The Improvised Woman

Carolyn McConnell reviews 'The Improvised Woman' by Marcelle Clements

Published August 19, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

My housemates and I are members of the Spinsterhood. When acquiring or getting rid of a man, "The Spinsterhood will always take you back." We have semi-serious discussions about whether you can be both a spinster and a slut. A joke seems the least absurd way to sidle up to the outdated roles offered us, and laughter feels like the beginning of reinvention.

It was with a shock of recognition that I read Marcelle Clements' "The Improvised Woman." Clements has interviewed some 100 women, most of whom say publicly what we all know -- that the cultural models held up for women no longer fit us. The statistics Clements lists shouldn't be news, but somehow they are: One quarter of Americans over 18 have never been married; there are 43 million single women in America (two single women for every three married women); most women can expect to be married only half of their adult lives. A single woman, as Clements defines her, is over 18, divorced, widowed or never married, with or without children. But does this include unmarried women living with men or other women? Where would my household of three women fit? Clements presumes that living without a man is the crucial factor, and that that means living alone.

Clements has talked to women of all ages. Perhaps the most inspiring is Clements' oldest subject, 94-year-old Valentine J., who has a younger lover -- aged 84 -- but lives happily alone. Many of the responses to singleness are humorous. One woman who has gotten heavily into Tantric sex reports, "It's very hard to do alone. I can't seem to find my own G-spot." Another quips that the only thing a husband gets you in New York is a dining room. Clements takes as emblematic of singleness the grim lament "There are no men," which may be a fact in New York City (where she found most of her subjects), but hardly characterizes my single experience. None of the women interviewed is a lesbian, and only one woman is identified in passing as living with other women. Everyone else Clements interviewed is apparently living alone or only with children. When Clements defends the joys of a childhood with a nanny or devotes 10 pages to bedsheets, it is clear that her definition of singleness is merely negative, which defeats her intention of making a constituency of single women.

Inspiring and reassuring as the voices of her subjects are, Clements, who repeatedly meanders into psychobabble, fails to take them anywhere. In a chapter titled "Post-Oedipal Females and Brides of the Universe," she writes, "You might say that single women have become reluctant mystics. Unwilling though they may be to relinquish the worldly, many find themselves taking introspection and even meditation, official and unofficial, for granted." This drivel takes the space that ought to be filled by an analysis of where we go from here. While Clements might not agree, living alone is not a lifestyle choice. It's what happens when the old patterns die and we haven't yet created new ones. While, as several women say in the book, it's better to be lonely and independent than lonely in the wrong relationship, surely the question is how to invent new kinds of relationships.

This book does offer clues. In a chapter on the "so-called new family," Clements mentions friends-as-family; one answer to our loneliness may be strengthened relationships between women. For heterosexual women, this would mean reconsidering the relationship between sex and partnership, between romance and raising kids. It will take work for women to invest their relationships with other women with sufficient value to recenter their lives. The young woman in Clements' book who, with palpable self-loathing, calls a circle of single women "pariahs" who "sort of suck on each other" rejects the hope female friendships offer. But when I sit on the porch with my household, as the neighbor kids run through the yard and my housemates and I tease each other, one thing I do not feel is single.

By Carolyn McConnell

Carolyn McConnell is a writer who lives in Seattle.

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