Kate Bolick is a spinster and not afraid to admit it. Bolick is the author of the new book Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own, where she makes the case that staying unmarried doesn't mean being sad, lonely, or even alone. The spinster, Bolick says, has a rich American history, and we'd all be a lot better off if we quit organizing our lives around the idea that marriage is standard or even all that important. Bolick structures the book around her own life and that of her five "awakeners," literary women who were spinsters for at least part of their lives, and whose nerve and fortitude inspired Bolick to carve out a space in the world for herself alone.
Bolick talked to Cosmopolitan.com about the power of single women, how the book affected her own dating life, and what life looks like when you take marriage off the agenda.
Why this book now? Are single women having a moment?
Absolutely, yes. Now that there are more of us than ever before—we're marrying later than ever before; marriage rates generally are down—there's a real power in numbers taking place. This book grew out of a cover story I wrote for the Atlantic in 2011, and I started to hear from hundreds of women all over the world who wanted to talk about their lives. I realized this appetite was seemingly bottomless and the way women were talking amongst themselves was the same way I was talking with my friends when I was in my 20s and 30s. When the article came out, I realized, this demographic shift is part of the news, and it's going to continue to be part of the news because it's growing and growing, and I would like to write a book that adds another way of thinking to this conversation.
A lot of women are afraid to be single forever, and you touch on some of that fear in the book. Do you still carry around fear?
My easy answer is no, but then I'd say, I'm constitutionally a worrier, so I think I'm always going to guess and second-guess my own decisions. But I never had the classic fear of ending up a lonely cat lady or bag lady on the street, and that's just because I'm such a social person. Who knows what's going to happen when I'm 85 and looking back on my life, but part of this whole process is learning to trust yourself in the moment.
What do you think your 85-year-old self will be the most proud of, or the happiest about, looking back?
Right now, that I became a writer, which is what I've always want to do. I'm really glad I stuck with it, because for a long time, I didn't know how it would work out. In that way, the book is a real personal triumph for me. It was hard to find the circumstances to do it because I had to pay my rent and pay my bills and have jobs and keep myself afloat. I wasn't always disciplined enough. I didn't know how to do all of that and do writing that felt meaningful to me on top of that. So I felt very grateful that I got the opportunity to do this.
One thing your "awakeners" seem to experience, and that you seem acutely aware of, is marriage killing your creativity.
I felt that way because I am such a relationship-oriented person and always have been. I spent up until the age of 30 in long-term relationships. I had never experienced life on my own, and that seemed pernicious to me and kind of childish. How am I going to be an adult if I always have people around me who are taking care of me or lifting me up? I remember when I first moved in New York in 2000, one of the first friends I made, I had kind of a shock of recognition when I met her—there was something so familiar about her to me, and I realized it was the confidence that comes from being in a stable relationship. She had been with her boyfriend for a really long time, and they eventually got married, and the fact that both of us were in these very stable relationships and that we derived so much confidence from those relationships, I found it kind of alarming. I thought, Wait, I don't know how to build up my own confidence. I don't want to be relying on a relationship to make me feel whole or secure or confident.
There's a line in your book where you write, "But—and here's what surprised me — though marriage was no longer compulsory, the way it had been in the 1950s, we continued to organize our lives around it, unchallenged." What do you think a world looks like when women's lives aren't organized around marriage? What would that offer us?
Freedom. And what I mean by freedom is, we do a lot of complicated internal calculating when we are building our lives according to fixed expectations. The classic one might be, "Well, I hate my job but I'm married and I have kids and I have to work for the kids so I can keep my family afloat." Which is true, but I wonder what the world would look like if people didn't feel like they had to marry and have children. Which isn't to say people shouldn't get married and have children, but it's such an unquestioned eventuality that it allows us to make compromises in our lives because we have this ready justification that is actually sort of an invented justification.
To go back to the question of what would my 85-year-old self feel good about looking back, that I never married in the moments that I felt like I was getting close or I was in a relationship that was on that track. I never got engaged, I never walked away from the altar, it's not like I was on the brink of getting married all the time, it's just that I was in relationships that the only way I knew how to think about them was that they would end in marriage. I'm glad I didn't do that. I'm very fond of the people I was involved with, but when I would reach those crux moments of "Oh my god, is this where this is going?" and would feel a lot of doubts, I'm glad I jumped ship. People broke up with me too—it wasn't just me—but I'm glad I never backed myself into a corner or did something because I felt I was supposed to or because I was afraid of the future, even though I was often very afraid.
It's 2015. Is being a single woman who doesn't plan to marry actually still notable?
First of all, it's absurd that it is. It's absurd that the idea of the single woman is so interesting to people. But not only do I hear from women all the time, but I talk to psychotherapists who tell me how much women struggle with these questions in their own lives and how bad they feel about themselves that they're still single. I think we're still at a place where most people feel very unsure about their unmarried state, and that seems absolutely ridiculous that this is the case, given that marriage is not a necessity in any way, socially or economically, in this day and age. You'd think we'd be much further along in terms of attitudes, but we're not there all the way yet. I often think the reason why is because we still value as a society and a culture the roles of wife and mother very highly. It's a kind of Victorian sentimentality to some degree, given that we don't have workplace policies that support working mothers, etc. We pay a lot of lip service to valuing mothers but don't actually support them. That said, I think that because that's what we claim to value, as long as that's the case, the single woman is going to be an object of curiosity or threat, because she's the flipside of that coin. And we don't have a history or a literature of the single experience. That's another thing I was trying to do with this book — show that some of the women who have lived in the past thrived in the unmarried and childless state, and the more examples we have of that, the more familiar that kind of life will seem to people.
Did dating change for you as you wrote this book?
The day that I got the book deal, I went on my second date with somebody and I ended up staying with him the entire time. It's been definitely interesting to be writing about this topic as I get deeper into a relationship. Until writing the book, my relationships were always at the center of my life, no matter how much I tried to minimize their importance. The very physical practice of writing this book and how much it dominated my time and my thinking made me less present to my romantic life as it was happening, and because of that, my romantic life didn't overwhelm myself. So in a strange way it helped me engineer the kind of balanced relationship I'd been looking for.
Have you faced any backlash for the book?
I think it's too soon because the book just came out, but when the Atlantic article came out, there was a very angry response from men online. But in real life, no. The only notable response is when I would talk about the book, people would be say things like, "Oh, haha, like telling stories about your single life!" Everybody thinks the way we talk about single women is dating trials and romantic mishaps, so it felt impossible to describe the kind of book I was trying to write. So much of what I was trying to do was change the conversation about single women and de-infantalize it.
What do you hope the book will accomplish?
Ultimately, fundamentally what I want is for a reader to read the book and engage with herself on these questions. I want her to think about her own life potentially in ways she hadn't thought about it before. The fact that that's already happened to some extent, and I've been hearing from readers, is so gratifying. It makes me cry a little bit every time I get an email from readers saying that.
More generally, I wanted to convey that the world so many women avoid, the unmarried and childless state, is one that many women live in and thrive within. We've sidelined women who live differently, and because of that, failed to recognize that being alone confers onto women and men conditions of self-determination and creativity that can make amazing things. Thinking about how to be alone has increased relevance, because we're spending longer periods of our lives alone than we have in the past, given rising ages of marriage and divorce, and our longer lifespans. Whenever it happens, I would hope people can try to not fear being alone, but to create a kind of solitude and engagement that being alone doesn't have to mean being lonely.
Another point I try to make but don't say explicitly is that in the past, the women I was writing about, they were breaking the mold. Today it's not about breaking the mold. There's no norm; we can do whatever we want. I would hope that women who are younger than I am can seize these periods of time being single and really revel in them and celebrate them instead of feeling anxious and depressed and looking for Mr. Right. Which is something my generation—I'm 42 now—has grappled with a lot because these changes have been taking place so quickly. Women my age were raised being told to do whatever they wanted to do, and went out and graduated college and moved into a world that was still very sexist and had a lot of invisible barriers that we've been navigating, and a lot of old scripts we thought we were supposed to live our lives by. A lot of that has been changing, and a lot of women are refusing those scripts. That's really exciting to me.
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.