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25 May 2015

The new spinster: Kate Bolick proves there’s no need to pity unmarried women

With record numbers of us choosing to stay single, Bolick's new book explores what it means for a woman to build a rich life alone.

By Alice Robb

Is marriage only for the insecure or the deficient? Kate Bolick doesn’t quite say so in her new memoir, Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, in which she explores her decision to remain unmarried (to the dismay of her many suitors). But she might as well.

“I’ve had friends who consider themselves plain tell me they seized the first husband they could get,” she writes. Bolick, who is in her early forties, has never had much anxiety about finding a new mate. She enjoys her relationships with men, at the same time relishing her own company, often finding herself yearning, when coupled, for “the extravagant pleasures of simply being alone”. Her goal with Spinster is to challenge the notion that women who never marry are desperate or undesirable – to reclaim the derogatory label “spinster” and assign it a new meaning, “shorthand for holding on to that in you which is independent and self-sufficient”. Bolick interlaces her story with vignettes about accomplished women whom she calls her “awakeners”, including the poet Edna St Vincent Millay and the novelist Edith Wharton.

Spinster is a specifically American book. Bolick seems rarely to venture outside the circumference of New York, where she now lives, and her home town in Massachusetts. With the exception of the writer Maeve Brennan – who left her native Ireland for the US as a teenager – all of the historical “spinsters” she describes are also American. Her proclamations about society’s views on gender and coupling – for instance, that the questions of “whom to marry and when it will happen . . . define every woman’s existence”– might make more sense in an American context, though they still read as somewhat hyperbolic.

Record numbers of Americans are choosing to stay single, though marriage is still more popular there than in much of Europe and the UK. American adults are marrying later and less often: according to the most recent data, the median age for a first marriage is 29 for men and 27 for women, up from 22 for grooms and 20 for brides in 1960. In the UK, the average age at first marriage has climbed to 32 for men and 30 for women. In neither country is marriage a prerequisite for having children. In the US, just over 40 per cent of babies are born to unmarried women; in the UK, that figure is 47.5 per cent, up from 11 per cent in 1979.

As Hannah Rosefield pointed out in a recent piece on the New Yorker website, attempts to reclaim the word “spinster” are already well under way. The feminist website the Toast calls one of its advice columns The Spinster’s Almanac. The site’s editor, Mallory Ortberg, told the New Republic last year: “I think ‘spinster’ is an identity every woman can claim.”

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Few of those responsible for the shift away from marriage are much like Bolick. Marriage rates have remained relatively steady among college-educated professionals such as her. It is lower-income Americans who are most responsible for the overall decline. Even among her peers, Bolick’s experience is not exactly representative. In her telling, she has been popular and self-assured for almost all of her life, even bypassing any teenage awkwardness. “I’d always found friendship easy, with boys and girls both,” she writes of her early teen years. “Now I was also getting romantic attention and the two beams of social approval wove themselves into a crown.”

She has a loving, supportive family. She describes herself as a “social butterfly”. She even poses on her book jacket, perched on a sofa in heels and a cocktail dress. It is not immediately clear that she is the writer, and not a model.

In Bolick’s world, eligible, kind, attractive partners are in endless supply. She can break up with one for no reason, only to find another around the corner – at work, on the subway, at one of the many parties or events she attends.

“Sometimes it felt as if I couldn’t walk down the street without winding up on a date,” she writes. At one point, an artist friend insists that she take a three-week hiatus from dating to get some writing done. She gives up after two weeks, by which point she has already responded to overtures from three different men.

With the salary from her editing jobs, she can afford a Brooklyn apartment with 11-foot ceilings and seemingly endless nights out. She has friends, boyfriends, close family relationships, an exciting career and little desire for children: she really has no reason to marry.

Bolick never resorts to online dating or apps – evidently she has no need – but the endless options on Tinder and Hinge could make her situation plausible even for women (and men) in the bracket below. Whether or not staying single is as radical as she thinks, Kate Bolick is proof, at least, that unmarried women don’t need to be pitied.

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