I have been carrying around Kate Bolick’s book, Spinster, for well over two weeks now. I keep it in my bag, so I have it when I’m out, as well as when I’m at home. I bring it out over wine with friends. I flick through it when I can’t sleep. Like I’ve always imagined I’d feel if I had a dog, her book is a silent companion, a co-conspirator, a pal I can turn to.
Which is interesting, considering its title is Spinster. I’m a single woman, but I would've thought I’d reject the term. That was precisely the point Bolick tells me from New York: “I chose the word spinster as a title because it immediately broadcasts this strange, negative association with the unmarried life. And, even though it’s pretty old-fashioned and people don’t use it so much any more, we all agree on the definition. Some people even physically recoil from the word.”
While singledom is often seen as a problem that needs fixing – or something to recoil from – Bolick uses single women to tell the stories of pioneers who reimagined what their life could be and helped shape the cultural and social landscape of New York City. Her book, part-social history, part-memoir and part-manifesto for an alternative way of living, defies what so many of us associate with single life (loneliness, failure and inadequacy), and instead celebrates it as an empowering perspective on life, in which a woman comes first, and her relationship, if she has one, comes second.
Bolick structures her story through her “awakeners”, a phrase she borrows from Edith Wharton, who used it to denote thinkers who guided her on her intellectual journey. For Bolick, her awakeners are female writers in New York at the turn of the century – fascinating, insightful voices of empowerment and encouragement. There is no pattern to life, other than the one you want it to be, is both the message that Bolick takes as well as the one she passes down. And through these stories of unconventional women who refused to marry and wrote some the most celebrated literature of their generation, Bolick weaves in her own story.
At times, her story is exceptionally familiar. Growing up, she thinks she should get married because that’s what everyone does. In her twenties, she breaks off relationships without too much thought because she’s young and excited by her career as a journalist.
“We need a functional, thoughtful conversation around single women," says Bolick. "It’s still a topic that is condescended to, treated as joke"
But, in her mid-thirties, she continues to break off relationships. Happy relationships. And that’s when she began to really consider what being single meant to her. “Everyone I knew was married and having kids”, she says. “I really questioned if there was something wrong with me. Am I too selfish? Too immature? When I broke up with someone around 35, 36, that was the hardest time, but also the most liberating. I thought, phew! I didn’t do it on the expected timeline, so I’m sort of past that stage. It could never happen or it could happen in a year or 20 years. But it doesn’t matter and, oh my gosh, it never mattered.”
She laughs when I suggest she is rewriting the romcom: just at the moment the sun is setting over the ocean and a lovely man and his lovely family are all in place, Bolick pulls out. It's not a picture you see very often, one in which bagging the man isn't the happy ending. Bolick tells me that, as a single 28-year-old, there were no positive examples of strong single women. All she had was Carrie Bradshaw and Bridget Jones – single women who were driven by their search for a man. And so she looked to the past for her role models.
It was an article along these lines, for Atlantic magazine in 2011, that provided the catalyst for Spinster. Hundreds of girls from all over the globe contacted Bolick to thank her for saying the previously unsaid. “We need a functional, thoughtful conversation around single women," says Bolick. "It’s still a topic that is condescended to, treated as joke. I wanted to give the topic the dignity it deserved and pull the history together so that women today could see where they’ve come from. And, if you are drawn to that, here’s something that might make you feel less alone.”
And she's succeeded. Why else do I carry her book around like a compass? Bolick's book offers an empowering alternative narrative to what a woman’s life can look like. It’s not that men are excluded from it – they just aren’t the final prize, the thing that will confirm whether my life is a success or not.
"Romantic relationships will always be a part of me," Bollick tells me. "It just took some time to learn how to make my romantic experience important, just not the centre of my life."
It reminds me of Nora Ephron’s mantra: be the heroine of your own life, not the victim.
Unmarried, married or otherwise, read this book. It is a masterclass in self-worth and making your own adventures.