When Kate Bolick first came across the essayist Maeve Brennan, she was happily living with her boyfriend in Boston. Yet Bolick saw herself in Maeve, a woman who lived alone for most of her life without settling into a relationship or a home—the most stable presence in her life was The New Yorker, where she was a staff writer. Maeve embodied Bolick’s “spinster wish”: an uncertain longing that encompassed both her long-held appreciation for the joys of solitude and the burgeoning question of what exploring that desire for self-sufficiency would mean.
Bolick’s restlessness eventually led her to New York City, where she’s spent more than a decade living alone. She recounts this journey in her remarkably insightful first book, Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, intertwining her story with those of her “awakeners”—Maeve, columnist Neith Boyce, poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, novelist Edith Wharton, and reformer Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Each of these unconventional figures questioned the traditional path of women’s lives, which rushed toward marriage and children, and their perspectives helped to guide Bolick down her own unexpected path.
Over the years, Bolick’s internal dialogue with these awakeners developed into an imagined intimacy so strong that it almost prevented her from writing about them at all. When she first set out for a writing retreat in order to turn what she was then calling “The Dead Spinster Project” into a book about what it means to be a single woman, Bolick became so frustrated that she decided to give up on the idea entirely. “It was a moment of failure in my life, and I just wanted to be done with it,” she says, “but I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and I couldn’t stop collecting women who captured my imagination.”
Then, in 2011, The Atlantic asked Bolick to write a cover story about contemporary marriage. The resulting article, entitled “All the Single Ladies,” examines the current boom in unmarried adults, and it brought Bolick back to the figure of the single woman from a very different angle. In researching and reporting the story, Bolick found the perspective necessary to reengage with her awakeners and their still pressing questions about abstaining from the institution of marriage.
Actually writing the book still presented a considerable challenge. “I was trying to transcribe the contents of my mind and all of these ideas and thoughts and feelings that I had been carrying around for more than 10 years,” she says. “It felt, in certain ways, completely impossible.”
Despite the depth of her emotional connection to her subjects, Bolick initially tried to limit her presence in the book to that of a slightly removed historical guide. She quickly found, however, that her own perspective was a vital piece of the narrative, tying together the five awakeners and connecting them to the present day.
“We all have a fixed idea of what the spinster is: that she’s a frigid, prim, repressed, lonely woman with too many cats,” Bolick points out. “But not only is that an anachronistic idea, it’s not even what we’ve always thought.” She chose Spinster as a title for the way that it illuminates this changeability, even though none of the awakeners truly fit the term (all five were married at one point or another). Even so, they serve as models of the “spinster wish,” forging their own paths through the thorny mess of social expectations around childbearing and marriage. The awakeners, and Bolick, remind us that there is another way to live: that it is possible to desire love but be unconcerned with traditional forms of commitment, to value your work over your romantic entanglements, and to dream of something other than marriage and children.
Alex Heimbach is a freelance writer in California.