In 2011, Kate Bolick’s much-discussed Atlantic cover story “All the Single Ladies” made a case for the unattached life, decrying the lack of affirming cultural narratives for single women. In a new book, Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, Bolick combines memoir, literary biography, and cultural history to continue her examination of what it means to remain alone. Spinster studies the lives of five groundbreaking, independent women—Neith Boyce, Maeve Brennan, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Edith Wharton. As Bolick considers how these historical figures triumphed, faltered, and made tradeoffs, she explores the pleasures and consequences of long-term solitude, as well as her own competing desires for freedom and attachment.
When I spoke to Bolick for this series, she chose to discuss an overlooked short story by Gilman, one of the five “awakeners” depicted in the book. “If I Were A Man,” falls somewhere between Freaky Friday and Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”: the story’s female narrator, Mollie, wakes up one day to find herself inhabiting her husband’s body. We discussed different forms of projecting oneself into another person’s experience, and what’s revealed in our personal fantasies about freedom, relationships, and the future.
Kate Bolick is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. She lives in New York City, where she spoke to me by phone.
Kate Bolick: In my late 20s, I felt very lonely in my thinking about being single. As I wondered what I was going to do with my life—as well as whether I’d get married or not—I didn’t see the option of staying single being reflected in an appealing way within the contemporary situation. Back then, in the year 2000, our culture was representing single women as either Carrie Bradshaw from Sex in the City—fabulous and frivolous—or Bridget Jones—desperate and comical. The archetype was very limited.
Then I came across Neith Boyce, who wrote a column for Vogue in the year 1898 called “The Bachelor Girl” about her decision to never marry. Discovering Boyce was a revelation, and the beginning of a very long process that eventually became this book. It felt incredibly exciting and important to read a late-Victorian piece of writing about what it meant to be an unmarried woman. I hadn’t known such a conversation existed so long ago.
I had known that, during the second wave of the women’s movement, there was a lot of discussion about single women and a huge critique around marriage. But I hadn’t known that conversation also happened in the late 1800s (not to mention the early 1800s). To hear Boyce’s voice a century on—a voice that sounded so relevant and contemporary and modern—made me feel not alone. It was something I really needed at that moment in time. To think that history was supplying me with what I needed was consoling.
By the time I sat down to write Spinster, I’d acquired this habit of accumulating women from the past. After my mother died, it became a way of recreating the kinds of conversations I would have had with her. I couldn’t talk to her, but—oddly enough—I could talk to these other women instead. A lot of my questions were about finding a home in the world: Where did I come from? Where am I going? What kind of home am I making for myself? Once my mother died, my sense of home was lost, in a way, because I could never return to the life I’d shared with her. Going out into the world and accumulating these women was a way of creating my own home, whatever that would turn out to be.
I first read Charlotte Perkins Gilman in college, and at the time she was never one of my favorites. But I found myself thinking about her story “The Yellow Wallpaper” as I wrote this book—so I looked around on my shelf, found my copy, and reread it. Right away I was struck by what a strong piece of writing it is, and I became curious about her life and her work.
Gilman’s not a great writer. She’s not a stylist. She didn’t think of herself as being a literary type of person. But what I find so admirable about her—so refreshing and exciting—is the way she’s just bursting with ideas, hurrying to get them down on the page. You can see her imagination at work, for example, in her 1915 novella, Herland—a satirical work about a utopian, all-female society. Gilman designs the entire society from soup to nuts: the architecture, the dinnerware, the food supply system, the clothes. It’s such an inspired vision: Every detail about this world she engineers.
One of my favorite Gilman stories is the lesser-known “If I Were a Man,” which was published in 1914. (I assume she wrote it for her publication The Forerunner, which she ran from 1909 to 1916—she pretty much wrote and published the whole thing herself.) It’s a very short story about a character named Mollie, whom Gilman describes as typically female. One day, Mollie wakes up as a man: she’s become her husband, Gerald. She finds herself in his body, hurrying to the train to commute into the city for work—running late, "as usual, and, it must be confessed, in something of a temper." Which made me laugh out loud. Even now we say men “have tempers” and women are “moody.”
As Mollie experiences what it’s like to be a man, one of her very first revelations is that she has pockets. In the early 1900s, pockets were not a feature of women’s clothing. Unthinkingly, she/he reaches into one to get a nickel for the conductor, a penny for the newsboy, and is overcome with the novelty and power conferred by this tiny sartorial element:
These pockets came as a revelation. Of course she had known they were there, had counted them, made fun of them, mended them, even envied them; but she never had dreamed of how it felt to have pockets. Behind her newspaper she let her consciousness, that odd mingled consciousness, rove from pocket to pocket, realizing the armored assurance of having all those things at hand, instantly get-at-able, ready to meet emergencies ... The keys, pencils, letters, documents, notebook, checkbook, bill folder—all at once, with a deep rushing sense of power and pride, she felt what she had never felt before in all her life—the possession of money, of her own earned money—hers to give or to withhold, not to beg for, tease for, wheedle for.
It’s very typical of Gilman to imagine herself into the mind of a man to try to see what that would feel like, just as an exercise. Here, the pocket becomes a powerful gender distinction. Being able to stash all of the things that help her move around the world makes Mollie feel powerful.
Gilman taught me about material feminism, a movement within the long history of feminism I had not been aware of until I started reading her. She was committed to the idea that changing our physical, material world—our built environment, our architecture—could improve our lives. One of her biggest ideas, for instance, was the kitchen-less house: taking kitchens out of individual homes and making them communal [to] alleviate the chores and scutwork of housekeeping, and free women from toiling alone. She showed me ways to think about the home in relation to the world at large, and how to change society through changing the home. Up until then, I’d been thinking about it on an individual level—how the house shapes the person, how the house shapes the family—but Gilman politicized architecture and space for me in a way I found very compelling.
Mollie’s climbing into the male experience and feeling that physicality is similar to what I felt like I was doing as I climbed into the experience of women like Gilman in order to write this book. I find that I habitually turn to the past into order to make sense of the present. I’m very drawn to that imaginary time-traveling—projecting yourself into the past, and into a specific person’s experience of the past, though their physical environment and the actual clothes that they wore.
I think that, as I was thinking about wanting to be single, I was living that fantasy through the lives of the women I read about. Adam Phillips has written eloquently about the role of our longed-for selves, the lives we think we should be leading versus the lives we actually are leading. A sense of frustration is, surprisingly, necessary: The answer is not always to give up the life you have and then go lead the life that you want. The fact is that we’re all living in a tension between the life we live and the life we think we should be living or want to be living, constantly, and that our life is in that tension. In my own life, even at a moment where I would be in a committed relationship, I might still long for or wonder or dream about what it would mean to be a single woman. I could do that by reading about this woman or thinking about that woman. Reading allowed my fantasy to live inside of my reality.
There is a very universal longing to be alone, to be independent. It’s a real fantasy for a lot of people, whether or not they’re actually living it. At some point in my 30s, a woman my mother had been friendly with contacted me out of the blue. She said, “I’m Margaret, the woman your mother wrote a romance novel with.” I had no idea my mother had ever written a romance novel. It was a very un-her thing to do. She didn’t read romance novels, she was not a particularly romantic or sentimental kind of person, and she was very serious in her reading habits. So this friend sent me the novel—my mother had written the first half by herself and then had gotten bored with it, so she and this friend collaborated to finish it.
There I was, 10 years or so after my mother’s death, reading her romance novel—the story of a young, unmarried woman named Ivy Winter who works as an interior decorator and lives in New York City. It was so uncannily like my own life—at the time, I was living in New York and working as an editor at a glossy home-decor magazine—but had nothing at all to do with my mother’s experience—she never lived in New York, she was single for about two minutes before she married my father, and she knew nothing about interior decorators. But clearly, she had a fantasy about home decorating, about being the archetypal single, urban woman. To see that my mother had carried around that fantasy while living the life of a married woman and mother of two children was a thrill. Of course, we never fully know our parents—and we rarely get such evidence of their secret selves. It made me feel so much closer to her.
Though they allowed me to fantasize, and despite my admiration for them, I don’t think of the historical women I write about as “inspiring” figures. “Inspiring,” to me, suggests an aspirational stance—that you want to be that person. I didn’t ever want to be these people: They were completely distinct entities that I engaged and interacted with by bumping up against. Engaging with them allowed me to think about my own life from different perspectives the way great conversations do. I could like or not like their choices as I read, just as people who read my book will like or not like the decisions I’ve made.
I’m very suspicious of the role of the bad-ass, brave, rebel woman. That is a type of personality, of course, and there are people out there who are like that—they are necessary! But we can tend to reduce women to two archetypes: You’re the badass woman who breaks all the rules and gets to live a fulfilled life, or you’re a woman who follows convention and is fearful. There’s a whole range, obviously, in between. The most shocking and helpful thing, when I am reading the biographies and memoirs and letters of the women who I converse with most readily, is when I get to experience moments of self-doubt. To watch them go through that, and find their own confidence—that is useful. Just being presented with a strong badass woman who has it all figured out, that doesn’t help me. What helps me is watching somebody else go from doubt to certainty. Or to change their mind again. It’s a reminder that there is no fixed place to arrive at. We’re always works in progress.