Spinsters: That’s Who We Are and We Own It

Don’t try to shame contemporary single women. We’re not apologizing.

Bella DePaulo
Nov 13, 2020 · 10 min read
Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash

Does the term “spinster” make you want to rise up in protest if you are a single woman? Does it make you feel smug if you are coupled? Well, it shouldn’t. Spinsters have a proud history, and contemporary women who have been single their whole lives are doing far better than anyone ever imagined. Reclaiming the spinster label is a cultural project, and one person who took it a big step forward was Kate Bolick, in her book Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own.

I reviewed the book when it was first published — I’m sharing that review here in the first part of this article. Then you will find “10 Fun Facts about Spinsters.” The facts date back to the year 1450, and I found them all in Spinster. By “fun,” I don’t mean trivial. We’re talking a Nobel Prize and the founding of the first major union of working women in the United States. I end with “50 Shades of Single,” in which I mine Spinster for the proud, quirky, and powerful images of single women that Bolick uncovered, as well as 6 varieties of people who live alone.

Kate Bolick titled her book “Spinster.” She’s not hiding from the term

Kate Bolick, the forty-something author of Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, has had a series of long-term relationships. She loved those men. In the relationships, she writes, she “found so much meaning and satisfaction.” Yet each time, when the natural next move was to cross the threshold into official matrimony, she never took that step.

She had what she calls a “spinster wish.” She savored the fantasy of the single life “not because I didn’t want such [romantic] relationships, but because I also wanted to find other avenues of meaning and identity.”

Spinster is a generously candid and gorgeously written account of Bolick’s own story: one of loving coupledom while also being drawn to singlehood. It is not her story alone, though. Reaching back a century or two, Bolick finds stories of women of letters who lived out loud, unconstrained by the proper and expected ways of doing things.

Today, there is no column in any major magazine that is a joyous, unapologetic celebration of single life, but there was in 1898, when Vogue first started publishing Neith Boyce’s “Bachelor Girl.” Decades later, Maeve Brennan wrote about single life in the city for The New Yorker. Boyce and Brennan are the two lesser known of the five women Bolick calls her awakeners. The others are the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, the novelist Edith Wharton, and the social reformer Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

When my colleague Wendy Morris and I asked 760 college students to predict how happy they would be if they married or stayed single, on average they expected to be extraordinarily happy if they got married and rather miserable if they stayed single. Their predictions were strikingly different from the actual happiness of people — which, it turns out, is at very similar levels regardless of whether they marry or stay single. That so many smart young contemporary adults generated such a stigmatized view of single life was sad. So, in a way, is the need for a book describing the attractions of “making a life of one’s own” in this, the twenty-first century.

Yet here we are. Our society is so saturated with matrimania (the over-the-top hyping of marriage and weddings and coupling) and singlism (the stereotyping, stigmatizing, and discrimination against people who are single) that positive portrayals of real single women are shockingly scarce. Also missing are robust histories and cultural analyses of single life, and stacks of studies of the social science of singlehood, analogous to the endless and relentless and overwhelming scholarship on marriage.

And so I especially welcomed the significant historical and cultural observations that Bolick interweaves with her own story and those of her awakeners. As she notes in an interview about Spinster, she researched “the single woman’s place in the social order, and how it’s changed across time” and found that “the specific economic, political and cultural conditions of each era determine who the single woman can be, and how she’ll be perceived.” Those perceptions were not always as negative as they often are today.

So what does it mean now to live single? How can we think about single life in affirmative ways rather than conceptualizing it merely as the absence of marriage?

Spinster is not a self-help book, so there are no enumerated lists of the components of a good single life. Bolick’s beliefs about the matter are evident, though. People likely to savor single life are drawn to solitude — they like having time to themselves and maybe a place of their own, too. Meaningful work is important. So is the financial means of supporting yourself, and the emotional security of having people in your life you care about and trust.

“In the best instances,” Bolick suggests, spinsters forge “an intricate lacework of friendships varying in intensity and closeness that could be, it seemed, just as sustaining as a nuclear family, and possibly more appealing.” (A decade ago, in The New Single Woman, Kay Trimberger suggested a similar set of components of a satisfying single life.)

Perhaps most importantly, a fulfilling single life is an intentional life. It is thought out and planned and designed and redesigned, just the opposite of defaulting to the prescribed sequence of marrying, decamping to the suburbs, and having children.

Bolick’s characterizations of a meaningful single life are strikingly similar to the preferences of people who see themselves as single at heart. But neither Bolick nor any of her awakeners identifies fully and unreservedly as single at heart. They are all a bit too enamored of coupled life. As I made my way through Spinster, I was crestfallen to discover that one after another of these five extraordinary historical figures had all tried marriage, at least for a while. For a tribute to single people who start dreaming about a life of their own during childhood, and then actually live their dream for all of the days of their adult lives, we’ll have to wait for another book.

Still, this is a book I expect to return to often. Already, I am building a mental list of topics I’m likely to blog about. I want to share Bolick’s collection of telling historical observations about the rise and fall of singles, and the changes over the centuries in the sizes of our families. I’m intrigued by the many different images of single people I read about in Spinster, the unconventional categories of loners, and the different names that have been invented for single women and single men that go way beyond spinster and bachelor. Posts of fun facts, witty quips, and insightful quotes will practically write themselves.

Spinster is also rich with descriptions of creative ways of living, such as the communal living arrangements designed by and for single people and the practice of living apart from a serious romantic partner, even a spouse.

Bolick’s writing has that generative quality about it. “All the Single Ladies,” Bolick’s 2011 Atlantic magazine cover story, broke the internet with its huge popularity and the torrent of responses it inspired. Spinster will be like that, too. It will be a book club favorite and a media sensation. You may as well read it, because if you don’t, you are just going to have to pretend that you did.

10 Fun Facts about Spinsters

  1. The first American woman to win the Nobel Prize was a lifelong single woman. The year was 1931 and the celebrated spinster was Jane Addams.
  2. Coco Chanel was also a lifelong single woman.
  3. “In one particularly telling 1962 poll, the majority of married women claimed that they were happy, but only 10 percent wanted their daughters to follow suit.”
  4. “During the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, of the nearly two-hundred people accused of witchcraft…the majority were adult women at the fringes of society, whether poor single mothers or widows whose wealth inspired jealousy.”
  5. “Of the tens of thousands executed for witchcraft in central Europe from 1450 to 1750, three quarters were widows over fifty who lived alone. Which is to say that her crime was the audacity of existing without a husband.”
  6. The word “date” appeared in a mainstream publication (with quotation marks) for the first time in 1914.
  7. “Juliet was thirteen when she married Romeo…throughout the 1800s the legal age of consent in most states was ten, eleven, or twelve — seven in Delaware — but, mercifully, by century’s end social reformers had pushed that number to between sixteen and seventeen.”
  8. Maybe the Victorian era wasn’t what we think and what women really wanted was freedom from having so many children: ” the so-called ‘passionlessness’ we attribute to Victorian women was their ingenious means of shutting down their own libidos, and those of their husbands, in order to abstain from sex at a time when birth control was unreliable and/or simply physically uncomfortable…”
  9. About women in the workforce in the late 1800s: “Key to women’s ascent was the typewriter. Invented in 1867…In 1870, only 4 percent of stenographers and typists were women…by 1900, they were at almost 80 percent.”
  10. Factory workers in Lowell, Massachusetts in the mid-1800s were often single women. They came together to create “the first major union of working women in the United States.”

50 Shades of Single

In my writings on single life, I have a lot to say about singlism, the ways in which single people are stereotyped and stigmatized and discriminated against. That includes — for single women, especially — the derogatory terms that have been hurled at them.

In Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, Kate Bolick reminds us that single women have not always been portrayed in entirely demeaning ways:

“She’s selfless: Lady Liberty, Florence Nightingale, Mother Teresa. She’s charmingly eccentric: Mary Poppins, Holly Golightly, Auntie Mame. She’s powerful: Rosie the Riveter, Wonder Woman, Joan of Arc.”

Bolick also describes many different shades (okay, maybe not 50) of people who live alone:

  1. “The recluse or hermit — the secular person who shuns human society in all forms — tends to be regarded as eccentric, usually with disdain.”
  2. “The loner is romanticized as a rebel, as long as he’s a he…”
  3. “Social aloners” such as monks and nuns “live alone with like-minded people.”
  4. The “gregarious recluse” is “easily drained by being around others, but…energized by parties and conversation.”
  5. “Turbulent aloneness” is practiced by those who have turbulent romantic relationships and end up “seesawing between periods of intense connection and isolation.”
  6. The artist or bohemian is the “most glamorized version.”

In discussing the many shades of meaning ascribed specifically to single women, Bolick noted:

“Which is also to say that in spite of her prevalence — demographers say one-third of every female population is unmarried — the single women is nearly always considered an anomaly, an aberration from the social order.”

In contemporary American society, the proportion of single women and single men is greater than a third of all adults, and closer to half. We single people are more like the norm than some oddity in need of explanations and quirky appellations.

Those statistics refer to anyone who is currently unmarried. But even those who do eventually marry are doing so later and later, in the U.S. and in many places around the world. Kamala Harris, for example, did not marry until she was 50.

By pairing the “Spinster” title with the subtitle, “Making a life of one’s own,” and by just about everything else she says in the book, Bolick is trying to reclaim the “spinster” word, shaking off all its old frumpy connotations and infusing it with something altogether admirable, as has been done, for example, with “queer.”

In a particularly compelling section of the book, Bolick interviews the eminent social psychologist Hazel Markus about her notion of “possible selves” — “our ideas about who we wish to someday be, as well as who we’re afraid of becoming” (Bolick’s paraphrase).

We are, of course, in dire need of more of those positive possible selves for single people. As Markus noted,

“We need much better and many more models. We need movies where women are attractive and interesting and have great lives and may not be married.”

She then added the profoundly important point that images and imaginings are not enough. We need institutionalized supports:

“Schools, workplaces, laws, norms, the media — they all need to make it clear that there are other ways to be a woman or a member of one minority group or another.”

[Want to learn more? Take a look at this collection of articles on all sorts of topics relevant to single life. Watch my TEDX talk, “What no one ever told you about people who are single.” Check out my website. Find my other stories on Medium here. Disclosure: Links to books may include affiliate links. Finally, my “Single at Heart” blog that I have been writing for Psych Central since 2011 is ending in 2020; I am updating many of those posts and moving them to this blog on Medium.]

Fourth Wave

Changing the world for the better, one story at a time

Bella DePaulo

Written by

“America’s foremost thinker and writer on the single experience,” according to the Atlantic. Author of “Singled Out.” Harvard PhD www.belladepaulo.com

Fourth Wave

Changing the world for the better, one story at a time, with a focus on women and other disempowered groups

Bella DePaulo

Written by

“America’s foremost thinker and writer on the single experience,” according to the Atlantic. Author of “Singled Out.” Harvard PhD www.belladepaulo.com

Fourth Wave

Changing the world for the better, one story at a time, with a focus on women and other disempowered groups

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