Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own

Image of Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own
Release Date: 
April 21, 2015
Reviewed by: 

In Spinster by Kate Bolick, we are taken on a journey of learning. The journey is at times conflicted, at other times self-confident, at other times questioning, but it is mostly a journey of learning, of understanding spinsterhood.

Bolick redefines “spinster” for everyone who reads this book—women and men alike. She begins the book with some background and statistics about marriage in America and the history surrounding it. She continues to plow down that path to focus on who and what, exactly, is a spinster, and she relates this information as it applied to her growth and understanding of such a position in American Life.

Here she is accompanied by five ladies of letters to whom she developed a close attachment—not as friends or acquaintances, but as women who have made this same journey of realization—spoken or not. She refers to them as her “awakeners.”

Getting to know each of these women, who had long since departed the earth, gave dimension to Ms. Bolick’s journey and a better understanding of where this path would take her. She soon realized that her awakeners showed her “. . . how to think beyond the marriage plot.”

Maeve Brennan: a woman who led an “alone” life, but perhaps not a “lonely” life, one who observed the actions of those around her and wrote about them with great depth and insight. Through her awareness of Maeve Brennan, Ms. Bolick came to realize that “. . . single women . . . were generous in their attention, ready to engage in conversation or share a joke.” She saw in single women “. . . an intricate lacework of friendships varying in intensity and closeness that could be . . . just as sustaining as a nuclear family, and possibly more appealing.”

Neith Boyce: a woman virtually unknown to most of the world, Neith Boyce said of herself that she was born a bachelor. Born in 1872, she freelanced for Vogue magazine when freelancing for women was unheard of. Although her publishing career ended early, she was the model of the Modern Woman. Bolick’s attachment to Neith Boyce helped her “. . . see clearly what [reality of being alone] might look like, and evidence that there were . . . rewards to be gained . . .”

Edna St. Vincent Millay: Bolick’s journey starts with the realization that this ‘awakener,’ Edna St. Vincent Millay had lived just a short distance from her in her hometown of Newburyport, MA. Edna introduced Bolick to the concept of the unmarried woman as independent, creative, and intelligent. As if by magic, Edna seemed to take Bolick by the hand and walk with her down the path of “romantic adventuring” toward the sexual freedom that Edna enjoyed. As Bolick sums up Edna: “Her legacy wasn’t recklessness, but a fierce individualism that even now evades our grasp.”

Edith Wharton: Came from money and married money. She never read a novel until she was married, and yet her literary skills were huge. Bolick describes Edith (upon marriage) as “. . . a lady, a larger, stronger, and more formidable version of the one she’d been . . . she broke free of convention while remaining in place. In the doing she redefined her relationship to the home along with it, ours.”

Charlotte Perkins Gilman: born just before the Civil War, Perkins’ level of independence skyrocketed with the disappearance of her father and the poverty of her mother. Dedicated to not being married, she nonetheless succumbed to proposals of marriage twice, yet never gave up her sense of independence. Charlotte’s thought-provoking lesson—“. . . we become adults by learning how to be responsible to ourselves, whether or not we’re married or have children.”  

Although her awakeners arrived from different eras, and experienced life differently—some married, some not, some sexually indifferent to their choices of lovers, each carried with her the distinct life of an individual—each fiercely independent. It is easy to understand Bolick’s draw to these women as she journeys to find out what spinsterhood is really all about.

Ms. Bolick refers to her growing understanding of spinsterhood as her “spinster wishes”—not that she particularly wants or does not want to be a spinster, but as the thoughts that take her on this journey. And it is a journey of ups and downs as she questions her decisions but progresses forward nonetheless.

Throughout the book she wavers about her “spinsterness”—was it something she desired or something she could not tear herself away from? The issues of loneliness and taking care of oneself are key to her discussions with herself. And through her search for a better understanding of being independent, there is always the tug of marriage tapping her on the shoulder, beckoning her to indulge. Falling in love and falling out of love came with the territory, and Bolick clearly expresses the confusion and anxiety that accompanies a failed romance . . . especially when that failure is due to questions of one’s grasp for independence lurking in the dark corners.

Peppered throughout the book are stories of other minor, but nonetheless influential women who tackled independence with varying degrees of success. The journey continued as the divisions between married and single women clarified for her.

By the time we get to the end of this journey, Bolick has taken the “spinster” from frumpy old lady (unfortunately for the creature, unmarried and scorned) to wise and witty self-confident woman whose life without marriage is, in fact . . . not a problem at all! Her goal, as stated at the end of the book: “to offer it [spinster] as shorthand for holding on to that in you which is independent and self-sufficient, whether you’re single or coupled.”

Everyone should read this . . . now . . . don’t let another moment pass by, especially if you are of the mind that the frumpy old lady still exists. She doesn’t!