All by myself: How single women are redefining 'spinsterhood'

Is the popular conception of a single woman finally shaking free of the "crazy cat lady" stereotype?
Javier Mayoral

Is the popular conception of a single woman finally shaking free of the "crazy cat lady" stereotype?

When I was in my final year at university, I found a handwritten note on the kitchen table in my flat. "Are the spinsters going to be around this evening?" it read, signed by a roommate's boyfriend. It was obvious who the "spinsters" were – the only two single women in the house: my close friend Abby and me.

It was just a mean joke, but also a harrowing thing to read about yourself. Even though we were only 22 and about to graduate from a liberal arts university, becoming a spinster was still one of the worst possible fates we could imagine.

But that was eight years ago. Would the insult land so heavily today? Perhaps not.

The word spinster, says New York journalist and now author Kate Bolick, is going through a makeover. Her recent book Spinster traces what it's like to actively choose to be a single woman in the world, told through her own personal experiences interwoven with the life stories of five late female writers.

READ MORE: How cat ladies have become cool

"I first started thinking about the single woman as an archetype in 2000 when I came across the [early 20th-century] novelist and journalist Neith Boyce," says Bolick, on the phone from New York.

"She had written a column called 'The Bachelor Girl', about her decision to never marry… I was stunned to read this funny, light-hearted yet serious column about leading life as a happily unmarried single woman in 1898. I had no idea that that kind of mentality was around back then."

As Bolick explored the archetype further, she came across four other female writers: essayist Maeve Brennan, social visionary Charlotte Perkins Gilman, poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, and novelist Edith Wharton – all who lived exceptional lives bucking social convention.

Katie Bolick, the New York writer who is redefining "spinsterhood".

Katie Bolick, the New York writer who is redefining "spinsterhood".

Throughout her book, Bolick refers to Boyce and the four other women as her "awakeners". Discovering their work and unconventional views reignited and reinforced her deep desire to remain single; one she can trace back to her early twenties. "Back to my little spinster ways," Bolick wrote at 22 in her diary, bidding goodbye to her then-boyfriend.

The author first publicly addressed singlehood in her 2011 cover story for The Atlantic magazine, "All The Single Ladies", in which she reported on the growing phenomenon of women, herself included, actively choosing to remain single and unwilling to settle for "good enough".

The article went viral and a six-figure book deal followed. As for that inflammatory title, the focus of the book is on reclaiming the term — whether it means devoting your life to solitude, pursuing your own passions, or simply living a life of your own, coupled or uncoupled.

"Spinster" derives from the 15th-century term for women who spun thread for a living, and has long been viewed as the worst possible moniker for a woman. Think the much-maligned Miss Havisham from Great Expectations, or the pathetic Miss Bates in Emma.

Can spinsterhood, stigmatised in this way for more than five centuries, finally be accepted as a valid choice, let alone a positive one? Most importantly, and perhaps more profoundly, can choosing to be alone actually be a positive experience for a woman, given personal and societal pressures?

If anyone can rebrand "spinster", it's 43-year-old Bolick, with her glossy hair, long legs and bashful smile. This is no cat lady wearing moth-eaten clothes in an attic. When Bolick discovered her first awakener, back in 2000, popular culture depicted single women in two ways: as Sex and the City's Carrie Bradshaw ("fabulous and frivolous", says Bolick) and Bridget Jones ("desperately, pathetically looking for a man").

The character Bridget Jones, played in the films by Renee Zellweger, came to personify the single woman pathetically ...

The character Bridget Jones, played in the films by Renee Zellweger, came to personify the single woman pathetically desperate for a man.

"I very consciously wanted to write this book in a completely different vein and present the topic of the single woman as a serious topic, one that should be taken seriously outside the realm of self-help, comedy, romantic comedy or a dating manual," she says today.

Bolick writes in intimate prose, revealing the innermost details of her personal life, from her poetic aspirations, to the loss of her mother to breast cancer, to her various boyfriends and – eventually – her secret dream of becoming a professional writer. Throughout her narrative, she recounts long spells in which she was coupled with men, but was repeatedly left feeling unsettled and, ironically, alone. Despite passionate feelings for her college boyfriend, Bolick writes, "I began to sense a friction between the intimacy we shared and the autonomy required to become the people we wanted to be."

It is this thread – of championing solitude and a desire for profound self-exploration – that runs through Spinster, which studies the difference between alone and loneliness. When loneliness does rear its head, Bolick writes about it in the same raw way she addresses other all-too-human emotions, such as jealousy and hope. Ultimately, though, her desire to make a life of her own is persistent, and she ends relationship after relationship with men she loves for this very reason.

For many, the choice to couple up or stay single will to some extent determine the course of their lives. But Spinster is not without its critics. "The premise Bolick seeks to overturn — that in this society 'you are born, you grow up, you become a wife' — seems already long overturned to me," wrote cultural critic Laura Kipnis on Slate, implying that female singlehood is now a non-issue in contemporary society.

Bolick is dismayed. "I agree that it shouldn't be an issue and it seems preposterous that it's an issue," she says. "But it is, to my eye, without a doubt, inarguably, still an issue for women."

A further, unexpected reaction to the book has been personal – but it doesn't concern Bolick's soul-searching. Instead, it's her good looks, displayed on her book's cover. Her beauty lends her a position of privilege, say the critics. In other words, of course she can choose, because she's "slim and exceptionally pretty, with lustrous red hair cascading down her shoulders, shapely legs crossed" (Kipnis again). "Clearly she's a spinster by choice! Message received," she adds.

A reviewer at Chicago Reader writes, "I'm trying hard not to hate Kate Bolick because she's beautiful."

Bolick is mortified: "I don't know how to talk about this without sounding like I'm being weirdly self-denigrating, but I don't look as good as I do on the cover. That's a really great photograph of me and there's a hair-and-makeup team and a stylist . It's been so strange to have to deal with that level of a response because it's so separate from me."

"As long as society is valuing wives and mothers above all other ways of being a woman, there's going to be some stigma ...
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"As long as society is valuing wives and mothers above all other ways of being a woman, there's going to be some stigma around being a single woman," Katie Bolick says.

Critics attribute her decision to remain single as the carefree choice of a woman with many options. As she ages, they claim, losing her youth and attractiveness, Bolick will reverse her choice to remain single. What does she make of this?

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"Beauty is fleeting, obviously. Desirability is fleeting. But knowing who you are and knowing your mind and heart and committing yourself to mastering pursuits that are meaningful to you – these are the things that last a lifetime and that create meaning for a lifetime," she says.

"If the book was about somebody who was just hanging around, being with guys and squawking about how great it is to be single, then yeah, I would fear for myself years from now, but that's not how

I value and measure my life."

After the book's release, Bolick's professional life and public role has become more complex than ever before.

Spinster , which made the New York Times bestseller list, has thrust her into the spotlight once again. How does she feel now that she, the awakened, has become an awakener in her own right to women around the world?

"Receiving public response is kind of disorienting… I love getting mail from readers, and so many readers are describing that they had the very reading experience that I explicitly hoped would happen, but the part of being in public a lot is very uncomfortable."

Is she under some sort of reverse pressure now – not to marry, because she's the new poster-woman for single life? Bolick refuses permanency. "I never ever put my flag in the sand and said, 'I'm single for life.' That kind of absolutism has never interested me. I'm not saying that in the book; I'm not saying that this is the only way to be."

In fact, at the end of the book, Bolick is happily coupled with a boyfriend, which her critics find a little hard to swallow. But to fixate on this is to miss the point.

"For years I framed my life and choices within this question: to marry or not to marry; to be married or to be single, as if I had to draw a line in the sand… yet all this time I'd been living in a middle space between those two ends of the spectrum. Moving in and out of relationships, being coupled sometimes, single other times, is natural and comfortable for me, a 'destination' in and of itself," Bolick says.

She explains that while writing the book, she realised that pitting married versus single was a false binary – outdated, given that in the 21st century women don't 'need' marriage the way they once did for economic stability. "There is this third space in which more and more people are living and, presumably, will continue to live."

So is the spinster stigma in the 21st century close to fading out entirely?

"As long as society is valuing wives and mothers above all other ways of being a woman, there's going to be some stigma around being a single woman," says Bolick.

"But we are experiencing a 'power in numbers' kind of story. Because there are more single women and men than ever before, by default young people, like my little nieces, are growing up with more examples of thriving single women than I did. That is going to change their reality and their ideas about how to live and what's possible."

Most notable about Spinster is that it's not just a book for single women. Near the end, Bolick writes that reclaiming the word "spinster" is more about "holding on to that in you which is independent and self-sufficient, whether you're single or coupled".

If anything, the book's principal takeaway is to not compromise or give in to pressures to marry or have children simply because you are haunted by the fear of regret. It's about realising the validity of a spectrum of life choices.

Over coffee with my old flatmate (and fellow Spinster-note recipient) Abby, who is currently single, the book comes up. Intrigued by all the fuss, we happened to both read it at the same time. If we found that note now, I ask her, would we react the same way? Or has Spinster changed our view? Her reply: "It made me feel like I was going to be okay no matter what. And that it was okay to live alone and not compromise on the life I want."

Mission accomplished, Bolick.

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