In 2009, I landed a book deal to write about what I felt was (still) the final frontier for feminists in their personal lives: how to be in a relationship and maintain your independence. I had just broken up with my boyfriend and was starting to realize that being in a couple may not have been for me. In looking for guidance, I turned foolishly to the self-help aisles of bookstores, only to find the shelves lined with harangues on how to make myself perfect for Prince Charming. How was it possible that publishers were still peddling sexist messages to women about how best to find love? So I wrote a book.
I surveyed materials from across the spectrum, from feminist manifestos to sexist screeds, and I was struck by two opposing themes on women and love: (a) if you don’t get married, you are a failure, whether you chose this devastating status or not, and (b) don’t worry, single life can be empowering—just look at Beyoncé (oh, wait…). Women of all kinds were defined either by the relationship they had or the one they did not: Get married before you get too old, or you better be the happiest single person that ever walked the planet.
Seven years later, women are still trying to explain themselves for being single, but the cultural balance has tipped toward empowerment in that status. Author Kate Bolick’s widely discussed new memoir, Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, epitomizes the shift. In a book-length adaptation of a 2011 essay in The Atlantic, Bolick asks, How do you create a life as a single woman within a culture and economy that still, despite facing the lowest marriage rate in history, presumes the inevitability of marriage? Her answer: Embrace being a spinster.
I appreciate the sentiment, but if only it was that easy.
Bolick surveys her five favorite writers (all white women), whom she calls her “awakeners,” and concludes that there have always been women who live outside the bounds of marriage, even while they are married. She suggests that, similar to these women, we should embrace this “highly ambivalent relationship to the institution of marriage,” and I agree. It’s an orientation toward marriage that has long been common for women of color and members of the LGBT community—it just wasn’t perceived as an empowering and acceptable identity until straight, white women adopted it. But even with declining rates of marriage and more proudly single people than ever before, the consequences of being single are still real—and harder for some women to bear than others.