Nyla Matuk talks to Kate Bolick
LAST YEAR, KATE Bolick’s Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own made ripples and generated hot takes. Bolick’s book—part-memoir, part cultural history—dared to examine the potential of women’s lives lived outside of marriage and was covered in a range of venues, from Cosmopolitan to The New York Times. Following my own review in April 2015, many of the questions registered by readers, reviewers, and other pundits have since triggered new ideas for me. With the paperback edition set to arrive this month, accompanied by a new afterword, which appeared in The New Yorker, I caught up with Kate by email to discuss Spinster and other recently published feminist essays.
For me, the ‘spinster wish’ you describe is mostly about women acting as the centre of their own initiatives. Spinster is a personal memoir and you located this ‘wish’ first in childhood and later in similar aspirations in the women you profiled as your ‘awakeners.’ This seems like a reasonable basis for a memoir. I came across some odd interpretations though—the idea that you were a ‘serial monogamist’ whose single periods felt like victories over smothering attachments, and that you promoted such apparent ‘loneliness’ as liberating. Or tweets such as this, which read like sexist misunderstandings. But your book isn’t positing a framework for women’s lifestyles for the 21st century, nor is it based on facts such as Rebecca Traister’s recently published All the Single Ladies. In short, Spinster is far from advocacy of any kind even though it’s been interpreted as wrongheaded fantasy and hypocrisy.
So why do you think Spinster has been read, repeatedly, as a manifesto for the conscious or deliberate rejection of men? I don’t think you’re saying that, and I don’t think you’re suggesting celibacy or refraining from relationships that are intimate and/or sexual. Why is it threatening to some that women might have independent projects outside of coupledom? Because a lot of this blowback I’m seeing is from women. Is a fear of becoming the spinster of yore still top of mind? Isn’t loneliness also likely inside relationships?
At this point, Spinster has been accused of being and/or not-being so many different things that it’s all become a sort of white noise, every vehement opinion canceled out by another. I think there might be two reasons for this.
One: When my “All the Single Ladies” cover story went viral in 2011, readers (and also those who just read headlines) assumed I was a “spokesperson” for the unmarried life, and they either hated or loved me for that, depending on their own point of view. Yet, never once in that article do I say that I’m “against” marriage, or that I plan to be single forever—what I do is explore the contemporary landscape, and the rising demographic of unmarried women, of which I happen to be a part. But the simple fact of a woman aligning herself with not-marriage, in any capacity, was so destabilizing, that many people responded to it defensively, as if they had to choose what “side” to be on. It drove me crazy. In particular, I didn’t like that I was being cast as someone who had renounced love. This bothered me on a personal level (I love love!), and also made me sad and frustrated about people in general for needing/craving/wanting spokespeople to advocate for personal choices on their behalf. For needing heroes, and antiheroes. So, in Spinster, I wanted to show that I am absolutely not a spokesperson, not a hero or an antihero, that in fact my own coming-to-adulthood was just as confused as the next person’s, a mix of willfulness, fear, delusion, and luck (good and bad), all transpiring during a certain era and place that happened to be rife with mixed messages. My intention was to show that I am neither exceptional nor representative—that I am simply a woman who grew up with the same assumptions as a lot of other people, at a time when talk about singlehood was very limited, and because of that I invented my own conversation with women who had lived long before me. Indeed, I worried that the book was too idiosyncratic for anyone to care about.
Two: Spinster in turn inspired a whole new variety of haters. Whereas most of my previous haters were male conservatives who hated me for presumably dissing men and/or marriage, or feminists who hated me for not towing the party-line-of-the-moment, as far as I can tell my current haters are primarily single women who don’t think I’m single enough. I get their frustration. Back in 2000, I went through the same thing with Neith Boyce, the 19th-century journalist I ended up featuring in the book. When I first discovered her, she was the most proudly never-married woman I’d ever met, and I made her into my personal hero. Were it not for Neith, I probably wouldn’t have had the clarity to leave the relationship I was then in. When I learned that she’d gotten married, I was devastated. For about three days. At which point I realized I was being ridiculous. It was a really important lesson for me, to learn that I wanted someone to be something I wasn’t. Point being, I do understand the need for heroes, and how disappointing it is when they go and be unheroic. Too, for those readers who very much want to be in relationships but never are, or for those who proudly reject intimate attachments, it must feel insulting to have me, a person who has spent a lot of time going in and out of love affairs, be the sole representative for a “single life” that looks so completely unlike their own. But that’s a fault of the marketplace, not my book. If all goes well, Spinster will inspire other women to publish their own stories about living outside of marriage, and in time there will be such a variety of voices on offer that readers won’t need one woman to speak for all.
I particularly liked—in your account of Neith Boyce’s 1898 column “The Bachelor Girl,” which ran in Vogue for a year—the mention of the rise of restaurants and co-op style urban living arrangements for these “new women” working in the city: that there were solutions to cooking chores for women working full-time. Knowing that Spinster was immediately seized upon by what I want to call the ‘dating-relationships-sex-marriage’ media for women, that sort of phenomenon disrupts the presumption that women’s trajectories have always been about marriage as a goal. Your book is a counter-narrative for most chick-lit as well (I might be wrong but I sense that, as marriage increasingly becomes an optional life-goal, chick-lit seems on the decline as a marketable genre, compared, say, to the late 90s/aughts). Any thoughts on changing media and/or literature for women, given this state of affairs? Is there anything you’re reading right now that you’d recommend or is there a particular literary theme you’ve been tapping into since you finished writing Spinster?
Yes, the living arrangements that existed for women at the turn of the last century, along with Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s advocacy for the “kitchenless house,” fascinate me. On the most superficial level, I was surprised to discover how much radical thinking was taking place about architecture during a time that had none of the aesthetic markers of the minimalist movements to come, just around the corner. More profound was being able to see the connection between our living spaces and our actual lives, and to get a sense of the myriad invisible forces that determine our day-to-day existence, for good and for ill. For instance, the boarding houses that were so prevalent during the 19th century, combined with the sexist assumption that women needed to be protected, and a social order that still relied on domestic servants, meant that working women like Neith Boyce arguably had a higher standard of living than I did a century later, sharing a too-small apartment with a roommate, and doing all my own shopping, cooking, and cleaning while burning myself out working enough jobs to pay my overpriced rent. And yet, of course, the erosion of such extreme paternalism, and the eradication of a servant class, were necessary forms of progress! Meanwhile, had Gilman’s quasi-socialist vision of apartment buildings and housing complexes with communal kitchens and laundries—intended to make housework less isolated and burdensome—taken hold, maybe suburban married women wouldn’t have led such lonely lives at mid-century.
Your theory about the decline of chick-lit is so intriguing; I hadn’t noticed that. What I have noticed is the explosion in stories that undermine the marriage fantasy in a sort of fun-house-mirror way, from novels such as Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, to the television shows House of Cards and The Americans. There’s even a great show called UnREAL, about a fake dating show called "Everlasting,” that skewers marriage from every direction possible.
There’s also been a ton of interest in female “best friends,” which of course has everything to do with people marrying later and relying for longer periods of time on their platonic companions. There’s Emily Gould’s novel Friendship, about two best friends, and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, also about two best friends; the television shows Broad City, about two best friends, and Doll & Em, also about two best friends…. And these are just off the top of my head. Arguably, adult BFFs are becoming the new top-dog dyad, replacing the couple.
As a side note: I fervently hoped that Spinster would be seized upon by ‘dating-relationships-sex-marriage’ media. The ideas I present have existed among feminist radicals for a long time, particularly in the academy, and I saw it as my project to bring those ideas to a wider audience that might not otherwise encounter them.
Many of your concerns in Spinster revolve around you, and by extension, women, being ‘possible’—that is, being in the world irrespective of attachments they may or may not have to a husband, partner, or children. In Vivian Gornick’s 2014 interview in The Paris Review, she talks about relationships in a feminist register and says equality will come when men and women stop being instrumental to each other. I wondered about this instrumentality, more than once, as I thought about women making lives of their own. For women, emancipation would mean not being the instrument of another in the midst of the political condition of inequality for women. But it seems for men, attachments are less about potentially becoming unequal or losing themselves. I, too, wonder if women are considered ends in themselves in the culture. Due to this ongoing condition of inequality, it seems foolish to think of your book as making an issue out of nothing, e.g., assuming marriage isn’t expected of women anymore, or that there aren’t still expectations that they bear children. I mean, look at chick-lit alone, as a cultural phenomenon: it assumes women’s emotional lives are predicated almost entirely on finding and/or keeping a man. Then there’s Hillary Clinton, whose Twitter page defines her first as a wife, though she’s poised to become one of the most important political leaders in the world.
That there’s divided opinion on whether or not there’s still “cultural pressure” to marry is fascinating to me. Proof enough—as if any were needed—that we’re living through a major social transition.
Possibly it’s hard for some people to see that the expectation for marriage still exists because the “oppressor” wears a different face. I’ll use Vivian Gornick’s timeline as an example. She was born in 1935. When she was in her 20s, during the 1950s, marriage rates were at an all-time high. There were frightfully few options for women’s lives. There hadn’t been a visible contingent of single women in half a century. Marriage was a patriarchal dictum. As the patriarchy has (slowly) weakened, the expectations around marriage have become less pronounced, more like an assumption than an absolute.
These days, it seems the main motivators for marriage (outside of actual love) are existential dread (oh no what if I wind up alone) and lifestyle aspirations (the only way to buy a house and afford nice vacations is to merge incomes with someone else). This shortcut to the good life is ratified constantly by mainstream, popular culture, which until shockingly recently had no idea how to handle the gains of feminism (and it still of course has a long way to go). A longtime feminist like Gornick can believe that “the subject of love and marriage has lost much of its dramatic potential for novelists,” as Elaine Blair describes it in that interview. But come on. The range of novelistic concerns has expanded in the wake of the sexual revolution, and progressed beyond the marriage plot, but the bulk of popular literature and television is still in thrall to romance. And no wonder! Romantic arcs are readymade storylines that easily lend themselves to drama: Act I, They Meet; Act II, They Break Up; Act III, They Realize How Wrong They Were and Get Married. Marriage itself is an existential crisis that basically everyone can relate to. In short, marriage and all it entails—longing, rejection, infidelity, betrayal, disappointment, divorce—makes for good entertainment. That’s just make-believe marriage. The real-life wedding industry is a whole other ball of wax. Marriage is an economic driver.
Without a doubt, here in the year 2016 there’s no reason for women to feel pressure to marry. We no longer need marriage for economic security or social standing. Most of the old stigmas against single people and single mothers have fallen away. Meanwhile, the arrangement itself, as a union between two people, is in great shape—truly egalitarian (save for mothers still doing the lion’s share of parenting and housework); wholly elective; not to mention same-sex inclusive—so it’s not like it needs to be foresworn on principle, the way it did in the 1960s. Frankly, given all this headway, you’d think everyone would be married! And yet more than half the population isn’t, for the first time in history.
That statistic itself is something of a Rorschach test. People look at it and say: “Marriage is dead,” or, “Women are rejecting marriage,” or, “See, silly, the cultural imperative is gone!” The truth is much more complicated than that, having mostly to do with a tangle of race and class issues, the ubiquity of divorce, and increasingly longer lifespans. My experience as a white, middle class, educated, secular woman in her early 40s is just a tiny sliver of the pie. But what’s happened in that tiny sliver alone is hugely significant: As educational and vocational opportunities have become more available to women, the age of first marriage has risen (and keeps rising). The story today is that more and more women are pushing marriage off, not necessarily rejecting it altogether.
Part of what interests me is how women relate to this new timespan. In my ideal world, we’d all be taking a page from 19th-century single women like Jane Addams and Louisa May Alcott, saving the planet and directing films, while having as much good sex as we feel like, or don’t feel like (unlike them). Certainly, some are, obviously. But what I often see among women I’ve interviewed, and those I hear from all the time, is an enormous anxiety. It’s like a psychological lag. The gains of the women’s movement made our lives possible—yet we’re still carrying around expectations on how to live from a previous era. But that seems to be changing very quickly. More and more, I also hear from and speak with a lot of women who are really happy on their own, and actively don’t want to share their lives with one man, or raise a child that way. But so far, those women still seem to be in the minority.
In a recent essay in Harper’s, Rebecca Solnit discusses the possibility that focusing too much on our own happiness and the way it’s conventionally defined as marriage, offspring, owning property, and erotic fulfillment elides the possibility of living a life that might have value outside of those things. She goes on to say that people who have acquired those things are nonetheless quite unhappy in many cases, but that doesn’t seem to curb the desire in our culture for attaining these particular goals. I guess this brings me around to what I think is the essence of your book: that for women, ‘making a life of one’s own’ is really jettisoning so much of what occludes women’s emancipation from—to use one Solnit phrase—“male vanity.” Rebecca Traister gives hard factual evidence that the institution of marriage has always rested on policies and a gendered class of labour that hobbles women’s economic prospects even as it actively promotes mens’. Laurie Penny exhorts young women to stay single for their economic and psychological well-being, while Phoebe Maltz Bovy accurately characterizes, then challenges, patriarchal assumptions that women’s desires are almost always geared to an endpoint of conventional home lives and satisfying the male gaze. Young women are now pushing back, it seems, on marriage, and showing that it’s really only an option. At least in some demographics, it’s so great to see them thinking outside that life trajectory more forcefully and imaginatively. It all brings Maeve Brennan to mind in particular.
Isn’t it exciting to see how swiftly this whole conversation has taken off? When I was entering my 30s, in the early aughts, mainstream society was still in the midst of a strange, extended hiccup—women like myself were encouraged and “empowered” to be and do anything we wanted, so long as we also landed ourselves a good man in time to procreate, at which point we could either a) break our backs maintaining demanding careers in a non-family-friendly workplace while also raising children, or b) “pull back” on our ambitions to make room for family, which of course presumed having a partner who could carry a household solo in a dual-income world. Thanks to this generation of women growing up and seizing hold of the bullhorn, progress is apace on all fronts.
Part of what interests me about Maeve Brennan is how, demographically speaking, she lived a fairly radical life outside the bounds of politics. There she was at mid-century, the toughest time in American history to be an unmarried woman, truly going her own way, without the support of family, or consciousness-raising groups, or even, until much later in her life, any sense of sisterhood. Point being, though the female desire to be alone is usually coded as “feminist,” the desire itself has nothing to do with politics.
Laurie Penny’s exhortation, along with New York Magazine’s recent “Single Ladies Week” (packaged around Traister’s cover story), are direct descendants of Neith Boyce’s column, “The Bachelor Girl,” about her decision to never marry. As you know, in Spinster, I describe how, for nine months, she wrote regularly about her life as a happily unmarried woman, touching on the same concerns any single woman has today: the necessity of paid employment; the centrality of female friendships; the annoying if well-intended “concern” of elderly relatives; the bother of cooking while holding down a job; the indignity of being expected to fork over your hard-earned money for a wedding gift every time someone “joins the vast majority,” as she put it. Which is also to say: Whenever I start to feel wildly optimistic, and think that forevermore all people everywhere will truly understand marriage is one among many options, I remind myself that there was a very similar conversation going on at the turn of the last century, which ended up being rather short-lived. This is one reason I wrote Spinster the way that I did—to give a window onto that conversation, and bring history back into the present.
NYLA MATUK is a poet and the author of Sumptuary Laws (2012). A new collection of poems is forthcoming later this year.
KATE BOLICK is a contributing editor for The Atlantic and the author of Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, a New York Times Notable Book of 2015. She has contributed to Vogue, Slate, and the New York Times, among other publications, and has appeared on The Today Show, CBS Sunday Morning, CNN and NPR among other programs. Spinster will be translated into at least 6 languages, with Slovakian, Spanish and Italian editions appearing this year.