This semester I joined a feminist book club that takes place in my favourite city and is led by a fellow feminist PhD candidate at my same programme. The club is organised nation-wide, with different physical meetings all over Spain by the feminist organisation La Tribu (‘The Tribe’). Our first reading was Spinster. Making a Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick, a non-fiction book, partly memoir, about what it means to be single nowadays.
The book has been translated into Spanish but I decided to go with the original for two reasons. One is that I read faster in English and I also enjoy the text more, the second one is that books in Spain are quite expensive because as cultural products they have a 21% tax on them with Spinster‘s price rocketing to 24€. So, after a quick search at Abebooks I found an in-good-condition edition for less than 2€. Here’s my now battered copy:
I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Spinster, as I found myself thinking about the book all day long and wishing it was bedtime to return to it. I usually read novels, but this year I have felt drawn to non-fiction. The boyfriend got me Gloria Steinem’s memoir My Life on the Road for Christmas and it had been a long time since I had been so inspired by a book. Non-fiction is teaching me that life is gray, messy and wonderful. Kate Bolick’s book has taught me that our emotional and personal lives do not have to be coherent.
Spinster is divided into chapters according to the different ‘awakeners’ that Bolick has chosen as her role models. The term ‘awakeners’ is a feminist one related to Kate Chopin’s feminist novel The Awakening in which a young wife and mother wakes up one day to a life that does not make her happy and decides to change that. One thing to highlight is that Bolick’s experience is highly situated as a white, middle-class American woman, meaning that she, like we all are, is a product of her surroundings. Hence, the women that she choses as role models are culturally and geographically similar to her: They were either born in New England, or they moved to New York city. All of them were women of letters and arts, and most of them will be familiar to the Western feminist reader. And if not, Bolick’s admiration for them is so contagious that you will find yourself researching these awakeners. I did not know a thing about Irish author and journalist Maeve Brennan, but I am now fascinated by her life and I hope to explore some her works later this year. The rest of the awakeners, you will have to discover for yourself as their identities and their historical relevance are key to the development of Bolick’s train of thought.
Irish author Maeve Brennan (1917 – 1993)
When a non-fiction book deals with such a sensitive topic as women’s personal lives, it is almost impossible not to be passionate about what you think. As a feminist I have never found myself against anything as long as it is a woman’s choice and it does not cause her any harm. I am not against marriage, probably because my parents have been together for almost 40 years and they are a happy and strong couple. I am not against choosing to remain single because some of the women I admire the most are not married, nor do they have children. In short, I truly believe it is important to remain true to yourself and choose what makes you happier. Said choice is a difficult one when it comes to our private lives, as society still seems obsessed with women marrying and having children so that they are defined by their relationships to other people rather than in their own terms.
Bolick explores what singlehood means for her, and reflects on whether it is conscious choice or the product of failed relationships in which she did not feel comfortable. Having said this, the author is very clear in that she has experienced most kind of relationships: Open relationships, one-night stands, long-term relationships that everyone expected to end in marriage, she has shared a flat with her partner, and she has lived alone. As she approaches her 40th birthday she realises that she does not need to accommodate to anyone’s idea of how her life should be, but it takes a process of reflection and self-criticism to reach this point. That is what Spinster is, a woman’s journey to define herself and find what makes her happy in a society where dating, marrying and having children are considered the default life paths of the vast majority.
We like to pretend that only single people are lonely, and coupledom is the cure.
I only found a problem with the book and that was the definition of singlehood by Bolick. As a white, middle-class, educated woman living in New England she works with a very fixed definition of what being in a relationship means, and what getting married means. Throughout the book I was surprised to find that this definition remained stable through her 20’s and 30’s, and I wondered if the age gap between her and me was the problem here. She even admits to seeing women in two groups: Married and not-married, and wonders if singlehood will mean she will end up a bag-lady, or a cat-lady. For Bolick being in a committed, long-term relationship and eventually marrying equals will compromise the woman’s freedom and right to act on her own terms. On the contrary, being single may be hard, but grants the woman an escape from patriarchal subjection. Contemporary feminist writers, such as Louise O’Neill, have already written about the complex relationship between being a feminist and the consequences of entering a heterosexual relationship in a society where women are still not considered equals to men.
While this could be true to our mothers’ generation, I am hopeful things have changed for some of us as more men define themselves as feminists and make a conscious effort of escaping traditional gender roles in relationships. But also, as women escape stereotypes and try to find a balance between being completely alone in life or the centre of a big family. Being in a couple will not guarantee anyone’s happiness, nor will being alone make you a cat-lady. Bolick plays with extreme situations while making her choice, and although no one knows what the future holds, I want to believe that things are changing. More and more people are questioning the dating-marrying-children lifestyle, and more and more people are defining their lives on their own terms. There is no need to torture ourselves with the idea of becoming a desperate housewife or a bag lady, is it? But maybe that is my Millennial’s naiveté speaking (*).
Bolick herself sees some light at the end of the tunnel when she speaks about Markus and Nurius’s study about the imagined future and our possible self from 1986. These two researches from the University of Michigan conducted a study on how our own perceptions of the future affect our present and the future itself. You can check the abstract of their academic article here. This mechanism is also known as self-fulfilling prophecy and it concludes that human agency depends on our capacity to imagine ourselves in the future. Hence, if you imagine yourself a happy single woman with significant relationships with your family, friends and colleagues, it is very more likely you will achieve that situation. On the other hand, if you think that remaining single will turn you into a cat-lady then that situation is more likely to happen. This is why Bolick’s awakeners and role models in feminism are so important: If you can see it, you can be it.
Astronaut and astrophysicist Sally Ride (1951 – 2012), the first American woman in space aboard the space shuttle Challenger on the importance of female role models.
However, the thing that I loved the most about Spinster is Bolick’s love for these women writers and the act of writing on itself. Bolick is a journalist and a writer, and she has a passion for stories, especially women’s stories, especially from the past. While I read this book I found myself writing more than I usually do, and the author became a colleague, a friend, who was struggling with writing the same way that I was, and was pushing me harder, forward. Even though I did not agree with everything that Bolick says about partnership, being in a relationship and marriage, I respected her point of view and instead chose to fully connect with her through respect for our different points of view and our shared love for literature and writing.
To write a sentence, then a paragraph, then another, and to have someone else read those lines and immediately understand what I meant to express – I wanted to try that.
In short Spinster is a very interesting and necessary book for anyone looking to reflect on women’s lived experiences and women writers alike. This is not a self-help book, nor does it contain any answers. What works for someone could be a personal nightmare for me and vice-versa. Bolick works hard at defending her singlehood, but so would I about defending my relationship. What matters the most is that this book is visibilising singlehood and putting it out there as a happy choice in life. Spinster is then a celebration of women’s right to choose what makes them happy, rather than just conform to society’s expectations. A luxurious choice for women in the past not so long ago, and a necessary conversation still nowadays.
(*) If you are interested in reflecting about marriage, feminism, children, committment, education and the intersection of all these issues, check the Stuff Mom Never Told You Youtube channel where feminist Cristen Conger does research on similar issues. In this video she reflects on the statistics that show how Millennials have different values regarding committment, marriage and stability than the previous generation: