Spinster: Making A Life Of One's Own

Spinster: Making A Life Of One's Own

Paperback | April 19, 2016

byKate Bolick

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A New York Times Book Review Notable Book

“Whom to marry, and when will it happen—these two questions define every woman’s existence.”


So begins Spinster, a revelatory and slyly erudite look at the pleasures and possibilities of remaining single. Using her own experiences as a starting point, journalist and cultural critic Kate Bolick invites us into her carefully considered, passionately lived life, weaving together the past and present to examine why­ she—along with over 100 million American women, whose ranks keep growing—remains unmarried.

This unprecedented demographic shift, Bolick explains, is the logical outcome of hundreds of years of change that has neither been fully understood, nor appreciated. Spinster introduces a cast of pioneering women from the last century whose genius, tenacity, and flair for drama have emboldened Bolick to fashion her life on her own terms: columnist Neith Boyce, essayist Maeve Brennan, social visionary Charlotte Perkins Gilman, poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, and novelist Edith Wharton. By animating their unconventional ideas and choices, Bolick shows us that contemporary debates about settling down, and having it all, are timeless—the crucible upon which all thoughtful women have tried for centuries to forge a good life.

Intellectually substantial and deeply personal, Spinster is both an unreservedly inquisitive memoir and a broader cultural exploration that asks us to acknowledge the opportunities within ourselves to live authentically. Bolick offers us a way back into our own lives—a chance to see those splendid years when we were young and unencumbered, or middle-aged and finally left to our own devices, for what they really are: unbounded and our own to savor.




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Spinster: Making A Life Of One's Own

Paperback | April 19, 2016
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A New York Times Book Review Notable Book“Whom to marry, and when will it happen—these two questions define every woman’s existence.” So begins Spinster, a revelatory and slyly erudite look at the pleasures and possibilities of remaining single. Using her own experiences as a starting point, journalist and cultural critic Kate Bolick i...

Kate Bolick is a contributing editor to The Atlantic. She was previously the executive editor of Domino magazine. She lives in New York.

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Spinster: Making A Life Of One's Own
Spinster: Making A Life Of One's Own

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:352 pages, 8.01 × 5.2 × 0.74 inPublished:April 19, 2016Publisher:Crown/ArchetypeLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0385347154

ISBN - 13:9780385347150

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1There, Thought Unbraids ItselfWhom to marry, and when will it happen—these two questions define every woman’s existence, regardless of where she was raised or what religion she does or doesn’t practice. She may grow up to love women instead of men, or to decide she simply doesn’t believe in marriage. No matter. These dual contingencies govern her until they’re answered, even if the answers are nobody and never.Men have their own problems; this isn’t one of them.Initially the question of whom to marry presents itself as playacting, a child pulling a Snow White dress from a costume box and warbling the lyrics of “Someday My Prince Will Come” to her imaginary audience of soft-bottomed dwarfs. Beauty, she’s gleaned, is her power and lure, a handsome groom her just reward.Next she deduces that a flammable polyester gown with tulle underskirts does not an actual princess make, and that beauty is in the eye of the beholder—which is to say, she discovers her market value. For me it was the morning in second grade when I understood with a cold, sharp pang why I disliked gym class, even though I was the fastest runner and could do the most chin-ups. As our gym teacher, a man, led us toward the playground, I saw that he didn’t playfully tease me the way he did my friends—the pretty ones. And so I learned, I am not pretty.With puberty comes yet another opportunity for self-inventory. In fourth grade, I was second in my class to develop breasts, which I hid by wearing two heavy wool sweaters simultaneously all through an exceptionally warm spring—intuiting, rightly, that when the world saw what my body was up to I’d be thrust into a glare of visibility I wasn’t prepared to meet.Fifth grade: buck teeth. Sixth grade: braces. Seventh grade: popularity. I’d always found friendship easy, with boys and girls both; now I was also getting romantic attention and the two beams of social approval wove themselves into a crown. During class, my friends and I traded intricately folded notes about our crushes and practiced writing our someday surnames in fancy cursive letters. When I saw the high school girls’ soccer team circled for warm-ups, one girl at center leading the stretches, I decided that someday I, too, would be team captain.Eighth grade brought with it hourglass proportions, which I learned while swimming in the pool at my grandparents’ retirement complex in Florida. Two college boys appeared out of nowhere, cannonballed into the water, then shot to the surface, wet heads gleaming. “Gotta protect that one,” they leered, loudly enough so that my mother, reading on a lounge chair, could hear. I blushed with pleasure and shame—and the shame of pleasure. What did it mean? Later she explained my “nice figure.”And so the approach of ninth grade made me mournful and agitated. I suspected that thirteen was the last, outermost ring of the final stage of childhood, and that those idle diversions I’d never thought to question—long hours paging through picture books trying to spot an overlooked arm reaching out from the rubble of Pompeii, or “praying” to the Greek gods (the most plausible deities, I’d decided)—would soon seem immature, unsuitable. When I turned fourteen and began my freshman year in high school, I’d have to cede the private kingdom of my imaginary life to the demands of that larger empire, where the girls who were already drinking beer and having sex were writing new laws I didn’t want to play by but couldn’t ignore.Braces and breasts—and so a girl becomes, if not one of the pretty ones, attractive. To boys, I mean. College sees a few more adjustments—baby fat melts away; the late bloomer sprouts curves; the blandly pretty cultivates envy for the beautiful’s chiseled bones—and then the real games commence, carrying on from campus through her twenties and thirties.Some get the matter over with as quickly as possible, out of love or duty or fear. I’ve had friends who consider themselves plain tell me they seized the first husband they could get, leaving the playing fields open to the pretty and the hot. Others postpone the inevitable as long as possible, each passing year more thrillingly uncertain than the last. Their evasions are inscrutable to the romantics, who lie in wait, expectant, anxious.It’s hard to say which is more exhausting: the sheer arbitrariness of knowing that her one true love could appear out of anywhere, anytime, and change her fate in an instant (you never know who’s just around the corner!), or the effortful maintenance (manicures, blowouts, bikini waxes, facials) that ensures she’ll be ripe for the picking when it happens.Eventually, whether you choose or are chosen, joyously accept or grudgingly resist, you take the plunge.You are born, you grow up, you become a wife.But what if it wasn’t this way?What if a girl grew up like a boy, with marriage an abstract, someday thought, a thing to think about when she became an adult, a thing she could do, or not do, depending?What would that look and feel like?In 2012, I read that modern America’s first iconic single woman and my favorite girlhood poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay, had lived in my hometown in the early 1900s. Obviously, Google Earth wouldn’t do. I rented a car and drove the five hours north from my studio apartment, in Brooklyn, New York, to the house I grew up in, on the coast of Massachusetts.The news had astonished me, both the exciting nearness of a woman I admire, and that I hadn’t known it already. We the people of the historic seaport (so heralds a sign on the highway) of Newburyport put great stock in our civic past; it’s how we compensate for having no contemporary relevance. Every schoolchild is taught that George Washington once spent a night in what is now the public library. John Quincy Adams slept everywhere, apparently. Yet we don’t stake our rightful claim to one of the twentieth century’s most famous poets.Admittedly, it wasn’t Millay’s poetry that had inspired me to make the trip. When I was twenty-three my mother died unexpectedly, and in the months that followed I’d been gutted to discover that without our conversations, which I’d always assumed would be there for the having, I had absolutely no idea how to make sense of myself. Unconsciously at first, and eventually with something resembling intention, I began the very long process of re-creating our conversations—not with other, real, live women, who could only ever be gross approximations of the mother I missed, but real, dead women, whom I could sidle up to shyly and get to know slowly, through the works they left behind and those written about them. By now, including Edna Millay, there were five such women: essayist Maeve Brennan, columnist Neith Boyce, novelist Edith Wharton, and social visionary Charlotte Perkins Gilman. I’d come to consider them my “awakeners,” a term I’d borrowed from Wharton, who used it in her memoir, A Backward Glance, to describe the books and thinkers who’d guided her intellectual studies. Granted, mine was a more sentimental education. I’d encountered each awakener at a different stage in my own coming-of-age as an adult, which, I could no longer deny, I finally was. I’d just turned forty.I’d made a very big deal of the birthday. Those of us who’ve bypassed the exits for marriage and children tend to motor through our thirties like unlicensed drivers, unauthorized grown-ups. Some days it’s great—you’re a badass outlaw on the joyride that is life! Other days you’re an overgrown adolescent borrowing your dad’s car and hoping the cops don’t pull you over. Along the way I decided to take as faith Erik Erikson’s famous theory of psychosocial development, which maintains that age forty is when “young adulthood” ends and “middle adulthood” begins, and I vowed that when that day came, I’d properly celebrate my place in the order of things, no matter how unsettling it felt to accept I was no longer young.For six months my friend Alexandra and I planned a seaside clambake for forty of our mutual friends and closest family, to be held several towns south of Newburyport the first weekend in July. Alexandra is married, with two children, and, possibly because of this, handled our wedding-like preparations with more sangfroid than I, who had never hosted a big event, and fixated on every last detail, most fanatically, the exact-right motif. It should be simple, I decided, and nautical (an anchor, a clipper ship, a crab) yet also . . . iconic, representative of transition, one door opening as another closes (Janus), or perhaps straddling two worlds (a centaur, a minotaur) but female obviously (not a harpy; a Valkyrie?). That it took me so long to arrive at the obvious made my final preparations all the more manic. The night before the party I stubbornly carved a mermaid into a linoleum block—a skill last deployed as a YWCA camp counselor the summer before college—poured a pan of black ink, and doggedly printed her shapely silhouette onto forty red-striped cotton dishtowels, one for each guest, while my new boyfriend, S, gamely affixed homemade mermaid stickers to matchboxes, somewhat alarmed, he later admitted, to witness what happens when, as my family has long put it, I get a bee in my bonnet. My heart hummed. Hadn’t I wished as a girl to be a mermaid, and wasn’t I a mermaid now? Never before had I been so liminal: astride the threshold between young womanhood and middle adulthood; in love but living alone; half invisible, half statistical reality—as in, over the course of my own lifetime the ranks of unmarried women (and men) had grown so swiftly that it reached a record high, turning what had felt, in my twenties, to be a marginalized status into a demographic so enormous it was no longer possible to question our existence.The next morning the caterer, my childhood friend Martha, who’d reinvented herself as a feast-maker, arrived with buckets of lobsters and clams. Our friend Alison, an antiques dealer, laid the rented tables with black-and-white gingham cloths and silver candelabras. Like me, they were both unmarried mermaids, as were all but one of my female guests.Without a doubt I was forcing myself toward epiphany, come hell or high water, but it worked. The night itself was clear and warm. Watching my family mingle with friends from every stage of my life, some they’d known forever and others they’d never met, I began to sense a shift in my perception, a growing awareness that I was now in possession of not only a future, but also a past. It was almost a physical sensation, as if everything I’d ever thought or done had been embroidered onto the long train of a gown that now trailed behind me wherever I went.When I looked over my shoulder to inspect this feat of silken wizardry, there they were, my five ghostly awakeners, holding it aloft.I’d never regarded all five women together before, as a group, and in the weeks following the party I found that I couldn’t stop. The oldest was born in 1860, the youngest in 1917. One was from Ireland, but they’d all spent their adult lives in America (at least through young adulthood; one decamped to France in her forties). Though all were writers of various stripes, none had been friends in their lifetimes.These women had been with me for over a decade, and yet still they were mostly abstractions, spectral beings confined to the invisible sanctum that exists between the reader and the page, as if they weren’t once real people who’d walked this same earth, negotiating their own very different personal and historical circumstances.Discovering that Edna Millay had actually walked the streets of Newburyport, the only place to which I feel an intense, visceral attachment, as if it’s not merely my hometown but a phantom limb, ignited a desire to bring all five of my awakeners back to life, so to speak. Getting to know them, really know them—visit their homes; read their letters; smell their perfume—was a task long overdue. I wasn’t sure what I’d learn by seeing Edna’s house, for example, but given how sensitive I am to my own surroundings, I knew it would somehow deepen my understanding of who she’d been. I drove the first hour of the trip in silence; the snarl of exits and on-ramps that quarantines New York City from the rest of the state requires militant attention to the GPS. But once I’d hit the highway, I turned on the radio and toggled through the stations, a baggy American songbook.I’d happened upon my five awakeners with a similar hopscotch of happenstance and instinct, and until well past New Haven I suffered a variant of commitment phobia, or buyer’s remorse, tallying up all those who might have been, musicians and artists and thinkers just as interesting as the ones I’d chosen.This ad-hoc approach had discounted scores of perfectly acceptable candidates. For instance, Mary McCarthy, many a bookish girl’s imaginary avatar, even though one morning I found myself looking in the bathroom mirror thinking a passage from her Intellectual Memoirs as if it were my own: “It was getting rather alarming. I realized one day that in twenty-four hours I had slept with three different men. . . . I did not feel promiscuous. Maybe no one does.”But crossing from Connecticut into Massachusetts, I remembered that McCarthy a) had been a touch too coolly imperturbable at the exact moment I needed warmth and b) grew up in Seattle and Minneapolis, two cities I know nothing about.All four of my native-born women had strong ties to New England.Besides, I decided, isn’t that how falling in love so often works? Some stranger appears out of nowhere and becomes a fixed star in your universe. My susceptibility to the seeming poetry of random chance is both blessing and curse.By now it was late evening. I took the exit for Newburyport and continued along High Street, a wide boulevard of pretty eighteenth- and nineteenth-century houses, toward the center of town. As always, the buildings of my youth were exactly where I’d left them. The deceptively dignified-looking Newburyport High School. The tiny, shingled Lynch’s Pharmacy, where I was always greeted by name. St. Paul’s Church, home of my Montessori kindergarten and later, my mother’s funeral. The sweet red-brick façade of my grammar school.Four of my five awakeners were redheads.Not until I was driving through my blindingly white hometown did I realize that the only characteristics all five women had in common were a highly ambivalent relationship to the institution of marriage, the opportunity to articulate this ambivalence, and whiteness—each of which, arguably, was inextricable from the rest. During the period I was drawn to—primarily, the turn of the last century—vanishingly few women of color were given the privilege to write and publish and, therefore, speak across the decades.

Editorial Reviews

New York Times bestseller*One of Flavorwire's 10 Books That Will Define the Conversation in 2015**One of Newsday's Books Not to Miss**One of Publishers Weekly’s Top 10 Social Science Titles of 2015**One of Bookpage’s "15 Books We Can’t Wait to Read in 2015"**One of Vogue.com’s Recommended Spring Books for 2015**Featured in Bookish’s Spring Preview* *Featured in Bustle’s Spring Preview*“What’s surprising about Spinster is how, in its charmingly digressive style, the book sets forth a clear vision not just for single women, but for all women: to disregard the reigning views of how women should live, to know their own hearts and to carve out a little space for their dreams.” —New York Times Book Review“Awakened and inspired by the lives of five historical women, Bolick revels in her own singledom in this blazingly smart memoir, which argues that “spinster” should be a coveted destination, not a dirty word. Her eloquent, provocative story illustrates how charting a unique course can make any life truly singular.” —People“Bolick weaves memoir, feminist theory, and biographies of five forgone writers into a riveting, essential text. Bolick’s voice crackles with wit, sharp criticism, and breathtaking metaphors as she makes an enticing case for spinsterhood.” —Entertainment Weekly“Bolick’s rich chronicle makes Spinster one of the most important works of feminist cultural history of the last 20 years...Let this remarkable memoir stand as an important political reckoning for women's trajectories, and a moving personal effort toward that greater vision.” —National Post“Bolick’s evocation of the untethered state is often beautiful, her metaphors precise and lyrical in the manner of her heroines. More important, she does not flinch from describing just how alone alone can feel...Bolick is adept at spotting the unexamined confusions and curious silences that have arisen in the wake of an incomplete sexual revolution—and that bedevil those of us who are living outside of our culture’s sturdiest institutions.” —Elle“A pleasing, intelligent book. Bolick’s minibiographies of her five awakeners are captivating, and she is great company on the page–perhaps she will prove to be an awakener for a new generation.”—TIME“Often lyrical...a personal story of the pleasures and challenges of being a woman at a time of changing rules and seemingly endless possibilities.” —The Economist“Bolick’s intimate exploration of spinsterhood celebrates the courage of defining for oneself what it means to be happy.” —Newsday“Bolick's cri de coeur dispels the 'conundrum' of the willfully single female.” —O Magazine“In Spinster, a sharp-witted paean to the single life, Kate Bolick explains why she has consciously opted out of coupling.”  —Harper's Bazaar“Provocative...A uniquely American quest for a life without regrets - and without a partner.” —Associated Press“Stemming from Bolick’s fantastic Atlantic cover story, “All the Single Ladies,” Spinster expands on that initial work, in a beautiful piece of cultural history that should prove inspiring and thought-provoking for women of all ages. Bolick takes us deep into her own story as a single woman, and explores the lives of her “awakeners” — women like Maeve Brennan and Edna St. Vincent Millay, who served as models and warnings of the rich life that could be made, free from the constraints of a traditional marriage.” —Flavorwire“Something to celebrate…[Spinster offers] models for women’s lives distinct from the demands of the domestic realm.” —The Week“In this beautifully articulated memoir-cultural/historical examination mashup, Bolick shares both her own reasons for remaining unmarried, as well as sharing examples of great spinsters throughout history (such as Edna St. Vincent Millay and Charlotte Perkins Gilman), absolving the term’s negative connotations in the process…Bolick’s newest is an inspirational treatise that will help define a nascent generation of women who choose to live happily independently.” —Bustle“While the stereotypes of spinsters are mostly unflattering—cue the cat lady, the bag lady and Grey Gardens—Bolick’s Spinster offers a corrective through nuanced portraits of women who love and are loved, and who choose to place their work and their friends at the center of their lives. Engaging and informative, Spinster offers a decidedly non-“Sex and the City” portrait of the challenges and opportunities of single life.” —Bookpage“Kate Bolick brings a bracing feminist consciousness to bear on the lives of five unconventional women of the past and on her own young life in the twenty-first century. She writes about the dilemmas of love and work—then and now—with rare perspicacity and poignancy.” —Janet Malcolm, author of The Journalist and the Murderer“Spinster is a triumph, a provocative and moving exploration of what it means for a woman to chart her own course.” —Malcolm Gladwell, author of David and Goliath“Kate Bolick’s Spinster will take your breath away. Writing with a bold vision and in incandescent prose, Bolick gives us a user’s guide to going solo — and a gorgeous work of cultural criticism.” —Susan Cain, co-founder of Quiet Revolution and bestselling author of Quiet“In Spinster, her wise and subtle memoir, Kate Bolick explores that freighted term—and the often-maligned woman to whom it is attached—and deftly, persuasively reclaims it. In telling the stories of her literary ‘awakeners’—five vividly-conjured women who escaped the conventional ties of marriage and family—and in elegantly weaving cultural history into her own personal progress to maturity, Bolick shows by argument and example that the single life is not a predicament to be escaped, but a distinctive, demanding, rewarding form of freedom. I wish I could give this book to my thirty-year-old self; she would have taken heart and inspiration from Bolick’s bold and intelligent self-examination—not necessarily to follow her path, but to be tenderly reminded of this simple but easily neglected truth: that there is another way to want to be.” —Rebecca Mead, author of My Life in Middlemarch“What happens when you don't get married? Setting out to answer this question, Kate Bolick has written a moving, insightful, and important inquiry into how women's lives are narrated—not just in poems, novels, biographies, and memoirs, but also in our own heads, every day, as we make the constant stream of decisions that constitute a human life. Ambitious in the best way, Spinster made me think differently about everything from novelistic plot to the meaning of furniture.”—Elif Batuman, author of The Possessed“Kate Bolick has written a heart-stirringly wonderful book—a diary, a history lesson, and a meditation on what it really means to be an independent woman at this moment in America. A fiercely smart young writer, so very much of her time that any urban single woman of "marriagable" age will instantly relate to her (and those of us who used to be that woman will, as well) —decides to attack the idea that marriage must be a female goal. She takes us on her journey from her New England girlhood through an advancing literary and media career, with and without boyfriends, in Boston and then, most heart-stirringly, in New York. She intersperses each vulnerably lived but precisely analyzed step with the inspiration she has searched out, with touching passion, from magnificently singular role models from the late 19th and early 20th century. She calls these heroines her ‘awakeners,’  But by the end of  Spinster it is we who have been awakened by Bolick’s insistence on an examined life—a glowingly examined life—and the reminder that this ruminative self-honesty, this peace-making with oneself, is not only what we must nourish but also what can save us.” —Sheila Weller, author of The News Sorority and Girls Like Us“Women of the world, listen here: Drop whatever you’re doing and read Kate Bolick’s marvelous meditation on what it means to be female at the dawn of the 21st century.  Part self-investigation, part social history, this utterly singular book reminded me, in its warmth and wit, of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love and Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch, but ultimately Bolick’s restless, razor-like intelligence calls to mind none other than Betty Friedan. And like The Feminine Mystique, Spinster will make you re-think your entire life, if not radically change it.” —Joanna Rakoff, author of My Salinger Year and A Fortunate Age“Today, women throughout the world have embarked on an unprecedented experiment in solo living, and no one has chronicled the experience with the candor, insight, and intelligence of Kate Bolick. Spinster is part memoir, part social history, part adventure story, all riveting. No matter whether we're married or single, it invites us to think seriously about how we want to live.” —Eric Klinenberg, author of Going Solo“[A] powerful memoir…Bolick’s intense and moving combination of personal, historical, and cultural narratives will inspire readers—especially women—to think about what they want their own lives to be, and how close they are to their goals.” —Publishers Weekly [starred]“Refreshingly bold and incisive… As Bolick traces her evolution into a woman unapologetic for her choices and unafraid of her own personal freedom, she also reclaims the derogatory word ‘spinster’ for all females, married or not… A sexy, eloquent, well-written study/memoir.” –Kirkus Reviews [starred]“Smartly written, intimate, and heartfelt, Spinster challenges readers to reconsider what a successful life feels like for women and gifts them with a wondrous group of historic figures to immerse themselves in. A brilliant and timely narrative for twenty-first-century bluestockings, and book groups shall rejoice from all the wonders it has to offer.” –Booklist“Author Kate Bolick of The Atlantic writes an assured and engaging volume on the subject of spinsterhood, and in doing so reclaims the word and makes it entirely her own. Whether you’re a woman, or you simply know some, this is an enlightening read about breaking free of conventional wisdom of love and marriage. Bolick is a feminist hero in the making.”–Bookish“Bolick's message for readers is a celebration of the delights, challenges and opportunities of remaining single.” –Shelf AwarenessFrom the Hardcover edition.