“All the Single Ladies,” which described her experience breaking up with her “loyal, kind” boyfriend of three years, assuming someone new would come along, only to find herself still unattached at 39 and dealing with the stigma and fears that come with singledom. Her first book, Spinster, tells the story of what happened when she embraced being single. It interweaves her personal life with historical context brought to life by five single ladies who were reveling in their independence long before Beyonce wrote the anthem.In 2011, Kate Bolick touched off a heated debate with her confessional Atlantic article
We spoke with Bolick about rebellious, corset-wearing “bachelor girls,” the college-marriage-kids conveyor belt, and the fact that being a “spinster” didn’t always involve way too many cats.
It was eye opening to learn there was this whole movement of single women moving to the city, pursuing careers and living independent lives back at the turn of the 19th century. Writer Neith Boyce, for example, described herself as a “bachelor girl” in a Vogue column way back in 1898.
It was very exciting for me to learn about Neith Boyce. She was my gateway to Greenwich Village bohemia at the turn of the last century, and through her I came to see what a positive moment that was for single women. After the Atlantic article came out, I wanted to share this history with other people who didn’t know it. I figured that if I, a fairly well-educated person, hadn’t been aware of how radical that period had been, then a lot of other people hadn’t, either, so I felt like I was reporting and bringing the news—just, bringing it from the past instead of the present.
Being blind to women’s history tricks us into thinking we’re encountering contemporary problems for the first time, when in fact women have been encountering similar issues for ages, and coming up with very innovative solutions.
In the book, it’s not like you’re advocating for women to remain single by choice their entire lives, and you include divorcees and widows in your definition, or rebranding, of the word “spinster.”
We all agree on what [a “spinster”] is: an old, frigid woman living with a bunch of cats. And yet even that image, that’s not always who she’s been. The word originated in the 1400s as a simple, neutral occupational description—like “fishmonger” or “baker”— to describe those women who were spinning wool into thread, the only respectable way for women to do paid work outside of the home. In a sense, the spinster was the first career woman, or the first working girl. The word didn’t take on negative connotations until colonial America.
My contemporary definition of the word “spinster” is expansive because no matter what stage of life we’re in, living alone is a very particular way to live. It’s often very difficult, no matter how one wound up there, so I’m looking at the single woman no matter her age, and how she contends with being an unmarried person in a world that is organized around marriage.
We’re told it’s better to wait until at least our late 20s to get married, but does the live-in boyfriend scenario hinder those years when we’re supposed to be figuring out who we are independent of a relationship?
The last time I was in a live-in relationship—roughly ages 26 through 30—I loved it. I loved living with him. We were domestically well-matched. We had a nice, cozy life together. But over time, I started to feel suspicious of how much my sense of confidence and well-being was centered around and depended on the stability of this relationship. I began to worry, How am I going to be a grownup if I’m never risking myself?
It’s weird to call myself shy because I’m a social person, but I had a lot of social anxiety back then. I didn’t know how to be out in the world talking as an adult among adults, and that in part had to do with the fact that I just spent all my time hanging out with this guy I loved who knew me so well.
After we broke up, it was very hard at first to go to parties and learn how to talk to new people, especially in a place as intimidating as New York. The learning curve was steep. But I felt like I needed to earn my own confidence in the world, standing on my own two feet. I wanted to experience things and meet new people, and I really liked that being uncoupled forced me to do that because I wasn’t going to do that if left to my own devices. I’ve always been something of a homebody. If I stayed inside of a couple I might just hunker down and never leave the house ever. [Laughs].
And then New York itself is what started to make it easier. There are so many interesting people here. It kept surprising me that I could continue to make new friends. I’d had this idea that your friends as an adult are the ones that you make in college, and then you get married and have kids, and your friends are the people you work with, or live in your neighborhood, or the parents of your kids’ friends at school. So to realize that I could live alone in the city and continue to make friendships based on like-mindedness and real affinities was very exciting.
If a woman takes those years when typically she would be dating to enjoy being single instead, where do kids fall into the equation?
The way that it is now, I think women can feel hamstrung. We’re encouraged to go to college and pursue careers, but then we have this biology that complicates that trajectory, not to mention the realities of working full-time and also raising children, which can be quite difficult. So that’s a very real question: In a country that still doesn’t have institutional and corporate policies that are helpful to working mothers, how do we make it so all women can pursue their ambitions and have families?
For those of us in our late 30s and 40s—Gen X, basically—our parents lived with a different reality on the ground. They married younger and spent a much shorter period of time being single—two or three years. Today is so different, even strange. Ten or more years can elapse between college and marriage (the average age for first marriage is actually 27 for women, 29 for men)—ten years where you’re a single person in the world—and yet courtship remains the dominant mode. Even if we’re not actively looking for marriage, etc., we’re fretting over it, spending a lot of time on Internet dating or Tinder. The contemporary stereotype of the single person is associated with dating, as if all single people do is date or look for people to be with—and yet, it’s sort of true. So I would like to see that change as well.
How do you feel about Tinder and dating sites? Is their popularity a symptom of our fear of being alone?
I do think people feel an overwhelming need to find a romantic partner, and then here is our culture giving us all these tools that will ostensibly solve our problems for us, and so we’re spending more time than ever before thinking about that. I think that love is a very important part of life, and I always wanted it to be a part of my life, but it does feel very detrimental to one’s sense of wellbeing to be emphasizing romantic love and couple love above everything else. It’s important to really recognize love in all the ways that it comes. When that happens to people, it helps them to feel a lot calmer about the dating machine, and more relaxed, but when people are feeling like being single is a state of lack, a void that needs to be filled, that’s where people find unhappiness.
Recently there were some weirdly hostile comments about your appearance in the letters written in response to the New York Times review of your book. More than one person made comments along the lines of, “well of course she doesn’t mind being alone—she’s got a line of suitors waiting at the door,” and “just wait until her looks fade.” What do you make of those kinds of reactions?
I don’t really know how to respond to that. What we look like is subjective. It’s kind of funny: there’s this assumption that an attractive woman’s attractiveness is her power, and that she gets married off because of her attractiveness. But the critique taking place here—that because I look pretty on the cover of my book I’m at liberty to choose not to marry—reverses that. Really, though, I just literally don’t know how to respond to it, it’s so beside the point. It’s basically just making me speechless.
It must be odd for you, too, because in the book you say you’ve always felt you were very average looking. Growing up you never felt like the most attractive girl in the room.
Exactly! That’s what’s very strange. My “looks” have never been a big part of who I am. I was a late bloomer. I was insecure, and this and that, so to be suddenly having this critique taking place of how I look on the cover of my book, after hair and makeup artists and a stylist and the whole thing…. My looks are not something that I’ve been particularly interested in in that way.
At the end of the book you mention that you’re dating someone and include a couple stories that sort of demonstrate how he fit into your life.
I ended the book with the trip to an island that we were taking with my friend to show the model of an expansive, social, integrated constellation of people, friends, and lovers—that I wasn’t just hitching my star to one person. That’s the note I wanted to end on, that embracing different kinds of relationships is what makes the kind of life I want, which includes love but is not organized exclusively around a romantic partner. It’s not about one person.
Are you still dating the same man?
I am, yeah.
Well… that’s great!
The way I see it is that, after having spent ages 14 to 30 in long-term, monogamous relationships, it took me from 30 to 40 to learn how to be on my own. By doing that, I learned to be in a relationship that feels balanced and not all-encompassing. So for me, it took a lot of experimenting and trying and thinking to be able to figure it out.