© Martin Parr/Magnum

The spinster wars

We live in an age of individuality, yet prize living in couples. Should women reclaim the idea of spinsterhood?
May 20, 2015

Back in my early twenties, when such distinctions seemed both reliable and significant, I remember settling on the definition of a “girlfriend girl” with a college friend. We were at a housewarming—a shiny new rental in London’s docklands—and as we sipped warm wine from plastic cups, we decided she was pretty, responsible, had a sense of humour but probably never laughed too loudly. She was, most saliently of all, wife material. What she wasn’t was us, and even though there was an element of defensiveness in our posturing, we were defiant about it.

Not that I hadn’t recently been that girl. At university, I’d become the most girlfriendy of girlfriends, inseparable from the boyfriend with whom I slept, studied, partied. One night in a loud, light-strobed room, the air thick with dry ice, we’d found ourselves talking about kids. “You’d make a great mother,” he yelled into my ear. But come graduation, our togetherness began to feel constricting to me. Shortly before finals, we’d stayed up all night, me a lone Labour voter in a roomful of Tories, and watched as TV’s swingometer registered change and the beginning of the Tony Blair era. Within a few months, I’d started my first job and become single.

The meaning of being single changes as you leave your twenties behind and journey on into your thirties. For women, it can be an extra fraught moment, entangled as it is with ebbing fertility, and as 40 looms, all bets may as well be off: the true “girlfriend girls” are married with kids, and the rest of us are—well, what exactly? Spinsters? Old maids? Society has always found a large measure of benign tolerance for bachelors that is absent from these terms.

What doesn’t seem to change much is the way society relates to those of us who remain single—with patronising commiseration (you’d think marital strife and infidelity were non-existent), inequalities (be it tax breaks denied or single supplements imposed), and presumptuousness (if you’re single it cannot possibly be by choice; there must be something wrong with you). It’s evidently not in the interests of marriage for people to remember the extravagant joys of being alone.

The creation of the American magazine Ms was supposed to put an end to women’s need to define ourselves by our marital status and yet as coupledom has broadened its reach, embracing same-sex pairings and inventive lifestyle choices—such as those who choose to “live apart together” in separate homes—its tyranny has deepened.

“Married” is hardly the most accurate of terms, providing chiefly legal hints as to the true nature of any given union. I actually heard someone described as being “very married” the other day, as if one could be just a bit that way inclined. But the term “single” falls short by leagues in capturing an experience that continues to diversify. It also has statisticians confused.

"Being unmarried or even living alone is not necessarily the same as being alone and yet that’s how the single are consistently viewed"
According to the Office for National Statistics, in 2011, more than 15.7m adults (35 per cent of those aged 16 and over) in England and Wales had never been married, a rise from 12.5m (30 per cent) in 2001. Take into account the divorced and widowed as well, and the figure balloons to 23m (over half the population) in 2011, up from 19.4m (47 per cent) in 2001. The numbers are broadly similar in the United States, where the Bureau of Labour Statistics reported that in 2014, 124.6m people aged 16 and over were either unmarried, divorced or widowed, representing 50.2 per cent of the population (in 1976, they made up just 37 per cent). United Nations data show that in Germany in 2013, meanwhile, just shy of 19m—that’s getting on for half the country’s population—had simply never been married. But how many of those supposedly single people are in fact long-term co-habitees?

The alternative is to tally single households. That’s what market research firm Euromonitor did when it declared that in 2011, the “single” numbered 277m globally. In 1996, they were around 153m, representing an increase of roughly 80 per cent in 15 years. Using this method, though, the widower in his eighties, the separated but still-married grandmother in her sixties, and the 20-something whose girlfriend is working abroad for a year are all single, whereas the unwed mother living with her toddler and the three girls splitting the rent on a two-bedroom flat are not. In the non-statistical world, we tend to view the widowed, divorced and separated as being somewhat other than single. Similarly, the woman who’s two years into a relationship but still hasn’t committed to moving in with her significant other is unlikely to see herself as being single.

Being unmarried or even living alone is not necessarily the same as being alone and yet that’s how the single are consistently viewed. To be single is still deemed something pitiable at best, or to be vilified at worst. Especially in women. Social evolution, it seems, is no match for our age-old notion of what happily-ever-after should look like. Internet dating and hook-up apps might have rejigged the marriage plot’s storyline, but its fantasy ending remains the same.

“What are our ideas about single people?” asked journalist Kate Bolick, writing in the Atlantic in 2011. “Perverted misanthropes, crazy cat ladies, dating-obsessed shoe shoppers, etc—all of them some form of terribly lonely.” The piece called for a reassessment of what it means to be single, and that it caused considerable hullaballoo suggested the move was long overdue. Confirmation came when Bolick was then able to lock down a high six-figure publishing deal for a book in a similar vein. Entitled Spinster, it will be published in the United Kingdom in August, and describes the rousing of her inner spinster. Bolick, you see, was very much a girlfriend girl in her twenties, but having moved in with a series of kind, congenial men, she worried that something deep within her was being neglected. She’d always assumed she would be married by the age of 30. Instead, she heeds the siren calls of the single life and chases her “spinster wish” from Boston to New York, where she discovers a succession of “awakeners,” as she calls them. They are poet Edna St Vincent Millay, essayist Maeve Brennan, columnist Neith Boyce, novelist Edith Wharton and social visionary Charlotte Perkins Gilman. By delving into their work and lives, Bolick comes to see what her own might look like without marriage as a destination.

It’s just one of a series of recent and forthcoming books by women that question the role of marriage and motherhood in their lives. Ranging from the dire (The Wild Oats Project by Robin Rinaldi) to the really rather good (Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City), they celebrate the pleasures and possibilities of being single in the 21st century in a way that fiction—from Jane Austen all the way through to Claire Messud’s recent novel The Woman Upstairs—resists.

Mysterious though it is, a boy’s progression to manhood is his to shape. For a woman, the two Ms, marriage and motherhood, still seem to be the fixed gates through which a girl must pass in order to emerge an adult. To quote a friend who turned 40 last year—one who owns her own home and pretty much runs the TV channel that keeps promoting her, who is beloved by her niece and has a wide net of loyal friends—in the absence of those very particular measures of adulthood, it’s hard not to leave one’s thirties behind feeling like an overgrown girl. Not so long ago, life as a single woman was downright impossible. It was the Industrial Revolution that first gave us an opportunity to support ourselves. Before then, even the wealthy were largely dependent on familial good will, living hidden away in remote wings of houses that their younger brothers had inherited. Spinsters, when the term was first coined, spun—one of the few pre-industrial jobs available to them as unmarried women. Since then, the single woman has gone through multiple incarnations. The “new woman” popularised by Henry James gave way to the self-supporting middle-class “bachelor girl” of the late 19th century, who in turn became the girlish ditsy “flapper.” Progress wasn’t entirely smooth. After gaining the vote and helping secure victory in a couple of world wars, women found themselves back in the kitchen in the 1950s, while some of the freedom that the 1960s brought with it now seems decidedly un-feminist. Then came women’s lib, power-dressing, a female Prime Minister and the chicklit explosion. The single woman was embodied variously by Holly Golightly, Rosie the Riveter, Wonder Woman, Bridget Jones and Mother Teresa, always standing for something more than herself—a lightning rod for women in general.

Every woman, I suspect, has a fantasy of freedom. It’s Virginia Woolf’s fabled room of her own; it’s Kate Bolick’s tipsy walk home munching a burger, knowing that nothing is waiting for her except an empty bed in which she’ll wake to her own thoughts; it’s my grandmother becoming the first woman in her family to learn to drive. A Canadian neighbour of mine in London moved back to Toronto with her husband and son purely because rents were cheap enough there for her to have her own home office space with a door she could close. In one recent US survey, women were asked what they most desired as a Mother’s Day gift. “Time to myself” was the overwhelming answer.

But for all its underplayed charms, the single life comes with very real pitfalls. For starters, it’s more expensive. Your money may be your own but it has to stretch a lot further. There’s the rent or mortgage and monthly bills that you’ve no one to share with. If you travel, you’ll be subjected to hefty single supplements at every stop. Across Europe and the US, you’ll be denied the tax breaks and tax credits that are available to the married. When you apply for car insurance, your single status will ensure you’re thought of as more reckless (ironic, given what the divorce rate says about those who do choose to marry), and you’ll be charged accordingly. Sign up at the gym, and you won’t be offered the discounts a couple receives. And on it goes, with additional perks waiting to be snatched from single parents.

As a single person, it often seems that you just can’t win. If you’re looking for someone and haven’t yet met them, you’re deemed sad and obsessed. If you quit, you’re either too depressed to know it or have been grounded by your own emotional baggage. You’re seen as being conceited in your unwillingness to settle (even when your married friends remain adamant that they did no such thing themselves). At dinner parties, to which you’re only invited if a single man can be corralled to neutralise you, you’re expected to provide tales from the dating trenches that titillate but also, crucially, allow you to be pitied. As for the question of children, well, not having any just means you’re selfish, unable to imagine the sacrifices required. Of course, raise the subject of becoming a lone parent, and you’re shot down for more of the same—selfishness. It’s egotistical beyond measure, you’ll be told, to have a child outside a loving relationship—no matter that you might have a network of “loving relationships” with parents, siblings and friends who’ll provide a far greater web of support and security for a child than the average woman who weds solely to have kids, or gets pregnant as a way of propping up a failing marriage.

In her 2006 book Singled Out, social scientist Bella DePaulo coined the word “singlism,” a handy if inelegant shorthand for the stereotyping, stigmatisation and discrimination that is the single person’s lot. In it, DePaulo also attempts to broaden our sense of what single actually means. One can be “socially single,” for instance (you don’t fulfil society’s definition of coupledom, maybe because you don’t live together or you’re not exclusive) or “personally single” (you think of yourself as single even if society regards you as being otherwise). Daft though those definitions sound, they at least take into account the fact that many single people are in fact involved in satisfying, constant relationships; they just don’t happen to live with their companions or have the rings and paper to prove it.

When the single woman first came into being, sex was strictly out of bounds for her. Now, the single woman is expected to hop insouciantly from conquest to conquest. In all Bolick’s daydreaming about being alone, that was a reality she managed to overlook. In New York she’s reminded that “being single means ‘dating,’ which means having sex with people you don’t know very well.” She becomes ensnared in a series of indefinable liaisons with men to whom she’s drawn by virtue of their total disinterest in making her their girlfriend. These men are nothing if not noncommittal, “as if evasiveness were evidence of manliness.” By contrast with Edna St Vincent Millay’s freewheeling exploits, her own romantic adventuring feels, she admits, oddly “prophylactic.”

And yet there is an undeniable romance in being alone, and perhaps because those who came before us spent so much time pregnant or nursing, never knowing a moment’s blissful solitude, we feel it extra keenly as women. Still, it’s hard to discuss the meaning of being single, I’ve noticed, without sounding selfish. A good deal of what passes for feminist literature here in the 21st-century west seems like an excuse for navel-gazing. The topic doesn’t help—singledom, by its very definition, demands that you put your own needs first much of the time. You get used to being able to have things just as you’d like them to be, and compromise becomes alien—as does the messiness of other people’s moods and emotions. But is this even unique to the single? We live in an age that prizes the individual above all else. Married friends with kids, I’ve noticed, continue to insist on their “me time,” and are sometimes still splashing around in therapy and mysticism and trying to “find” themselves deep into their forties. This makes it all the more strange that we continue to insist on the primacy of the couple.

As a tribe, single women are not short of characters or indeed role models, even if they require a little hunting. And as far as stigma goes, while we may be regarded as lonely, rapacious, baggage-laden, the word “single” certainly doesn’t carry the dowdy, mousy connotations that “wife” has been gathering. What we lack is a narrative framework for our experiences. Books, movies, plays about single women invariably end with them being un-single (either that or they’re bitterly unhappy). I don’t think a spoiler alert’s required to tell you that Spinster is no exception—there may not be wedding bells, but there’s certainly a devoted love interest who dreams of having kids with Bolick. It turns out that all five of her “awakeners” succumbed to wedlock too, at various points in their lives. It’s simply what’s expected—then and now, despite the statistical evidence to the contrary. Some years ago, I published a memoir of my own. Though I hoped that it might help women more sanely navigate the choppy waters of dating and desire, I never intended it to be a primer on how to catch a husband. Yet when the paperback edition was released and still I had no ring to flutter, interviewers seemed genuinely flummoxed. In the absence of a compelling narrative for the single experience—one that positions it as the main story, rather than mere prologue—the growing number of men and especially women who fill its ranks will continue to be defined by what’s supposedly lacking from their lives. Of course, the absence of a narrative also confers the freedom to write your own—a giddying thought, even if the roof’s leaking.