When someone calls you a spinster, it’s not very nice. The word alone conjures images of old women with too many cats, homeless bag ladies, and ultimately, the crazy, single aunt the family hides in the attic. You might as well prep for your old maid photo shoot, right?
Writer and editor Kate Bolick is reclaiming the word in her new book, aptly titled Spinster. According to Bolick, as women, we’re taught from the cradle to grow up, get married, have kids. It’s society’s fault we believe this myth; it’s society’s fault spinster is a bad word. So what if we could change all that? What if we could redefine what it means to be single, and make it into a good thing?
When my husband saw the cover of Spinster, his first response to Ms. Bolick’s image was, “Wow, she’s hot.” Yes. She is. I want to make it clear that Bolick is not an angry single who can’t land a date because she looks like Jabba the Hutt. She is a successful, beautiful, accomplished lady who knows herself well enough to know marriage might not be in her future, but it’s not like she woke up one morning with her identity fully defined.
First, she discovered she felt “most alive when alone.”
In our interview, she said, “I’m a very relationship-oriented person. Time alone was something I had to steal. It was not part of my everyday life because I was always around other people, so time alone felt especially precious. But I didn’t want solitude to be something I had to steal; I wanted it to be my natural condition. That was part of why I felt I had to go about uncoupling myself.”
She’s not a sex-hating man-basher; she just knew she needed her own space, a process that started when she lost her mom when Bolick was only 23. She said, “There’s never a good time to lose a parent. To be 23, I was an adult; I wasn’t a kid. I had my whole childhood with her, but it still felt very precarious to embark on adulthood without her.”
To fill the gaping hole her mother’s death left, Bolick found five female authors she related to: Edna St. Vincent Millay, Maeve Brennan, Neith Boyce, Edith Wharton and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. She even began having imaginary conversations with these long-dead authors in an effort to replicate things she longed to ask her own mother. “Instead of talking to her, I talked to them.”
Spinster follows Bolick but also her five icons, each of whom could be described as spinsters.
So where did the spinster stigma come from? Bolick thinks it has something to do with witches. “A witch was usually a single woman who lived on the margins of society,” she said. “She was generally a widow or unmarried woman. Because of that, she was considered a threat. Wives didn’t know what to make of these women who didn’t live within marriage.”
Even now, there is still that Sex and the City/married versus single battle going on, which is unfortunate. Bolick said, “The world that most women avoid — the unmarried, childless state — is one that many women thrive within.” This may be true, but we don’t want to believe it, because we’ve been so hardwired to believe marriage is the natural order of things. Why?
“Historically, we had to get married because we didn’t have any professional opportunities or ways to take care of ourselves. Marriage was a way out of the house,” said Bolick, “a woman’s only real chance for stability and social acceptance. As time has passed and women’s opportunities have changed, we’ve now evolved to a place where we don’t need marriage the same way we used to. But we’re still holding on to those ideals. We still organize our lives around marriage as if it’s essential, even though it isn’t. There’s no one way to be!”
Yes, Bolick wants spinster to be redefined. Instead of old maid, why not independent maid, “shorthand for holding on to that in you which is independent and self-sufficient, whether you’re single or coupled.” And hey, don’t make finding the right mate your goal in life.
Said Bolick, “It becomes exhausting when you’re orienting your life around the search for a mate. You’re always on the hunt for something you don’t already possess, so you’re never feeling content with your own circumstance. Once you let go of that quest and just live your life as it comes to you, being single can be a more positive experience.”
She continued, “It’s important to remember that romantic love is not a panacea. It comes with its own set of problems. What’s important is to feel supported and sustained by the connections you already have in your life. Focus on nurturing those and valuing those and don’t prioritize romantic love above everything else.”