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.