Review of Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own by

Book cover for Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own

I read most, if not all, of the Anne of Green Gables books as a kid (of course). I was very moved by Anne’s journey and transition to adulthood; even then, I was pretty sure I wanted to be a teacher, and so I was fascinated by her career path. While the details of the story have blurred with time, one memory continues to stick with me. In none book, Anne and a friend are discussing marriage, and they reach the determination that of the three marital states for a woman (maid/spinster, married, widow) they admitted, “widow” was surely the best—but to get there you had to pass through the “marriage” state first! I’m not sure why this sentiment, of all things, has stuck with me, but perhaps it’s because it is a fundamentally different proposition from anything I’ve had to consider by virtue of being a man in our society. This is, inevitably, the lens through which I viewed Spinster. As Kate Bolick points out from the top, expectations around marriage differ greatly for men and women. I found her analysis, drawn from her own life and the lives of several “historical spinsters” she has studied, interesting. Perhaps more interesting, however, is how this book belies its title. Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own is not about being a spinster, although it is about making a life of one’s own.

Like most people, I went into this book expecting a lengthy discussion of what it is like to be a single woman, particularly one who is over thirty. I detect rancour in some of the reviews I’ve read that protest the way Bolick seems to overlook this crucial part of spinsterhood. As Bolick herself acknowledges in the last chapter, several of the five “awakeners” she examines in the book were not, strictly speaking, spinsters. And while Bolick claims that title herself, for now, much of the time spent discussing her personal life focuses on all the men she has dated, emphasizing not so much that she has spent most of her life single but that she has spent most of her life in and out of various relationships—just none that she wanted to turn into a marriage. Like those other reviewers, I was a little frustrated by this apparent disconnect between the book’s potential and what it actually delivers. But I managed to find something worthwhile in the last few chapters that redeemed most of it.

See, this is not so much a book about being single in modern society as it is about being a woman, full stop. This is a feminist book, a plea for us to continue abolishing gender norms and double standards:

The question now is something else entirely: Are women people yet? By which I mean: Are we finally ready for a young woman to set out on the long road of her life as a human being who inhabits but isn’t limited by her gender?… Until the answer is an undeniable yes, a girl actually can’t grow up like a boy, free to consider the long scope of her life as her own distinct self.

This resonates with me, because it so succinctly captures the double standard with regards to marriage. I’ve never been a relationship, and to be honest, am increasingly feeling comfortable with that state of being. And because I’m a man, I have the privilege of ignoring the question of marriage and assuming I can be independent, can provide for myself, etc., a priori. This is not the same for women, and even though women might have more choice and flexibility these days, the way they view marriage—and the way we view them, and judge them, when it comes to marriage—is very different. And I think Bolick is very right to pin this on the fundamental problem that patriarchy poses, which is namely the way it does not recognize women as people, with agency and all that entails. Just look at the ongoing battle against women’s health and reproductive rights in the United States.

In this context, then, the rest of Spinster makes more sense. Sure, some of the women that Bolick examines did end up marrying. The point is that they caught her attention for how they managed to live, single or married, as their own selves. They were individuals first, wives and women second, and that intrigued her. I like how Bolick peels back the layers of assumptions and stereotypes about the 1890s through the 1930s to show us the diversity of lifestyles. Movies and literature only show us so much; we inevitably start thinking of a certain period through the shorthand of its portrayal in fiction. Bolick’s recounts of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s strange, solitary life with her husband, or Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s world travels, remind us that there were always exceptions and wonderful countercultures within the more dominant culture of the time.

It’s just such a shame that it takes until literally the closing pages for Spinster to provide those missing pieces to make everything else fall into place. Bolick could have been more upfront, but she chooses instead to provide an anecdotal preface followed by a first chapter that sets the mould for the rest of the book: series of jarring vignettes that flit between her personal life and the lives of the women she has studied. While I disagree with those who feel let down by the book’s premise, I wholeheartedly agree that its organization and editing are greatly lacking. There is a great deal of interest in Spinster, but its writing does not make it an easy book to love. I pushed myself through it, through Bolick’s attempts at self-deprecation and her vacillation between being brutally self-aware and seemingly oblivious.

Also note that while Spinster is indisputably feminist in its arguments, it is a very limited, white feminism rather than intersectional. Bolick’s perspective and discourse almost myopically focuses on middle-to-upper class, white America. I don’t mind that Bolick ignores marriage in other countries and cultures, for that would be an absurdly broad scope. More troubling, though, is the omission of any thought to poor women, past or present, Black/African American women, Indigenous women, Asian women, Hispanic women, women of other various ethnicities who were born in America or immigrated. Now, it’s not surprising that Bolick writes with the perspective she does, or that the women who were her “awakeners” are similar to her in background and vocation. I don’t expect Bolick to somehow be able to authentically examine the experiences of women from different backgrounds. However, it would be nice if she at least acknowledged that, even united by a common gender, the struggles that she has faced as a woman are mediated by her race and circumstance and are different from those that other American women face, even today. This lack of self-awareness is one of the reasons white feminism is so problematic; it does not diminish the veracity of Bolick’s arguments but does undermine some of her attempts at solidarity.

I borrowed this from a coworker and friend who absolutely raved about it. Of course, when you borrow a book and don’t like it, that can be very awkward. Halfway through Spinster I was trying to figure out how I would explain/soften the blow of my disappointment with the book—fortunately, those last couple of chapters managed to change my mind. I liked Spinster, and I found a lot of Bolick’s observations eye-opening and accurate. It’s just the style and structure of the book that made liking this more of a struggle than I’m used to with my non-fiction.

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