Why We Should All Be Spinsters: Writers Take on a New Feminine Mystique

Edna St. Vincent Millay
Edna St. Vincent Millay

Over half a century ago, Betty Friedan called suburban kitchens “comfortable concentration camps” in the pages of The Feminine Mystique. Friedan and her fellow (largely affluent, white, and narrowly defined) second-wave feminists believed that loosening household strictures and upending the power dynamic of intimate relationships should be a primary goal of feminism.

Later, third-wave feminists rejected this approach in favor of choice feminism and sex-positive feminism. Most convincingly, intersectional feminism demonstrated that in a capitalist and white supremacist system, deeming family life incompatible with women’s liberation was a province of the privileged. “While work may help women gain a degree of financial independence or even financial self-sufficiency, for most women it has not adequately fulfilled human needs,” bell hooks wrote.

Conceptions of domesticity operate as a tool of social and racial division. For the privileged women under pressure to reproduce, domestic expectations function as a vise; yet for working-class women, women of color, queer people, single parents, and anyone whose life challenges what Republican politicians call “family values,” domesticity may signal a longed-for freedom. When you’ve had to raise other women’s children for pay, raising your own is a luxury; when you’re seen as “less than” other mothers, exemplary motherhood can be subversive. Thus, Michelle Obama’s chic poise and mom-in-chief role upends as many oppressive ideas as Hillary Clinton’s rise from spouse to politician.

And yet no rigorous analysis can change the fact that for many women today, a mystique lingers. “In my darkest heart, I think that motherhood today is no less deforming than when Betty Friedan detailed maternal malaise in 1960; it just takes updated forms,” writes Laura Kipnis in the Meghan Daum-edited anthology about choosing childlessness, Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed. And yes, it applies to marriage too. “It was the year 2000. Nobody was making me marry anyone. But the pull toward it felt as strong as an undertow,” writes Kate Bolick in her memoir and cultural reporting hybrid, Spinster.

selfish shallowBoth of these books use memoir to counterattack trends like attachment parenting, Park Slope parenting, the wedding-industrial complex, bridezillas, and “clean”-eating programs. These are symptoms of a culture whose aims include entrapping wealthier women at a pole vault with a higher and higher bar of purity to clear — while making it almost impossible for every other woman to be recognized anywhere beyond answering needs at the workplace and answering needs at home. Where is there room in this system to create, to experience solitude and self-growth or even to acknowledge ambivalence? When Chirlane McCray, the wife of NYC Mayor Bill DeBlasio, admitted misgivings about giving up work for motherhood, The New York Post called her a “bad mother,” Anna Holmes notes in Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed. 

With anecdotes like this strewn throughout its essays, Daum’s anthology about childlessness is more successful than Bolick’s memoir in addressing the direct social pressures that women face, and the financial and emotional toll of motherhood when it isn’t limited to the bourgeoisie. For her part, Bolick never really explains exactly what about the social institution of marriage threatens to stifle her, instead showing us again and again (until the overall effect is near-stultifying) how she bolted each time she got close to being betrothed.

Ironically, Laura Kipnis herself recently penned a bracing critique of Bolick’s book: “It’s depressing that women seem to keep forgetting that basically we can do whatever we want,” she concludes. “And thus the master’s house keeps getting dismantled, then reconstructed, then dismantled all over again, one dreary brick at a time.” Kipnis is a courageous thinker, so much so that she may miss the reality. Giving the myth of domesticity a hearty kiss-off in the face of family, peer, and economic pressure (and the threat of repercussions) may be possible in theory, but it’s not a simple feat.

So although Kipnis lands a solid point or two — Bolick, living in a gorgeous New York apartment with endless dating opportunities at her disposal is hardly a figurehead for a broad-based anti-marital revolution — she fails to consider the wide implications of Bolick’s doubts. Consider Spinster‘s concern with the way women melt into their relationships: “It wasn’t merely that my identity was constructed entirely out of my relationships with other people — my relationships were my identity. My relationships took the place of myself,” she writes. Anyone who has worked with younger women will tell you this mentality is neither unusual nor specific to Bolick’s milieu. Subsuming yourself in relationships, no matter how empowered you were raised to be, is a common affliction of growing up in patriarchy.

spinsterTherefore for Bolick, the assumption that she’d get married didn’t fade even as she cherished an irrepressible “spinster wish,” a desire for a separate life. Eventually she used the histories of five “awakeners”— independent literary women — as a guide to constructing that life. Between her deep and well-described love of solitude and the examples of her five awakeners, including Edna St. Vincent Millay, Maeve Brennan, and Edith Wharton, Bolick gained the tools to sculpt a self that wouldn’t melt the minute it came into contact with love. Yet it took years, and in the process she never married. Similarly, Anna Holmes writes about being in her early 40s without children: “These days, I find that I am only now beginning to feel comfortable in my own skin, to find the wherewithal to respect my own needs as much as others’, to know what my emotional and physical limits are, and to confidently, yet kindly, tell others no.”

Recently, I joined a Facebook group of women discussing writing residencies and became fascinated by the voraciousness with which many of the members were clamoring for a week or two without their families and friends. For many contemporary women, the fantasy of solitude that Bolick writes about so well still manifests as a longing for a physical separation, a room of their own. It’s not because all husbands and children are tyrants (though some may be), but because saying no is easier when some outside force does it for you. This contemporary feminist quandary has manifested frequently in literary culture this year, whether it’s in memoirs and novels about women leaving society behind entirely or even the heated debate about “sponsored writers,” which asks whether it’s fair to use a patriarchal means (a husband with a large income) to achieve the feminist goal of time and space to create.

And yet whenever I think along these lines and decide to go rent a room in a monastery, I am reminded of Toni Morrison, who often notes that motherhood, that supposed creativity-killer, actually transformed her into a writer. “My sons needed me to be real, to know what I was doing, you know?” she has said. “I didn’t write anything before I had them. They gave me that.” The truth is, the major dilemma that underscores the dichotomies of marriage vs. single life, kids vs. childlessness, is a much larger question: how do you build a complete self in a world that wants to see you as merged with or subsumed by other people? Bolick recognizes this at her memoir’s end, expressing a longing for the word spinster to become “a shorthand for holding on to that in you which is independent and self-sufficient, whether you’re single or coupled.”

“The only way for a woman, as for a man, to find herself, to know herself as a person, is by creative work of her own,” wrote none other than Betty Friedan. The secret that Toni Morrison’s story reveals is that women, in fact, do better by their loved ones — whether in traditional, unorthodox, or unofficial arrangements —  when they buck the messaging and become their most fulfilled selves, refusing to be swallowed by relationships or reduced to them.

The question of how to arrive at that coveted self-sufficient place is different for each woman depending on her circumstance — and depending on how much society is willing to help her get there. Bolick’s unique journey underscores the need for all of us to take our own journeys, whether they stop off at the altar or not. It’s a worthy feat of inspiration; my only hope is that we embark without forgetting to smash some oppressive social structures along the way.