A Spinster I
I THINK they have almost all been heard from, with full analysis of their condition and exposition of circumstances and reactions — the happily married and the unhappily married, the divorced and the still undivorced, wives and widows; wives of professional men, business men, workingmen, wives with too much culture, wives with too many children, wives of Roman Catholics, wives with relations-in-law. They have all told their tales here and there, generally making complaint and asking for sympathy. I am not complaining or asking for sympathy, but just to make the rota complete I am adding one more account. The spinster is still to speak. I am not sure that curiosity about her is great, but social students should be furnished with information about all types. There are apparently many things about the unmarried which the married do not know, and many untruths which they think they know. Now that the new psychologists and sociologists and pathologists have taken a hand, there is the more reason that the spinster herself should make a statement.
I am a spinster and qualified to offer a case-study of the spinster. In many points I am typical, in circumstance and interest. In others I might be called untypical. In intelligence and personal equipment I am at least average — I speak anonymously. I am not a college woman, unfortunately. Were I ten years younger, I should have been in the group where college training is taken for granted. Perhaps there was a little selfishness on the part of my parents in keeping an only child agreeably at hand. But it gave me a good deal of travel, casual and disconnected instruction in different forms of art, and an amateurish and superficial familiarity with the general aspect of my father’s business. My parents supposed that I should marry, naturally. Without training me especially for marriage, they trained me for nothing else. In that I differ from the large body of spinsters in business and professions, who are competently trained.
But I did not marry. From my point of view that fact does not need explanation any more than marriage does. In the past, unmarried meant unchosen, and it was supposed to be an embarrassing state. I can’t recall any twinge of embarrassment, at any time. One of the real corrections which have been made with the passage of years is that at present spinsterhood needs no serious apology. The very terms of obloquy have almost faded out. Even the sociologists hardly speak of ‘ superfluous women ’ now, and the joke column has lost its worn jests. As for myself, I simply did not marry.
There are few women in the world who have not been ‘ sought in marriage ’ and there are few men who have not been refused at some time. I had no distinctly formed opposition in mind, but I was not so framed that propinquity — that most frequent cause of marriage — had much influence on me. I could not fall in love with a man merely because he was always there; and I did not cultivate the susceptibility to physical attraction, of which we hear so much nowadays. I should probably have been ashamed of it if I had recognized it. Two or three times I was almost in love; but something in me would not give way, or attraction in the man grew slack. The result was painless each time.
It is customary to suppose that every unmarried woman bears the secret scar of an unfinished romance or disappointment, but that is all piffle. It sounds like the talk in a girls’ school when the favorite teachers are discussed. There are disappointments and there are tragedies. But nearly all women who constitutionally want to be married are married — if not to one man, to another. I know very many spinsters, and wistfulness is not their quality. The common thing is what happened in my case. They pass casually through the period of susceptibility without reaching a decision or feeling an inescapable attraction. They suppose something better or more compelling is still to come, if they think about it seriously. And after that some solidifying of character, some development of indifference or resistance, makes them less and less willing to commit themselves and their futures to the hands of someone else. At least they can no longer do so spontaneously or impulsively. So I say I did not marry just as I say I did not study law or teach or go to live in Paris.
I think my mother was disappointed. Women like to see their lives duplicated in their daughters’. But there is more involved than that. They don’t wish to have their daughters show a judgment superior to or different from their own; they really don’t like to have their daughters seem to say that there is a better way than marriage. The more contented and successful old maids there are, the more doubt is cast on the state of marriage, and married women do not like that. Men don’t care so much. My father was not disappointed, I know. He liked his growing security in my companionship. Until I was past twenty his attitude to me was tentative, as if I were here today to be gone to-morrow; but after that, as the years passed, he grew more established in relation and more gratified. I had a feeling that he was proud of me for not marrying.
I lost both my parents when I was thirty. My patrimony was less than I might have expected. This was not due to any inefficiency of my dear father, but to the catastrophe in business in that year which his illness prevented him from meeting advantageously. My inheritance included the very comfortable old home, however, and a small income. I could have lived on it modestly and watched my scattered pieces of unproductive real estate consume themselves in taxes, but I had a taste for construction and some small artistic training and a liking for experiment. I risked enough capital to build one or two small houses on pieces of ground in which my father had speculatively invested. Purchasers found that the places had charm and adaptability, and I repeated the venture. In final result I disposed of all my white elephants and considerably increased my resources, and I found myself embarked as a sort of business woman.
I am at almost the place where I should have been had I gone through an employee’s training in some business, except that I am more independent and have more capital. One of my friends calls me a sublimated realtor. Really I am still only an amateur; the real estate agent and the house decorator and the architect know a hundred things which I do not know. But I have an inconspicuous success, which brings me many contacts and relations to vary my life and make it interesting. It gives me also a connection with public things and sometimes a small influence or authority. I am on a hospital board, on a committee of the art institute, at times a director of the women’s city club, and in other things of the kind. This sounds as if I were an important person, but I am not. I am only one among women called in for such relations.
I am by no means singular. I know scores as comfortable as I and many far more distinguished, women in important business positions, women in higher ranks of teaching, women of achievement in other professions, women writers and artists. Many I know well. I have even been adviser to them. For information about investment or for the adventure of building a home they often come to me, and there is no time when a person divulges so much of himself as when he is considering or planning a home.
I am writing, of course, about the more fortunate class of unmarried women — not the dependent ones, living without choice in the homes of relatives; nor another group, women who are independent yet in work that, is hard, unauthoritative, uncongenial; but women with an occupation in which they are successful and to a high degree contented. And in the most intimate talk of the most isolated hour they do not say that they wish to marry or wish that they had married. Only three times have I heard it — once from a woman of domestic tastes, in an occupation she could not learn to like; once from a woman who had allowed difference in religion to separate her from her lover; once from a woman who was lazy and hated to look forward to years of enforced work. Incidentally, I think laziness has been a potent reason in bringing women to marriage, when the alternative was work lasting through life.
I have no reason to think that my other unmarried friends are concealing unsatisfied desires. You don’t have to have a slumber party to find out what people are really longing for. For every woman who wishes she had married, there are several who wish they had not. The divorce list gives partial evidence of that, and we don’t know how many wished-for divorces are not consummated. The very conveniences of living at present make the single life more agreeable than it once was. The comfort of small apartments, as they are now designed and equipped, — I have designed and built some, — makes the assistance of a strong masculine hand or the protection of masculine presence unnecessary. The domesticminded spinster is no longer driven to the deprivations of the boarding house or the small hotel.
‘Lapsed into hopeless spinsterhood,’ I read the other day, and I was surprised to find the phrase in a modern book, even one written by a man, so out of date the attitude begins to seem. Perhaps men still like to please themselves with the implication. But in fact spinsters are not now pitied on the basis of circumstances alone. There is another supposition, very candidly expressed. They suffer from sex starvation! Or else—if they seem healthy and normal and content — they nourish a secret vice. Only it is no longer a vice — current literature approves of it. They have lovers, and the novelist is pleased. Nothing else can account for their contentment!
The world has gone mad on sex; it largely wants to go mad on sex. No other reason for anything has a chance until sex has been hypothesized. Nerve doctors and psychologists say ‘sexual origin’ before they even see their patients. There are doctors and psychiatrists who, if called in by a spinster, would diagnose a broken leg as sex starvation. In years to come they will be one of the jokes of the early twentieth century. In fact, unmarried women are no more given to nervous troubles than matrons are. Speaking unstatistically, I should say far less so. The most of them are going healthily along, giving only casual thought to their deprivations, certainly not being ruined by ungratified longings. It is not they who hungrily crowd to the sex plays. One does not see much of these women in print because they do not make copy. They are unsensational and they do not justify or illustrate current theories of sex. The preference is all for the woman with a liaison.
And the pity that is expended on the ‘thwarted maternal instinct’ is also chiefly wasted. Why this pity goes to unmarried women instead of to the thousands of childless married women is a question characteristic of the times; or why not to the almost equally pitiable ones who have put all their eggs in one basket and have only one child, which is next to none. When he is cut down or becomes a racketeer, what price maternal instinct then? But it is the spinster who gets the condescending solicitude. If she happens to look gently upon any child in her path, someone on the horizon is sure to be shaking a head and saying, ‘She ought to have some of her own!’ The old saying about one child to every old maid, and no questions asked, was worn to tatters with long iteration. Well, every woman has sometime given a passing sentiment to the children she has forgone. That is when she sees particularly attractive ones, or has been reading Barrie or Dickens. But if she were really lying awake at night sobbing over her empty arms she would go out in the morning and adopt a child. Other people are busily providing infants for that purpose.
The only thing she does think of is the far future. When she is seventy, will she wish she had grown children, or even grandchildren? Would it be less lonely then? Perhaps — and perhaps not. Her daughter would either be fussing at her because she was living alone, or writing an article to a magazine complaining because her mother lived with her. And probably at seventy she will prefer the companionship of others who are seventy. I notice that the seventies are not so well pleased with the conduct of the forties. And as for the twenties! I might not even like my own children if I had any — and grandchildren probably not at all. I hear complaints. There seem to be worse things than being alone at seventy.
Women are not merely biological machines, in spite of all the seeming biologists who are splashing into fiction and sociology in this decade. They worry a good deal about the spinster, especially the well-conducted spinster. The demimondaine is normal and nothing to be troubled about, but the respectable spinster is a pathological case. The sociologist does not know everything, however, nor yet the psychologist. And when they find just where the exact line of normality is, may we all be there to see!
No form of life is entirely perfect, though. Spinsterhood has drawbacks. Even though a woman does not wish to have a man occupy the house with her, she may enjoy a mixture of masculine society. And, whatever is the truth about marriage economically and biologically, society is organized in couples. At least, in the second-sized city where I live, husbands and wives appear together. A dinner table is perfectly balanced or it is a humiliation to the hostess, and it is not balanced by inviting either husband or wife alone. Two by two they go. But what havoc a spinster works! Such raking and scraping among bachelors and widowers to find a vis-à-vis for her! Whether women marry or not, it is evident that all the personable men are married. I am fond of giving dinners myself, since I inherited a spacious and hospitable dining room and an abundance of now old-fashioned service, and my acquaintance is large; but sometimes when I see what my hostess has been put to in order to find a male to offset me, I am sorry I ever laid her under social obligations. Bachelors grow smug with dining out, not knowing why they are so often invited.
The same is true of card parties. I am a good player, better than most men, but if I just had any sort of little husband to bring with me I should be so much more welcome. And in less formal social affairs the same is true. A hostess hates to see only a sprinkling of men among her guests; the very look of the party is poor. I rather think so myself. I often encourage acquaintance among youngish men in order to have them available; I fear they think it is because I am interested in them. And I do miss having a host at my entertainments. The host does things which the hostess cannot do, and I confess that there is something missing to round out my hospitality.
The danger in spinsterhood is that one may decline into too feminine a level and custom. There are many attractive and intelligent women who know only the social rôle of tea guest or luncheon guest among ladies, and in general their association and conversation are all with women. I think some of them hardly realize how completely this is true, or think of it as a lack. No men belong to them, and it seems undignified to take any deliberate means to add a masculine element to their daily experience. In time they come to be less natural with men than with women, and they let it go at that; their range of subjects is feminine, or their comment is amateur. For many of them this condition would be hard to alter. In a city twice as large as this one, or in a less orthodox and important social grade, I should probably go about with my friends’ husbands or other married men, and I should enjoy it and no harm done. I think that should be a normal custom; but it does not come naturally into my habit of living. Anyway I, personally, see men enough. With my business and my small public duties I am in friendly or semi-friendly relations with many men and I often have lunch or tea with them over some practical matter. They are really more interesting in such contacts than they are at parties. I am, in fact, more at ease with men than most married women are, because I am more familiar with the subjects that concern them.
There is another peculiarity in the relations of the spinster, one I think regrettable. In all kinds of classifications she is likely to be left aside. She does not fall into parties or divisions. Women do not, naturally — into clubs, but not parties. I am not the most independent type, but I will not allow any party or doctrine to claim me irrevocably. I can’t glory in being either Tory or Whig. I won’t be absolutely classified. Therein women differ largely from men, and unmarried women from those under the influence of husbands. We make reservations which they do not. I think we spinsters miss something, whatever we gain. We are naturally omitted from any summing up of classes or parties; we are not there; we are not taken account of. Even the advertiser does not single us out, and that is the last word in neglect. The spoils or glories of war are not for us. We are not taken for granted and we are also unimportant.
The married woman, on the other hand, learns to think with at least one person. Besides that, she accepts a masculine partisanship and all the mental perquisites that go with it. A man is Republican or Democrat or Communist, unreservedly, and his wife’s complete loyalty makes her into one also, just as she learns to eat what he likes. She doubles his vote. The fact that she agrees with him makes it easy also for her to agree with a whole party. The spinster is a protestant and regards all that cynically. Perhaps it is as it should be, but she does not approve. There is nothing like happy marriage to limit a woman’s mental field, except so far as in practical things it increases it. You rarely get a married woman’s opinion on any subject; you only get her husband’s. It is trite to say this, and yet the illustration of it can always be a surprise. You sit at a woman’s luncheon, and when a general topic comes up you listen to the opinions of John and Tom and Harvey, uttered by Mary and Lucy and Celia. When a woman makes a statement you think back quickly to her husband’s political connection or business relations, and find the reason for it. She is more naïve than he and gives away more than he would.
There are exceptions to all this, of course. I have worked on boards and committees with intelligent women, of independent thought, considering subjects their husbands have never thought of. That is why they are on boards and committees. If they did not suffer the annoyance of being superior to their husbands, they would not be driven out to public work. Generally no one thinks less than the contented wife. It seems to take discontent to stimulate thought.
I find these feminine women charming. They talk away so prettily and confidently that they fascinate me. One can be so much more confident of a secondhand opinion than of an original one. Perhaps they should be considered, except for their childlessness, as the norm among women. But they do not like me very well. The matrons who are willing to become my friends are those with a little itch of discontent somewhere; one strikes a spark from them. The others, the fully satisfied, are jealous of spinsters. That sounds absurd, I know. I do not mean that they have fear for their husbands. Very rarely. But though they would not for the world be spinsters, and will probably marry again when they are widows, they have a kind of acid envy of our position. Spinsters who are as well dressed and well conditioned as themselves, and who have, besides, a success and identity of their own, annoy them. Their measure goes crooked, somehow. We ought to be feeling rather pitiable, and we do not. They seem to be saying, ‘You are getting all this for nothing. You ought to be paying for it and you are not.’ They often look at us strangely and address us as if we came from a far country. They think up something to say. Sometimes they suspect us of remaining single because we are intellectual.
Not many matrons can really have friends among spinsters, or care to have, unless in friendships which go back to unmarried days. Even those often lapse. The territory of life which they do not have in common is so much greater than that which they do have in common that unbridled friendship is improbable. This is not always true, of course. Some of my most necessary friends are married, but they are also unusual among women.
Even the most logical of them have one advantage which we lack. That is the rationalizing of procedure. We miss the Great Excuse, which sometimes seems to be the chief function of a husband. I have to say, ‘I am going abroad this summer because I want to.’ If I were married I should say, ‘I really don’t want to go abroad, and I would n’t if it were not for getting John away from business. He does need it so.’ Or else, ‘But John just insists that I ought to get away from home.’ And I should not stop with that. I should say, ‘I fully meant to wear my fur coat another winter, but John says I ’ll have to date with somebody else if I do.’ And, ‘I was quite satisfied to stay in our old house, but I thought if we moved out nearer the country club John would play golf more, and he does need it.’ So thoughtful of my husband I should be. Without the Great Excuse I have to be candid. I say, ‘This wall paper would do another year, but I’m tired of it. I’m going to repaper.’ There is no sophistry to stand between me and indulgence. I regret that, when I am balancing books for my conscience. But at least I have told the truth. And I notice that when you bring John in you hardly know whether you are telling the truth or not. I am not entirely jocular. There never is the same sturdiness of candor in the apologist, or the one who has a buffer between herself and final responsibility, that there can be in the one who is entirely and necessarily independent.
I seem not to believe in marriage. But I do. No other institution could do so much to give solidity and continuity to human relations. For the greater part of the race it is necessary. But nearly all the troubles that come to individuals in this world are due to marriage. There are no domestic relations courts for unmarried women. From one point of view, marriage is completely logical and natural; but from the other — why involve and fractionize your life until it is not a unit either in being or in action?
No life is perfect in form. I must confess to personal drawbacks, such as most have to regret. But my life is my own. I recognize the ordinary human duties, laid by courtesy or altruism or civic responsibility; but no one has the right to put a hand on my hours, my opinions, my choices. In my habits and preferences — in rising and in going to bed, in choosing times and dishes for eating, in making a noise or in being silent, in reading by a bed lamp or in having someone else read by a bed lamp, in celebrating occasions or in ignoring them, in being late or in punctuality, in turning on the radio or in turning it off, in blossoming out in fashionable clothes or in wearing a favorite garment to shabbiness, in making a sudden pleasure journey and in prolonging it beyond the first intention, in being the first to read the daily paper or to handle the mail, in changing without reason a long-established custom, in joining or in refusing to join, in forming an opinion or in changing a declared opinion, in ridiculing or in respecting, in spending or in saving, in giving or in refusing — in anything I think it right to do, I am free. And no married person in the world, except the most selfish, can say that.
I know we miss something. Apart from all sentiment, there is a body to domestic life which escapes us. From the outside our homes, when we possess them, have not the same respect. In the eyes of the world, we lack entity. We do not even have a name. ‘Old maid’ is outlawed by connotation, ‘spinster’ sounds bookish and a little affected, ‘maiden lady’ belongs to an earlier day, ‘unmarried woman’ is roundabout, ‘bachelor girl’ is silly. We need the recognition of a fair title. Just to see an advertisement addressed to us alone would be something. But such contentment as we have is sweet. One can’t have both the plus and the minus of life. And which is the plus and which the minus?