you’re a traditionally minded person, you can’t. The way we divide it is not helpful.

When I read the Atlantic article (I didn’t know you then), I felt like I already saw you kind of struggling to produce what people seem to want from this discussion: a celebration of singlehood.

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I actually didn’t feel a struggle while I was writing that article. That was pre- all the publicity. I was just some writer sitting in her office hoping that I could finish the piece on time, and wondering if they would run it or kill it.

The assignment was: Kate, can you write an article about how men’s worsening economic position is influencing dating, marriage, and the family? And write that in the first person, drawing on your own experiences as an unmarried woman in her late 30s. I said, Of course, that sounds fascinating. But I had no idea how I was going to write about it in the first person, because the reason I’m unmarried has nothing to do with men’s worsening economic position.

As I started to research, I called my editor and said, Whoa, this is the story. I’m part of this enormous demographic that’s been growing invisibly. That’s how I can write about this in the first person.

This had always been treated as a female conversation, so I was thinking, How can I make this article appeal to as many audiences as possible? Men as well as women, and people who aren’t specifically interested. At the very last hour, they asked about putting me on the cover. And I really agonized over that because it was playing directly into feminizing it and “looks-izing” it. But I also understood that it would sell magazines. And that’s what their job is.

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And then when it came out, and I became this figure or representation of this conversation, I really felt the weight of expectation then. And it was incredibly uncomfortable, because that’s not a role I was seeking. And it’s also not a role I’m interested in inhabiting. When editors wanted to turn that article into a book, I was exhausted. I wanted to write something that would interest me for two years. And I did not think continuing on in that vein would.

What gave you the specific idea to make these women the spine of the book?

I first started thinking about the single woman as a historical concept when I found Neith Boyce. I thought the book was going to start with Neith, because she was writing a column in the year 1898, for Vogue, called the Bachelor Girl, about her decision to never marry. When I found that in 2000, it blew my mind. I had no idea that that specific conversation had taken place at that specific moment in history.

And I was living in the midst of the Carrie Bradshaw thing. The only way to be single was Carrie Bradshaw or Bridget Jones. You could be frivolous and fabulous or depressed and desperate. I felt insulted by those representations and aware that history had given us more noble examples. 

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I think of Maeve Brennan as the patron saint of this story, but when I found her, she was just an image and a longing and an idea. I didn’t have any context for her; I didn’t know who she was. So I could project on to her and fantasize about her. So I wasn’t thinking about her in any kind of social or political context at all. She was just a glamourized, singular figure that was an antidote to the Carrie Bradshaw-ification of the topic. Because [Brennan] was a woman in the flaneur tradition, wandering around and observing and being singularly herself. 

What do you think about the fact that Maeve sort of ended up ... in circumstances that most people would not be aiming for, to end their lives? [Brennan eventually became homeless and an alcoholic.] You used her as an example anyway?

First of all, it’s important to remember that she was mentally ill. It’s not just that she was a sad single lady and that she fell apart. There were other forces at work on her. She also lived an incredibly full life, and on her own terms, the ones she set out to live on. I see her as one of the most inspiring figures, actually, for me personally. The way she embodies these contradictions is the most interesting to me. Even though she’s extreme because of her mental illness.

Neith Boyce was operating out of a time that was very hospitable to single women. She was riding a tide. And Maeve was totally against the tide, a lonely voice, without any sisterhood, or feminist companionship or friends, even, when she was in her 30s and 40s. Except men.

Why didn’t she have female friends?

I think it was really hard, then. I think we wanted women to be at home having babies. And so, to be a woman who was unmarried and in the workplace was threatening to watch. I forget how many other women were on staff at the New Yorker at the time.

Not a ton.

Not a ton. And I think they were all just looking out for themselves, and getting their own work done, and living as women in an absolutely male-dominated workspace. I forget who pointed it out, probably it was Angela Bourke in her biography [of Brennan], but Maeve would go out for drinks with these guys after work every night. And they’d all go home to their wives, who had dinner waiting for them on the table, and she’d go home to her hotel.

Yeah, the women I talk to from that era of general-interest magazines, they don’t really seem to be friends.

Pre–second wave of the women’s movement is a lonely time.

But then all the women you are interested in are pre–second wave, and sort of lonely figures. 

People like Neith, she became part of an intentional bohemian community. So I don’t think of her as lonely. She had female friends and roommates and stuff like that, but that was a feminist moment she was living in. And Maeve was not living in that moment. She was living at the lowest moment in history for the single woman.

And yet you still call her the “patron saint” of the book.

Maeve’s voice is endlessly fascinating to me. And I get into this in the book, but I was drawn to the turn of the century. I think I was drawn to that era because it was pre-ideological. I liked that women were discussing these questions about womanhood before it was politicized and public, or as public as they later became in the second wave.

There’s almost a naiveté, and it feels more personal. These people are figuring out these issues for themselves, because it’s not part of the collective conversation yet. And Maeve is not deliberately engaging these questions in her writing. She’s just being these questions, in her stance and in her perspective.

Did it challenge you, though, bringing that “pre-ideological” perspective to the present?

The way I see that is they live in different social conditions, but by looking at their social conditions, it helps you see your own self through their social conditions. So putting them up for analysis or display helped me look at myself and helped me look at myself in relation to my own time, in a way I couldn’t do without them. Because I was too much in my own time. But I needed to step out, and look at my own time from a remove. The most expedient way to do it was to choose people from different times.

How did you come to this whole “spinster” label for the kind of conscious independence you recommend in the book?

I’ve always walked around with this fondness for the idea of the spinster. She’s a noble figure, to me, someone who lives outside the social order and is invisible and inscrutable to other people. I was shocked to discover, when I started doing the research for my book, that I had written in my own journals in my 20s about what I called the “spinster wish.” I didn’t know that the story started that early on [for me].

I was not calling the book Spinster for basically the entirety of the book. To me, I thought you’re single or you’re married, and that’s it. This idea that you’re single even if you’re inside of a couple and you think of yourself as single, that’s pushing it. But by the end of the book I do agree with that. So just the act of writing the book brought me to a different place.

I think of there being a state of mind, and I call it the spinster state of mind, because I think it’s fun to do. It’s about self-reliance, about not organizing your own life choices and experiences and decisions around another person. It’s being, if you want, in concert with other people. The spinster doesn’t have to be alone. The spinster’s a free agent! That’s the whole point of the spinster. And part of her invisibility and inscrutability is her power. A wife is so much more legible to us—of course everyone’s life is a mass of contradictions, but we can at least have roles as ways of slotting people into things. The true spinster is a radical figure and always has been.