The problem with "cool" single women

Kate Bolick's new book bravely attempts to reclaim the word "spinster." Here's what it still fails to acknowledge

Published May 21, 2015 8:45AM (EDT)

This piece originally appeared on DAME.

Dame Magazine A few weeks ago, I had brunch with three friends, all single women over 40. We sipped coffee outside on the first beautiful spring Saturday, and my friends discussed various aspects of their lives, including but not limited to: raising a 1-year-old, preparing a business for a trade show, teaching English abroad, setting proper freelance rates, campaigning for a city mayoral candidate, and getting started on the garden.

A week later, I had dinner with three other single women friends. Among that night’s topics: kitchen renovations, the 17th Karmapa, the best kind of shoes for trail-running, and the tensions that exist between New Yorkers who come to the Hudson River Valley (where we live) for weekends and those who reside here year-round.

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We also talked about dating, but not that much. A couple of friends had been on some promising dates; another was tentatively optimistic about a budding relationship with a woman she’d met on a blind date.

These gatherings had me thinking about a fascinating question posed at the end of Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own, by Kate Bolick: “Are women people yet?”

Which is to say: Are women able to develop identities that are independent of their relationship status—wife, mother, singleton, etc.—or are we still primarily defined this way?

In Spinster, Bolick attempts to make sense of her own decision to avoid marriage by studying the lives of five women writers from the 19th to mid-20th centuries. Her muses include relatively unknown essayists Maeve Brennan and Neith Boyce, as well as poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, and fiction writers Edith Wharton and Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

Bolick calls these women her “awakeners,” and she seamlessly weaves their stories with the social histories of their eras, making Spinster a thoroughly engrossing read and an important reminder that women were creating independent lives for themselves long before Mary Richards and Carrie Bradshaw. By providing a historical and literary perspective on the single woman, she reclaims the word “spinster” and brings dignity and gravitas to a subject that is often reduced to gags about drunk-dialing and shoe-shopping.

I spent a luxurious Sunday afternoon reading Spinster, practically in one sitting. But in the days afterward, something about the book was bothering me, and I realized the problem wasn’t what it said, but what it had left out.

In Spinster, Bolick shows us single women who defy the insulting stereotypes—the boozy party girl, the daffy cat lady. We see Edna St. Vincent Millay breaking hearts and Maeve Brennan trading barbs with the editors of The New Yorker.

And then there is Bolick herself. A serial monogamist in her teens and twenties, Bolick writes that she embarked on her spinster journey because the relationships of her early adulthood were so satisfying; she wanted to see how the other half lived.

While this turns out to be harder than she expected, in general her life may strike readers, especially other single women, as divine. She describes her interesting writing and editing career, her full social calendar of literary parties, and her encounters with terrific-sounding guys whom she keeps pushing away—and whom she appears to have met the old-fashioned way, through her social connections, rather than via Tinder or OkCupid. We also learn early in the book that she now has a boyfriend dedicated enough to travel to Maine and help make party favors for her 40th-birthday clambake.

A book that presents a 40-year-old single woman as having agency in her romantic life shouldn’t feel new, but sadly it does. It’s also a notable contrast to her essay, “All the Single Ladies, which she published in The Atlantic in 2011, documenting her single life—in it, she expressed more ambivalence and offered no doting boyfriend at the end. While the essay was wildly popular, it was also raw meat for trolls, and the comments section was laced with the usual invective hurled at single women: “immature,” “sad,” “glib,” “ditsy,” “desperate.”

If Bolick is attempting to preempt this kind of chatter, it’s easy to understand why. But it also puts her in a bind. By making clear that she has no trouble attracting eligible men (“Sometimes it felt as if I couldn’t walk down the street without winding up on a date,” she writes), she does an excellent job of demonstrating that she’s not pathetic. Yet she also plays into the cultural bias that male desire lends women credibility. The average woman scrolling through Tinder is on her own.

The average women scrolling through Tinder. I cut that line and then put it back. Because it sounds ... pathetic. But why? This is something many single women do. It doesn’t mean they don’t have other interests. It doesn’t mean they’re man-obsessed. It simply means that their single state is not entirely chosen, and that they might not be well-connected or highly sought after by men. (And I should note that I’m talking about a specific power dynamic that exists in heterosexual relations; we don’t slam people for being “woman-obsessed.”)

Reading Spinster is like kicking back with a thick-paged shelter magazine from your 1980s-era tract home. It has an aspirational quality reminiscent of Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir about her solo travels through Italy, India, and Indonesia. Gilbert’s experience is not only completely unattainable to the women driving her Camry to the office park, it’s also bookended by the man she divorced and the man she would later marry—after a fair amount of agonizing. Cheryl Strayed’s Wild is a much grittier version of the woman’s quest-for-independence taleand to be perfectly honest, I think she’s a total bad-assbut it also begins with Strayed leaving a good man and ends with a well-to-do lawyer giving her his card as she stands by the bridge where, in four years’ time, she’d take her wedding vows with another man.

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These women’s lives are their lives. Of course, they’re entitled to their romantic happiness, and their extraordinary stories yielded great books. But there is something depressing about the fact that the major voices in the woman-going-it-alone genre are never alone for all that long. Are women only able to lead respectable single lives when they have the power of refusal? Do you have to make clear that guys dig you?

Writing about Spinster in Slate, Laura Kipnis points out that women writers exhibit a defensiveness about their life choices not seen in their male counterparts. That’s true, but women are also judged on their ability to secure a happy personal life in a way that men are not. Kipnis herself feels compelled to submit her own relationship résumé: “In my life, I’ve been single, I’ve been coupled, I’ve co-habited (for a 12-year stretch), and I’ve been—and currently am—what I learned from Bolick’s book is known as a LAT, or ‘Living Apart Together.’ All these situations have—to state the obvious—their advantages and disadvantages. I don’t have much of a dog in this race, in other words.”

At Raw Story, Amanda Marcotte is also annoyed to see women stressing their relationship status so much, while at the same time admitting that it does affect the way others perceive us. “I struggle all the time with questions of how to have a relationship that I’m happy with and proud of while not letting people treat me like I’m somehow my partner’s property,” she writes.

And in a very compelling Talking Points Memo piece, Ann Friedman challenges Bolick’s assertion that women in couples can remain spinsters-at-heart, pointing out that it isn’t fair to claim the fun parts an identity while enjoying the privileges of the other. But she gets it: She too struggled with the transition from singlehood to coupledom, and she admits that before she met her boyfriend she was quite eager to inform others that her singleness was a choice: “I was single-and-not-looking, a sub-category I used to differentiate myself from those other, desperate single women marching to the predictable drumbeat of societal expectations and their biological clocks. I was not like regular single women, I was a cool single woman.”

I appreciate that Friedman cops to this, because these distinctions are the essential problem. There is nothing wrong with mentioning your relationship status in an essay (especially if that is the topic) but, whether you intend it or not, by doing so you’re effectively warding off a certain kind of stigma. You’re informing the reader that you’re not one of those women—the uncool kind.

I should know. I didn’t start writing seriously about being single until after I married. But before that, I was exactly the kind of uncool single woman Friedman meant to distance herself from. In the time between graduating from college and meeting my husband at 39, I had one serious relationship, which lasted for three years. I spent the bulk of my adult life unattached—and not by choice. I was the woman at the bar with hopeful eyes and bright lipstick. I was chick at the coffee joint, making awkward conversation with a stranger I’d met on the Internet. I was the neighbor at the mailbox feeling a pang in my chest with the arrival of each new wedding invitation or baby announcement.

I knew that in society’s eyes this made me sad and ridiculous, an understating that me feel awful—until it pissed me off. Until I finally realized that my unsated desire for romantic love didn’t make me a joke—it made me a human being. At that point, I decided I probably didn’t need more maturity or self-esteem; I just needed a little luck.

I mostly kept this observation to myself. I didn’t have faith that my newfound resolve could withstand the skepticism of well-meaning couples or the general single-woman disdain of the culture at large. Close friends knew how I felt, but in general I maintained the ruse—assuring others I was happy on my own, strategically dropping the name of whatever dude on Match I was having drinks with. It wasn’t until I was married that I had the nerve to write about how hard those years were, or about the wildly unfair way we treat single women.

Lisa Phillips, author of Unrequited: Women and Romantic Obsession, has also experienced serious uncoolness. Her book details her pursuit of a colleague that bordered on stalking. It also offers a fascinating historical perspective on how gender affects our perceptions of romantic quests. Men can be troubadours or, on the other side of the spectrum, serious threats, but the unwanted woman is always a laughing stock.

Phillips told me she probably wouldn’t have written Unrequited if she hadn’t married. “It was hugely important to be able to write it from the shelter of being a married mother. If I were single, I doubt I could have pulled it off—too much concern about being judged as still flawed, still needy, still a stalker at heart,” said Phillips, a journalism professor at the SUNY—New Paltz. (Disclosure: I didn’t know Phillips when I read Unrequited, but now we’re friends.)

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Like me, Phillips published her book with a biography that mentions her husband and an acknowledgment page that glowingly thanks him (Phillips’s daughter also gets a shout out). We have both seen our inboxes fill with letters from women enduring the shame of their romantic failures. I have heard from medical students, investment bankers and high-school science teachers. These are serious, grown-up women, but because they want love and don’t have it, the culture tells them they’re idiots.

So where does this leave my friends?

They bear little resemblance to the singleton clichés. They don’t drink very much. They rarely talk about shopping or beauty treatments. And they never seem preoccupied with whether or not some dude texted. In fact, we can hang out for entire evenings without anyone glancing at her phone.

But all things being equal, they’d each prefer to be in a serious relationship. If you ask, they will talk openly and unapologetically about how the OkCupid search is going. But if you don’t ask, there’s a good chance it won’t come up—like I said, they have other things on their minds.

I know two women who moved in with their parents so that they could afford to have a baby on their own. This wasn’t a choice they made because they wanted to experience the joys of parenting alone; nor are they attempting to shift the cultural paradigm and usher in a new era of the extended family. They are simply women who got to their late 30s, hadn’t met the guy, and made sober decisions based their circumstances. Unlike Bolick, their lives aren’t characterized by a glittery array of options—marry the kind-hearted, handsome magazine editor or enjoy blissful solitude peppered with literary parties and dates with attractive men—but rather unsentimental assessments of what life has offered them, and what it has not.

I’m all for women—single and married—having wonderful lives. I applaud the continued conversation about women and their choices—to remain single, to not have kids—and I think Spinster is an important contribution to it, along with the terrific anthology of essays on childlessness-by-choice edited by Meghan Daum (who is also a friend), Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed.

But we can’t ignore the fact that for most people life isn’t banquet where you lightly select your preferred archetype—adventurous singleton, blissful mother, having-it-all superwoman. Most of us are just working with what we have.

It’s not Bolick’s fault that male desire shelters women from scorn. But until women writing about singleness no longer feel compelled to set themselves up as the cool girl who either has a man—or could get one at any time—I’d say the answer to her question is no, we’re not people yet.

By Sara Eckel

Sara Eckel is the author of It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single (Perigee, 2014)

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