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August 7, 2015

Kate Bolick’s SPINSTER Will Teach You How to Make a Life of Your Own

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I’m a firm believer that books have a way of finding you when you need them the most. Case in point: Three months ago I graduated college with everything I had ever wanted: great school, perfect grades, amazing friends. And to top it all off, I had a boyfriend who was smart, funny, considerate and hot. The day after I graduated college, however, I found myself unemployed, living with my parents, unsure what I was going to do next --- and (here’s the nail in the coffin) single. Not exactly my finest hour. After a few weeks and still in a rather cynical and self-indulgent state of mind, I picked a copy of Kate Bolick’s memoir/biography SPINSTER at my local library, knowing little about it, but thinking that the title rather perfectly described my current state of life. But only two chapters in, that mood had completely disappeared. Not only was I utterly entranced with the messages of female strength conveyed throughout, but I also felt altered in some way. SPINSTER quite literally changed the way I thought of myself.

In Western culture, the word ‘spinster’ is almost always used in a derogatory sense --- it describes a single woman with no prospects of getting married, a woman who fails to fulfill the traditional gender role of becoming a wife and mother. Bolick’s foremost goal in the authorship of her book is to reclaim ‘spinster,’ to reappropriate it to signify a woman who holds on to her spirit of independence and self-sufficiency regardless of whether or not she is single or part of a couple. Like many others of her sex, Bolick spent much of her early life preoccupied by the question of matrimony. She writes, “whom to marry and when it will happen --- these two questions define every woman’s existence.” But when in her mid-20s and consistently in a relationship since she was 15, Bolick began to write about a craving that she called her “spinster wish,” a desire to simply be alone and to make her own choices. Inundated by countless real life and pop culture examples of women putting their relationships before themselves, Bolick began to look for women who embodied the spirit of her ‘spinster wish.’

And so begins the heart of SPINSTER, as Bolick chronicles how she came upon her five ‘awakeners,’ or role models, narrates important events in each of those women’s lives, and then circles back to demonstrate how those events are mirrored in her own life. As an avowed bibliophile, all of Bolick’s awakeners are authors --- the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, essayist Maeve Brennan, columnist Neith Boyce, novelist Edith Wharton and activist Charlotte Perkins Gillman. Although born in different eras and vastly different social circumstances, each of Bolick’s awakeners shared an important characteristic: They lived their lives foremost for themselves. If they married, it was only when they fell in love, not when societal standards dictated that they should. In short, all five were true feminist icons.

In learning about each of her five awakeners, Bolick slowly comes to develop her own standards of living, learning to let go of the constant need to define herself by her relationship status. She ultimately states precisely what she means by living her life according to her spinster wish: “I conjured such an escapist fantasy not because I didn’t want relationships, but because I also wanted to find other avenues of meaning and identity.” This is the line that I’ve been constantly repeating over and over in my head since the moment that I finished SPINSTER.

For me, reading SPINSTER was the beginning of my own process of self-awakening via literature. Never able to quite identify with celebrated feminist writers such as Kate Chopin or Sylvia Plath, reading Bolick was like having a chat with a mentor or savvy big sister that I didn’t know I desperately needed. In her message, I found the mantra that I want to live my 20s by: to be independent, self-aware and responsible. Most of all, that having a significant other should have no bearing on how successful, or even how happy, I am with my life. 

From the moment that I put down SPINSTER, I haven’t been able to stop recommending it. Not only will its message resonate with every woman from the age of 18 to 50 who identifies as a feminist, but it also provides a great read for those who love to indulge in memoirs or crave obscure tidbits of literary history. If you recognize yourself as any of these readers, just try SPINSTER. I promise that you’ll love it.

After reading SPINSTER, I’m now in a search for four of my own awakeners. Kate Bolick is the first.