Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own
“Whom to marry, and when it will happen–these two questions define every woman’s existence, regardless of where she was raised or what religion she does and doesn’t practice.” Such is the wisdom—and unfortunate opening—of Spinster, a new memoir-ish book by Kate Bolick. Bolick, a 40-something editor for the Atlantic is a satisfied single—and don’t you forget it. (She loves being alone, okay?) But going solo wasn’t easy for her. Spinster, then, is a ledger of her struggle, or a map to Bolick’s own sovereign land. Spoiler alert: Bolick, through spinsterhood, makes a life of her own. And how!
Spinster is part-autobiography, part-manifesto, and a smattering of women’s history. We meet Bolick’s mélange of suitors: her college beau, the enterprising co-editor, the fling, et al. Eventually, Bolick jettisons the whole fleet for solitude, haters be damned. Along the way, she finds her idols: five women of the Edith Wharton variety, whom she calls her “awakeners.”
And so begins Bolick’s “awakening,” which involves, among other things, an investigation into the foremothers of feminism. Consider “spinster,” she asks, the label for an aging, spouseless, cat-crazy female; Bolick wants to reclaim the word and reverse the stigma. Naturally, this project is tricky, and causes an eyebrow raise among Bolick’s more traditional friends. Bolick auditions many for the role of partner, but she finds that no man will do. Autonomy then, is the answer. Once she ditches a final partner (R., the editor), Bolick adjusts her lifestyle, launching her true selfhood and our story: “I wasn’t a woman who needed convincing that she wanted to be alone, but I did need help seeing what that reality might look like.”
While Spinster might seem like a feminist ode worth celebrating, Bolick makes that difficult. She presents her case almost defensively, which can be tiresome. Bolick often gives her “reasons” for emancipation, but does she need any? Resisting the patriarchy is hard, but Bolick puts herself in the very bind she wants to break. On a basic level, she implies that marriage and independence are at odds. Yet that’s a false dichotomy, and a reductive one.
Yes, freedom requires strength. No dispute there. But Bolick tends to hyperbolize her status, and it compromises her story. It’s not all that dramatic to be single, Bolick’s insistence aside. Certainly, there’s an unfair landscape for women—to which Bolick is responding and rallying. But that doesn’t excuse a shallow analysis, nor does it mean her book succeeds. Haven’t we transcended the marriage or dishonor model? It’s a gross oversimplification, and after a while, Bolick’s premise gets stale. Repetition doesn’t beget reality, in this case.
And who is Bolick’s readership, anyway? Presumably, liberal-minded urbanites. So isn’t she just preaching to a choir that would happily join her in a round of “Single Ladies”? Interestingly, Bolick’s self-proclaimed title of spinster puts her all the more reliant on men, because it means she still conceptualizes herself primarily as a woman in relation to a man. Of course, Bolick is a woman—but she’s also a writer, a thinker, a person, etc. These traits are neglected in favor of neat edges. She’s a spinster first, everything else second. Bolick doesn’t really find herself. She finds a version of herself that is collapsible.
As for the cover: Bolick herself is featured on the jacket, seated beside girly cushions and tea cups. She’s thin, impeccably dressed, well coiffed, and conventionally attractive. She’s not necessarily the culprit, but one has to wonder if this display was her idea. In other words, it’s easy for Bolick to say screw marriage. In her case, it’s voluntary. But what of the single women who don’t have a vote in the matter? Of course, that shouldn’t be the basis of our objection, but it doesn’t help Bolick’s cause. Yes, the term “privilege” is overused, but Bolick might do well to acknowledge hers—as a skinny, pretty female with options.
In the end, Spinster is all dressed up—with sweeping claims, clichés, and the like—but has no where to go.