Just This

Reclaiming “Spinster”

In a lot of ways, Leslie Knope is my spirit animal. Ambitious, driven, often stupidly optimistic, I always appreciated her pluck.

Back in Parks and Rec’s second season, Leslie throws a pre-Valentine’s Day get-together for all her gal pals. Christened “Galentine’s Day,” it’s since taken hold in real life; these days, it’s not uncommon to see all kinds of girl groups out and about on February 13, cheers-ing to their platonic lady love. Partnered or single, it’s a day to acknowledge women doing it for ourselves, showing up for each other and celebrating our own agency in the world.

I have no plans for Galentine’s Day (or Valentine’s Day, for that matter), but it seemed fitting that as both this celebration of the single woman and love in all its manifestations approaches that I just finished Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own. Written by Kate Bolick, a long-time freelance writer/editor, it’s her journey through learning to live her own version of a truly independent life. About my age, her post-grad and mid-career experiences don’t exactly parallel my own (she moved right to New York, had a succession of long-term (and less long-term) boyfriends), but I still found quite a lot with which to identify on the page.

Years ago, a friend and I were talking about my getting married someday. When I insisted that, much as I may want it to happen, marriage was not an inevitability for me, she nearly choked on her rosé. The older I get, the more I think about my life and where it’s headed. Where I used to think about where I want to be when I grow up, I think now about the life I’m settling into.

Not settling for, mind you. That’s very different.

I’m not opposed to marriage by any means. Quite the opposite. It’s something I would absolutely like in my life, a union with a partner and best friend and all the things a modern marriage can be. But it’s also not a given. I may or may not end up with someone. And whether I do or I don’t, I’m OK. 

It’s that last bit that’s taken me most of the first half of my thirties to come to terms with. It’s quite a shift to go from picturing your own Prince Charming fairy tale to realizing you’ve lost the glow of your twenties and that what’s ahead in your life is probably very similar to how your life already is today. I’m not saying it can’t change or won’t change, or even that I’m not regularly working on changing and growing (I am). 

What I’m saying is: either way, it’s OK. I’m OK. I am whole. I love and am loved.

Spinster joins Bolick when she moves to NYC with her long-term boyfriend; despite building a life with him, she’s always day-dreaming of living one that is more her own: making her own decisions, planning her own time—an independence that one understandably sacrifices to some degree in a relationship. She breaks it off with the man and spends the rest of the book navigating rising Brooklyn rents, a writer/editor’s unpredictable career and income, and various romantic interludes alongside her continued exploration of independent womanhood. 

At the heart of the book are the five “awakeners,” as she calls them, that she introduces to the reader. Women—poets and writers, all—who in one way or another managed to live entirely independent lives well before Women’s Lib and the 2016 presidential election. They are: Maeve Brennan, a New Yorker writer in the 40s; Edna St. Vincent Millay, poet in the early 20th century; Edith Wharton, the prolific writer of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, on and on; and Neith Boyce and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, both established voices of their time and neither of whom I’d heard of until now. Through brief but fascinating biographies of each (some of which include marriages and children), Bolick illustrates the many, many ways (white, middle-class) women have been building their own lives for centuries. 

Maeve Brennan

In between, Bolick’s own understanding of what it means to navigate one’s own life (as opposed to just going along with what comes one’s way or what one’s “supposed” to do) evolves in many of the same ways I’ve seen my own perspective shift. It’s less about the glamorous apartment or the impressive job, the perfect man or the well-behaved children, these things that an independent woman chases after in her youth. It’s about waking up every morning with the confidence that you are exactly where you want to be (or are working on getting there). It’s about knowing that you have carved out an existence that is exactly you.

I realize, of course, what an ideal audience I am for this book in particular. I am, by definition, a spinster. Derogatory as that term is today, it has a quite practical etymology: back before the industrial revolution, women who didn’t marry needed a way to support themselves, and many would find jobs spinning wool. They were, by occupation, spinsters. Only in more modern times has the term been co-opted to focus more on the unmarried part and less on the “making it happen for ourselves” part (*cough*patriarchy*cough*). 

If living life on my own terms, a life of true independence—where the only one deciding how I spend my time or earn a living is me—then spinster it is. (One might prefer the more sound descriptor of simply human, no?) As Bolick says: 

You can carry the word spinster like a talisman…part of a long and noble tradition of women past and present living on their own terms. 

Me and Leslie Knope…and maybe you, too.

One Comment

  • Nancy

    Thanks for writing this, Lisa. And three cheers for you. I’ve been single for 30+ years and I’ve loved it. I’ve done many things I wouldn’t have been able to do had I stayed married to the man I married when I was 21. That was back in the dark days when women were expected to finish college with a degree and a husband. Really! The man I married was a fine man (and still is) but after a long marriage and raising two sons, I decided I needed to finally be independent. And I have never regretted that decision. Long live spinsterhood or divorceehood or whatever category fits here.