Monday, April 20, 2015

The Self-Contained Woman

Kate Bolick, Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own

Veteran magazine writer Kate Bolick always wanted a spouse, children, a family of her own. Yet despite having multiple relationships, some quite successful, she found herself pushing forty, still unmarried, by society’s standards now a “spinster.” So she did the only thing she knew how to do: she began writing her life’s story, to better understand her situation. Her discoveries could help many women (and men!) understand the role of marriage in modern American society.

Women find themselves particularly pressured to pair off. Men certainly feel marital pressure, but words like “bachelor” and “old geezer” lack the moral opprobrium attached to names we call unmarried women: Spinster. Crone. Hag. Yet today, for the first time ever, unmarried adults outnumber their married peers in America. This seeming contradiction sent Bolick spinning backward through time, investigating our changing social roles, from Colonial teenage marriage, to Victorian frigidity, to whatever we have today.

Along the way, she discovered what she calls her “five awakeners,” female authors whose lives, expressed through their written works, exemplified something of what she sought. Two of Bolick’s awakeners, Maeve Brennan and Neith Boyce, are little-remembered outside Manhattan literary circles today. But three others—Edna St. Vincent Millay, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Edith Wharton—number among America’s most influential writers and thinkers. All wrote about marriage, singlehood, and relationships. They reached wildly divergent conclusions.

Raised in a bookish family in picturesque New England, Bolick simply took certain things for granted. This includes marriage and family as life’s destination. It worked for Mom, right? But after her mother’s early death, Bolick discovered her mother actually bridled at marital domesticity, in ways invisible to her children. As she attempted dating and relationships, Bolick began replicating her mother’s deeply conflicted patterns. Except she had freedom to say no, which prior generations lacked.

Kate Bolick is also an Atlantic regular contributor
As her journey into adulthood carries her from Newburyport, to California, to Boston, to Manhattan, she progresses through several relationships with men. Some prove fruitful. Most are fun and fulfilling while they last. But none proves permanent. Though she cannot express her motivations at the time, she realizes (while writing this book, she claims) that personal fulfillment, the desire to be self-supporting and more fully human, matters more to her than the ring and dress.

Her awakeners provide remarkable guidance for Bolick’s guided exploration of single life. Though all five tried their hands at marriage, none accepted the traditional “wife” role. Wharton and Brennan walked away from ill-considered early marriages; Millay and Gilman both married later, entering their marriages on their own terms. And Boyce was a chameleon, now happily writing as the Girl Bachelor, now married, now lingering in the liminal space between. Marriage, apparently, isn’t just one thing.

This narrative highlights the pleasures of long, possibly permanent singlehood. But Bolick doesn’t blush from perils, either. Edna St. Vincent Millay transitioned from youthful love poet to an embittered shadow of herself. Charlotte Perkins Gilman committed suicide. Maeve Brennan, upon whom Bolick lavishes the most page space, died alone in a care home, victim of some ill-defined mental illness. Yet if they died poorly, they lived richly and well. Bolick is both honest and daring.

In the balance between the books she reads, and the life she truly embraces, Bolick makes important discoveries. Like: modern society gives unmarried women unprecedented liberty to be human beings first, women second. Like: women should feel free to enjoy relationships in the present, without feeling pressured to make lifetime commitments. Like: in learning more about her heroines’ lives, she not only discovers greater depth in their writings, but gains definition for her life, too.

Bolick, in this book, attempts the same feat Samantha Ellis achieved earlier this year: a blend of autobiography, literary criticism, and feminist theory. These two books aren’t interchangeable. Bolick treats her favored authors, and their books, more broadly than the incisive Ellis, while interweaving more of her personal memoir. But both investigate how books define what independent, undaunted womanhood means in today’s culture. It might be fair to call Bolick’s and Ellis’s books companion volumes.

Therefore, this book works both as autobiography and as literary criticism. Besides shining new light on three well-known and deeply respected classic authors, she brings two nigh-forgotten heroines into deserved public light. And she does so by proving that “classic” literature matters because it speaks to us today. Bolick’s autobiographical struggles to make a writing life draw us into the lives of these late awakeners. She persuades us that we can be happy singles, too.

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