“This alertness is what drew me to them.” A conversation with Kate Bolick
Kate Bolick’s SPINSTER: Making a Life of One’s Own (Crown Publishing Group) is a book about women who have challenged the categories they find themselves shunted into—wife, mother, daughter, old maid—and about Bolick’s own attempts to understand the categories bound up in the experience of womanhood, and to question their relevance to her life. SPINSTER is a genre-defying book. Part sociology, part memoir, and part literary criticism, it is really none of these things, and for that reason it is also far greater than the sum of its parts.
SPINSTER’s greatest triumph is its ability to show us how we can understand our own lives through the lives that have gone before ours. Its argument, in other words, is that the personal is not just political, but historical. I asked Kate Bolick about her genre-bending book, the “awakeners” whose lives she explored, and her sustained examination of the term “spinster,” ending in what she describes in the book as “a wholesale reclamation of the word.”
SARAH MARSHALL: Were you inspired to write this book after the response to your 2011 Atlantic piece, “All the Single Ladies,” or was it a project you had already been pursuing?
KATE BOLICK: I tried and failed to start a smaller version of this book in 2006, put it aside, and then couldn’t stop thinking about it. After the Atlantic story came out, I decided to try again.
SM: Throughout the book you describe five “awakeners”—female writers who you saw pointing the way toward the life you wanted, both as a writer and as a woman. What do you think makes these five women–Neith Boyce, Maeve Brennan, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Edith Wharton–such meaningful topics of discussion within your book? Could you have arrived at the same conclusions within SPINSTER if you had not examined their lives?
KB: Since my 20s, the women I wrote about have actively influenced my attitudes toward marriage and singledom. Their lives, and my relationships to their lives and works, was the story I wanted to explore and share. I had no interest in writing a book that didn’t include them.
SM: Were there women whose narratives originally had a place in the book, but didn’t make it to the version we now have?
KB: Yes, sadly! I’ve long been intrigued by Jane Addams, Louisa May Alcott, Catharine Beecher, Mary Cassatt, and Sarah Orne Jewett—lifelong spinsters, all—and the ambivalently married Louise Bryant and Margaret Sanger, but, for highly idiosyncratic reasons, they didn’t leave as deep an imprint on me as the women I feature. There is one narrative I actually wrote and had to cut: that of the failed opera diva Ganna Walska, who married six times before finally leaving the last in her 50s, and spent the last four decades of her life alone, creating a triumphant, theatrical botanical garden in Santa Barbara, California, called Lotusland. I find her misbegotten reliance on marriage, and ultimate finding-of-herself-once-single to be fascinating. But she’s a very complicated figure, and my feelings about her were too complex to resolve in time for the book’s deadline, at which point the manuscript was feeling far too long anyhow, so out she went.
SM: You mention in the book that, for the most part, your awakeners were not strictly spinsters. What about them embodied your spinster dream, if not the material circumstances of their lives?
KB: When I first encountered Boyce, Millay, and Brennan, they were bona fide spinsters (never-married women past their era’s idea of what constituted “marriageable” age) who enjoyed full, active lives; Boyce and Millay went on to have open marriages, and Brennan finally married at 37, divorced at 42, and lived alone until she died. Wharton and Gilman both left their husbands at a time when divorce was hardly the norm, and “found themselves” when finally on their own. Like me, all five women had strong attachments to home and family, but prized personal autonomy, and endeavored to find a balance between these competing desires, conducting their lives with great deliberation and intention, constantly interrogating themselves and their own choices, and even reversing course when necessary. This alertness is what drew me to them.
SM: Your article in The Atlantic gracefully weaves together the history of spinsterdom with your own personal narrative; in SPINSTER you introduce a third thread in the form of literary history and the biographies of your five awakeners. Did you always know your awakeners, and the broader literary history surrounding them, would play such an integral role in the book?
KB: Actually, I don’t get into the history of spinsterdom in the Atlantic article; my focus is strictly on the present, with a few historical references to better illuminate the contemporary condition. I wrote SPINSTER expressly to explore more deeply the conditions that shaped the women I’d been thinking about and communing with in my head for so many years, and to show the long history of the public critique of marriage to contemporary readers who weren’t already aware of it. Because I have such a personal, albeit imaginary, relationship with these women, I felt the only way to tell the story was as a personal narrative; I included my own “biography,” so to speak, so that readers could engage with me on the page, agreeing and disagreeing, the way I had with my awakeners. In this way it borrows from memoir, without actually being one.
SM: Toward the end of the book, you describe using “spinster” as “shorthand for holding on to that in you which is independent and self-sufficient, whether you’re single or coupled.” Do you think of this definition as informed by American culture and values, or is it more universal than that?
KB: This is a wonderful question. The single experience varies according to the economic and social forces shaping culture at large. In America, for instance, our resolutely un-socialist system makes individuals more reliant on the financial and healthcare benefits that come with marriage than in Canada, say, where the more generalized safety net provided by the government allows people to stay solo more easily. Partly because of this, Americans tend to elevate the couple form as superior to, and separate from, the group, which can be isolating and ultimately rather stressful. When I made that suggestion for how to use “spinster,” I was definitely thinking of working mothers who have so little time for themselves, and couples who expect their partner to be their everything. I don’t think anyone can be anyone’s everything, really. Holding onto your own autonomy, and widening your scope of deep attachments to include friends and family, makes life more fulfilling whether you’re alone or in a relationship.
SM: Can a woman be an artist without being a spinster?
KB: Absolutely yes. For some people, a stable family life is crucial to creativity, for others not so much. It’s a matter of temperament.
Purchase a copy of SPINSTER here: http://latenightlibrary.org/spinster
Kate Bolick‘s first book, SPINSTER: Making a Life of One’s Own (Crown Publishing Group) is a New York Times bestseller. She is a contributing editor for The Atlantic and host of “Touchstones at The Mount,” an annual literary interview series at Edith Wharton’s country estate, in Lenox, MA. Her work appears in Cosmopolitan, Elle, Vogue, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications. Previously, she was executive editor of Domino, and a columnist for The Boston Globe Ideas Section. (Author photo by Willy Somma.)
Sarah Marshall is the co-host, with Candace Opper, of Late Night Library’s Late Night Love Affair podcast, whose final episode will be available in July. This fall she will pursue her spinster dream by starting a PhD in English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.