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16 March 2022

How a new wave of literature is reclaiming spinsterhood

The unmarried woman has long been derided in popular culture and beyond. Now single women are telling their side of the story.

By Emma John

In 1869, the essayist William Rathbone Greg published a 40-page treatise on the worrying trend of the “surplus” – aka unmarried – woman. Under the title “Why Are Women Redundant?” Rathbone regretted these tragic figures who, rather than “sweetening and embellishing the existence of others”, were forced to lead lives both independent and “incomplete”. Greg, along with many other Victorians, was alarmed by the census data: 1.8 million single women in 1851 had been bad enough, but a decade later the figure had grown to 2.5 million. And it wasn’t just men who were concerned. In an essay asking “What Shall We Do With Our Old Maids?”, the reformer Frances Power Cobbe advised that “one in four women are certain not to marry” and advocated for increased education and employment. Reformers and traditionalists both backed emigration policies that would send these “excess women” overseas to work (or marry) in British colonies.

A century and a half later, female singleness is rising the world over – and the awkward question of how society responds remains. Women’s emancipation, gender equality, and the acceptability of love, sex and relationships outside of traditional marriage were meant to neuter the stigma attached to never-married women. The UK government stopped using the word “spinster” on its marriage registers in 2005 and in her new collection of personal essays, She I Dare Not Name, Donna Ward writes that even by the early 1990s “spinsters and bachelors were declared non-existent, a thing of the past”. But as Ward discovered from her own experience, that wasn’t true. “They had simply been hurled, like the hairy crone, into a cage and cast out to the horizon.”

Ward’s book is an unflinching, mesmeric reflection on modern spinsterhood, a subject on which, at 67, the author speaks with authority. The opening depicts a Sunday meet-up with friends, at which she realises she hasn’t spoken to anyone else since Friday afternoon: “Wrapped in the isolation of a foreigner,” she writes, “the enormity of my solitude is incomprehensible to others.” Here is a very different image from the culturally palatable single woman celebrated in the man-hunting high jinks of Bridget Jones and Carrie Bradshaw, who – to our collective cheer of relief – always get their guy in the end.

[See also: In Sexual Revolution, Laurie Penny wages war against bad sex]

The Australian author is one of a growing number of unmarried women reclaiming the image of female singleness. In the recent anthology Unattached, 30 women writers share their experiences of living solo, while Aimée Lutkin’s new memoir The Lonely Hunter chases down the origins of the cultural messaging that stokes women’s fear of being alone (and my own foray into this territory, Self-Contained: Scenes from A Single Life, came out last year). It’s a subject long overdue honest discussion, because the most crushing and demoralising inhibitions for a woman living a single life are the societal codes and internalised narratives that render her embarrassed just to be herself.

Lutkin’s book was inspired by a dinner party involving the cross-examining small talk many single people dread: what’s going on in your love life? When she answered honestly – that she suspected, after six years of near-celibacy, she might never find a partner – her friends told her she only needed to wait, that love would come when she least expected it. “Just wait, and wait, because something better than the life you have now is guaranteed,” writes Lutkin. But waiting “meant diminishing the life I did lead, suggesting it would never, ever be enough as long as I was still on my own”.

Yes, being a spinster still means that something is wrong with you. For Ward, it is “like being diagnosed with a degenerative disease for which there are no treatments, and which doctors scarcely believe exists”. In the UK, the number of women who never married and are not living in a couple is increasing among every age group up to 70, yet the prevailing belief persists that a woman’s failure to find a partner is exactly that – a personal, even fundamental, failure. The independence and sexual opportunity of the bachelor life has been continually celebrated in masculine iconography, from James Bond to The Man With No Name, but a state that’s regarded as neutral or even enviable in men is pitied in women. There’s a reason there are no lists of “ten most eligible spinsters”.

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[See also: How we fell out of love with work]

Back in 1999, Germaine Greer observed in The Whole Woman that “the consequences of loosening sexual mores is that the single state is now less respectable than it has ever been”. The more common informal cohabitation became, the more we attributed the “sickly cast of rejectedness” to unpartnered women. And despite the rapid and profound change in patterns of intimacy and family make-up, a 2020 pan-European research study titled The Tenacity of the Couple Norm found that the sense that coupledom is the “ideal state of being” remains fundamental to our humanity. According to the study’s co-authors, it continues to define what it is to be “a fully recognised and rights-bearing member of society”.

Or, as Ward bluntly summarises: “Becoming adult is not easy without coupling or giving birth.” Our shared humanity is recognised by physical and symbolic rites which remind us that “we, too, are virgin, bride, mother, widow and old woman shaman, like all who have gone before”. And if events conspire to bring us a different life – one with no engagement ring, no wedding feast, no christening or naming ceremony, no divorce papers – a person can become invisible.

For both Ward and Lutkin, it is this dawning realisation of an untethered existence that becomes central to their experience. Walking through Sydney, Ward has an epiphany as she gives in to her all-encompassing solitude and finds her place in the world around her: “My skin disappears,” she writes. “I become siren and chugging ferry and shining opera house, I am woman and Moreton Bay fig and wiggling shark”. As for Lutkin: “The difference between me and nothingness felt as thin as the wing of a moth.”

If invisibility is the spinster’s curse, scorn and vilification have been her inheritance. Throughout popular culture, the never-married woman has been derided, portrayed as an old maid, evil witch, crazy cat lady. And yet this stigma, centuries in the making, was not preordained, says Mona Chollet. Her book In Defence of Witches, which has just been translated from the French into English by Sophie R Lewis, revisits Europe’s historic witch-hunts to reveal how three kinds of independent women – single, childless and ageing – have come to be demonised by a threatened patriarchy.

As Ward points out, in ancient times a woman was rarely “accidentally” unmarried. “She chose, or was chosen, to be a politician or courtesan, a strategist or warrior, a midwife or medicine woman,” and in these guises she could be respected, feared, even treasured. But our misconceptions about the witch trials – often disparaged as products of a primitive medieval mindset, when actually they arose in the early modern era and continued until the mid-18th century – have led us to assume that unmarried women were always oppressed figures. Chollet reminds us that women in the middle ages often had far more freedom to live and work independently than in later periods, and formed a “lively and supportive” community.

It was, in fact, “the increasing space taken up by women in the social realm” – widows who took up their late husbands’ businesses, unmarried women who earned their own coin, not to mention a virgin queen who reigned England for 45 years – that triggered fear among Europe’s male power base. Older women were targeted (they were more likely to talk back to male authority), while single and childless women were seen as unnatural, deviant, dangerous. This long-running reign of cruelty and terror amassed between 50,000 and 100,000 victims – not including those who were lynched, died in prison or killed themselves – and effectively eliminated alternative female lifestyles. Yet this brutal oppression is often cast as a near-comical quirk of history: “Which other mass crime,” asks Chollet, “is it possible to speak of… with a smile?”

[See also: The politics of working out]

She argues convincingly that our failure to take this history seriously mirrors our failure to appreciate its influence in the continued oppression and ostracisation of women who are not wives or mothers. A woman’s bond with men and children is still considered the core of her identity, says Chollet, while girls are brought up in ways that discourage solo activity and prize emotional security above all else. It is a theme unconsciously echoed by Donna Ward, who witnessed first-hand the vilification of Australia’s first female prime minister, Julia Gillard: “Beware if you are a childless woman set upon a brilliant career… you will be branded a witch incapable of the love Australians believe to be the most important kind”.

The issue of love, and the different types society valorises, is common among the essays that make up Unattached; various authors argue that we should stop privileging romantic relationships above other forms of connection. Ketaki Chowkhani, who pioneers the academic discipline of Single Studies in India, believes that doing so would make us better able to relate to the world in community: “Instead of focusing on one central relationship – like a marriage – we will have emotionships… beyond our families.” Meanwhile, Chanté Joseph’s celebration of “romantic friendship” reminds us that in heteronormative 19th-century Britain, where male and female social spheres were strictly segregated, emotional intimacies between friends were frequently considered more important than sexual relationships.

It is intriguing that so many of the contributors to Unattached are still in their twenties – a welcome sign, perhaps, that a younger generation is questioning the expectation to find their ultimate fulfilment in one other person. Unfortunately, this is also a little to its detriment; you do end up wondering how much someone who has gone without a boyfriend for a whole year has to teach you about being single. It is the older authors, such as Shaparak Khorsandi and Bella DePaulo, who best offer alternative perspectives to the exhortations to self-love or decentre men in your life.

[See also: Monica Ali’s Love Marriage: sex, class, race and satire]

Perhaps this is why the phrase “single positivity” can make some queasy; it is a one-note solution to an issue with complex sociological and psychological ramifications, an oversimplification that seeks to fix our aversion to the solo life with a trip to the therapist’s couch or some self-willed positive thinking. While it’s absolutely vital for single women to celebrate their autonomy – and themselves – it’s only a stumbled step backwards to the Sex and the City fantasy version of the reclaimed spinster’s life.

“Reclaiming spinsterhood disguises the dark side, distracts from the social alienation, the loneliness before solitude sets in, the process of grief and recovery,” writes Ward. “It ignores the financial stringency, work expectations, and a stranger’s insistence the spinster justify what is assumed to be her life choice.” It also tends to forget or fail to acknowledge the legacy of feminists who confronted these issues long before us, whether at the turn of the 19th century or in the 1970s.

What is most refreshing about the wave of literature (as well as podcasts) tackling this subject is that it finally gives voice to a range of experiences, and conflicting opinions, among single women rather than portraying us as a homogeneous group. After centuries of being cast as the ugly sister and the maiden aunt, we don’t need to spend the next hundred years living up to a new, if self-styled, archetype. What we need is to change attitudes in ways that empower and even ennoble the single life that every human is bound to live at some point. And when that happens, we won’t need permission to be ourselves.

She I Dare Not Name: A Spinster’s Meditations on Life
Donna Ward
Allen & Unwin, 336pp, £14.99

Unattached: Empowering Essays on Singlehood
Edited by Angelica Malin
Vintage, 176pp, £14.99

The Lonely Hunter: How our Search for Love is Broken
Aimée Lutkin
Scribe, 352pp, £9.99

In Defence of Witches: Why Women Are Still on Trial
Mona Chollet, trs by Sophie R Lewis
Picador, 304pp, £14.99

Emma John’s “Self Contained: Scenes from a Single Life” is published by Brazen Books

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This article appears in the 16 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s War Goes Global