Three years into a relationship, Kate Bolick resides two subway lines and 40 minutes away from her boyfriend in New York. In love but living alone, Bolick has gotten questions from friends about the arrangement. To which she wonders, did they read her book?
The 42-year-old author has long been unapologetically intrigued by "ambiguous women" who haven't centred their lives around marriage or making a family home. Following her incendiary 2011 Atlantic magazine story, "All the Single Ladies," about being unwed at 39, Bolick's meditative new book, Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own, mines the unmarried experience for women, one that has been largely sidelined from history.
Originating in 15th-century Europe as a neutral term for unmarried girls who spun thread for a living, "spinster" morphed in colonial America as a synonym for the British old maid: someone unlikely to lose her virginity, ever. Although few people lob the term as an insult today, the spectre of spinsterhood continues to hover, even as more and more of us live alone. For the first time in history, one-person households, 3,673,305 of them, outnumbered those with couples and kids in Canada, according to 2011 census figures – meaning it's going to be increasingly ridiculous to patronize the single woman as a figure of pity.
We sat down with Bolick to talk about the "spinster wish" she has for women who are unmarried, divorced, widowed and wed. Namely, acquainting yourself with the "novel pleasures of being alone."
On the cover of your book, you're photographed sitting under the word "spinster" splashed out in neon. But you're in a long-term relationship. How does that work?
The book started as a cover story I wrote for The Atlantic magazine in 2011. At the time I was single. After I got the book deal, I met the man who I'm now seeing. But the fact of my getting involved in a relationship has nothing to do with the book because I am looking back on my 20s and 30s.
But you want "spinster"to extend to women who are actually partnered up. Why and how?
To me, the spinster is self-reliant and inscrutable. We think we know what the wife is up to and what the mother is up to but the single woman is mysterious. I like that mystery. So the term is a useful way to hold onto the idea of autonomy that can get so easily lost inside of marriage or motherhood. If one has gone along the standard path and never been alone, if you're partnered or within some family context, it's useful to cultivate this idea to some degree in order to not lose yourself to the demands of other people. That's why I'm extending it to all women, not just single women. For married women, it's also a useful reminder that their single friends might not be as sad as they seem. There's a lot of projecting from the married person onto the single person.
Demographically, being single is now common. So why is it still a marginalized status, particularly for women?
It always takes a long time for cultural attitudes to catch up with demographic shifts. We don't have a vocabulary or a well of images that are authentically reflecting who the single person can be in a positive light. Even though we have more single people than ever before, we still see them as novelties or a topic, rather than just a person.
People don't actually use the word "spinster" anymore, or ostracize their older, single female friends. But how do they view them privately?
Spinster is not a word anybody uses seriously now but it exists as a self-deprecating joke. In a single woman's low moment, she'll say, "I can't meet anyone. I'm going to end up a lonely, old spinster." The idea of the spinster haunts single women. And the term immediately broadcasts our weird attitudes and ideas around single women, even today.
What the single woman often has to contend with is people telling her – or she herself feeling – that she can't grow up, that she's self-centred. It's a lot of negativizing of who she is. I had assumed in college that I'd marry by 30, so when I hit 31, 32, 33, I was thinking, "What's wrong with me? Am I commitment-phobic? Am I immature?"
Women go through that anxiety and they either get over it or they don't. More and more, we see women getting over it. A woman hits 34, 35 still unmarried and realizes she actually likes her life the way that it is. She questions why she's been telling herself that there's something wrong with her and understands that she's internalized some old script.
Many people simply aren't happy when they're alone. How does that affect our cultural understanding of those who actually choose and enjoy solitude?
People don't believe it. We assume that the single person or the person who lives alone is always in her darkest hour. Studies show us that among people who are unrelentingly lonely, it can weaken your immune system and that you're likelier to die earlier. On the extreme end of singledom, those are real issues.
But with the more "garden-variety" single people living and working in an urban area, they tend to be very social. They're forced out into the world more than coupled people are, where you're going to spend your time with your mate, your family and go to your job. A single person has a whole category of time opened up to be doing different things. Living more fully engaged with an external world is a way of combatting loneliness.
Of course, loneliness is part of the single person's experience. But it's also part of every life – coupled or not, with children or not.
You centre on five "awakeners," women who didn't follow the marriage plot throughout history. What was it about essayist Maeve Brennan that stood out for you?
Her writing is beautiful and she was able to see what she saw because she was alone. She prioritized her working life above everything and created her life exactly the way that she wanted it, at a time when that was the hardest. She was living singly at a time when only 17 per cent were and she was doing it in public, writing about it for The New Yorker. She was projecting a fantasy of singledom that didn't exist before. I've interviewed women who are in their 70s and 80s now and they remembered reading Maeve Brennan, telling me, "There I was, 24 years old, living in the suburbs with three kids, spending my days changing diapers. And then I would read about this woman sitting at a restaurant in New York City describing what she saw, and I would feel so envious of the life that she had." I was also this sheltered small-town girl living with my boyfriend, thinking I was going to trot along down along the path to marriage. To collide with Maeve gave me an idea of autonomy, a fantasy that felt more romantic than any fantasy I'd encountered yet.
When her 2006 biography came out, I learned about her tragic end. She became the clichéd cat lady, a homeless woman on the streets of New York. The narrative fit too neatly into the age old script of what is supposed to happen to a single woman. It's tricky: she was mentally ill. But I was very heartened when I was doing my own reporting to discover that there had been a more flourishing chapter toward the end of her life, that she'd had women friends for the first time in her life. She absolutely lived her life on her own terms, the whole way. Because of that, she feels heroic to me. The spinster figure is heroic, but she's not ever been positioned this way because she's quiet.
Why do single women still fear becoming spinsterish "cat ladies"? There's no such equivalent image for bachelors.
Culture still needs a way to terrorize the single woman. There's still this internal idea that the love of a man is the greatest social validation. The antithesis of a loved woman is the lonely cat lady. She's what it looks like to be unloved, even though she herself is probably fine.
The cat lady is also about a fear of the future. None of us knows what the future holds but when we're married, we think we do because we're mated up with somebody. We can say things like, "I'm not going to die alone." Who knows? Any of us could die alone.
You describe feeling the most alive when you are alone, that it's an expansive and "evasive" sensation. At what point does a love of solitude start to scan as evasive, if not narcissistic?
When I was younger and in relationships, I was trying to be too people pleasy: it always felt like I was stealing time away for myself. Later, I decided that this time is too essential and that I can't be negotiating for it. I don't have guilt around the need to be alone in the way that I once did. I don't see it being a problem for anybody else because I'm also very social and involved with somebody – I'm not being selfish with my time.
What has living apart from your boyfriend offered you?
We both have the work week to devote to the work that we're trying to do and then the weekends feel a little more romantic because it's not caught up in the day to day. I've been doing this for three years, but I don't know how sustainable it will be for me – it's a lot of schlepping. I wonder if we'll try living together on the sooner side.
I do feel more pressure now than I ever did being single. Then, I never felt the "why aren't you married, tsk tsk." But it has been disconcerting to friends that I've been seeing someone for three years and that we're not on the marriage track. That's been really surprising. Did you not read my book? Who do you think that I am? This relationship has been moving according to rhythms that aren't in accordance with some preconceived calendar. I don't know why that makes you, friend, so uncomfortable.
What are men making of the book? Is the concept of spinster-dom just as irrelevant as ever to them?
I hear from men who have read the book. They seem to be coming at it almost anthropologically, like, "Oh, thank you for telling me about women." It's sort of strange. I'm writing from a female perspective and assuming a female audience, so a man who's reading this book, it's like listening in on two women talking to themselves. They feel like they're learning secrets they didn't know. I've had other men tweet, "Why are you trying to reclaim such a terrible word?" And then there are misogynist men, the trolls and so forth, who want to denigrate women with the word "spinster." They get angry about this conversation.
What do you hope this book gets across to women, who will sometimes competitively check in on each other about their relationships?
As the single demographic is exploding in real time and we ourselves are living examples for younger women that you can be happily single, I want this book to extend the conversation. For young women to read about women throughout the past who have lived alone or lived ambivalently around marriage is useful. It can help them make their own decisions about their lives, rather than thinking they have to do one thing or another on this prescriptive path. There are other ways we can be doing this and thinking about it.
This interview has been condensed and edited.