America has a rich history of its own sexually alternative utopias, from the 19th-century Oneida Community (which encouraged postmenopausal women to introduce teenage males to sex) to the celibate Shakers, but real change can seldom take hold when economic forces remain static. The extraordinary economic flux we’re in is what makes this current moment so distinctive.
In the months leading to my breakup with Allan, my problem, as I saw it, lay in wanting two incompatible states of being—autonomy and intimacy—and this struck me as selfish and juvenile; part of growing up, I knew, was making trade-offs. I was too ashamed to confide in anyone, and as far as I could tell, mine was an alien predicament anyhow; apparently women everywhere wanted exactly what I possessed: a good man; a marriage-in-the-making; a “we.”
So I started searching out stories about those who had gone off-script with unconventional arrangements. I had to page back through an entire century, down past the riot grrrls, then the women’s libbers, then the flappers, before I found people who talked about love in a way I could relate to: the free-thinking adventurers of early-1900s Greenwich Village. Susan Glaspell, Neith Boyce, Edna St. Vincent Millay—they investigated the limits and possibilities of intimacy with a naive audacity, and a touching decorum, that I found familiar and comforting. I am not a bold person. To read their essays and poems was to perform a shy ideological striptease to the sweetly insistent warble of a gramophone.
“We are not designed, as a species, to raise children in nuclear families,” Christopher Ryan, one of the Sex at Dawn co-authors, told me over the telephone late last summer. Women who try to be “supermoms,” whether single or married, holding down a career and running a household simultaneously, are “swimming upstream.” Could we have a modernization of the Mosuo, Ryan mused, with several women and their children living together—perhaps in one of the nation’s many foreclosed and abandoned McMansions—bonding, sharing expenses, having a higher quality of life? “In every society where women have power—whether humans or primates—the key is female bonding,” he added.
Certainly letting men off the hook isn’t progress. But as we talked, I couldn’t help thinking about the women in Wilkinsburg—an inadvertent all-female coalition—and how in spite of it all, they derived so much happiness from each other’s company. That underprivileged communities are often forced into matrilineal arrangements in the absence of reliable males has been well documented (by the University of Virginia sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox, among others), and I am not in any way romanticizing these circumstances. Nor am I arguing that we should discourage marriage—it’s a tried-and-true model for raising successful children in a modern economy. (Evidence suggests that American children who grow up amidst the disorder that is common to single-parent homes tend to struggle.) But we would do well to study, and to endorse, alternative family arrangements that might provide strength and stability to children as they grow up. I am curious to know what could happen if these de facto female support systems of the sort I saw in Wilkinsburg were recognized as an adaptive response, even an evolutionary stage, that women could be proud to build and maintain.
I definitely noticed an increase in my own contentment when I began to develop and pay more attention to friendships with women who, like me, have never been married. Their worldviews feel relaxingly familiar, and give me the space to sort through my own ambivalence. That’s an abstract benefit. More concretely, there’s what my brother terms our “immigrant bucket brigade”—my peer group’s habit of jumping to the ready to help each other with matters practical and emotional. This isn’t to say that my married friends aren’t as supportive—some of my best friends are married!—it’s just that, with families of their own, they can’t be as available.
Indeed, my single friends housed me as I flew around the world to research this article; by the end, I had my own little (unwritten) monograph on the very rich lives of the modern-day single woman. Deb gave me the use of her handsome mid-century apartment in Chelsea when she vacated town for a meditation retreat; Courtney bequeathed her charming Brooklyn aerie while she traveled alone through Italy; Catherine put me up at her rambling Cape Cod summer house; when my weekend at Maria’s place on Shelter Island unexpectedly ballooned into two weeks, she set me up in my own little writing room; when a different Courtney needed to be nursed through an operation, I stayed for four days to write paragraphs between changing bandages.
The sense of community we create for one another puts me in mind of the 19th-century availability of single-sex hotels and boarding houses, which were a necessity when women were discouraged from living alone, and then became an albatross when they finally weren’t. So last year, inspired by visions of New York’s “women only” Barbizon Hotel in its heyday, I persuaded my childhood friend Willamain to take over the newly available apartment in my building in Brooklyn Heights. We’ve known each other since we were 5, and I thought it would be a great comfort to us both to spend our single lives just a little less atomized. It’s worked. These days, I think of us as a mini-neo-single-sex residential hotel of two. We collect one another’s mail when necessary, share kitchenware, tend to one another when sick, fall into long conversations when we least expect it—all the benefits of dorm living, without the gross bathrooms.
Could we create something bigger, and more intentional? In August, I flew to Amsterdam to visit an iconic medieval bastion of single-sex living. The Begijnhof was founded in the mid-12th century as a religious all-female collective devoted to taking care of the sick. The women were not nuns, but nor were they married, and they were free to cancel their vows and leave at any time. Over the ensuing centuries, very little has changed. Today the religious trappings are gone (though there is an active chapel on site), and to be accepted, an applicant must be female and between the ages of 30 and 65, and commit to living alone. The institution is beloved by the Dutch, and gaining entry isn’t easy. The waiting list is as long as the turnover is low.
I’d heard about the Begijnhof through a friend, who once knew an American woman who lived there, named Ellen. I contacted an old boyfriend who now lives in Amsterdam to see if he knew anything about it (thank you, Facebook), and he put me in touch with an American friend who has lived there for 12 years: the very same Ellen.
The Begijnhof is big—106 apartments in all—but even so, I nearly pedaled right past it on my rented bicycle, hidden as it is in plain sight: a walled enclosure in the middle of the city, set a meter lower than its surroundings. Throngs of tourists sped past toward the adjacent shopping district. In the wall is a heavy, rounded wood door. I pulled it open and walked through.
Inside was an enchanted garden: a modest courtyard surrounded by classic Dutch houses of all different widths and heights. Roses and hydrangea lined walkways and peeked through gates. The sounds of the city were indiscernible. As I climbed the narrow, twisting stairs to Ellen’s sun-filled garret, she leaned over the railing in welcome—white hair cut in a bob, smiling red-painted lips. A writer and producer of avant-garde radio programs, Ellen, 60, has a chic, minimal style that carries over into her little two-floor apartment, which can’t be more than 300 square feet. Neat and efficient in the way of a ship, the place has large windows overlooking the courtyard and rooftops below. To be there is like being held in a nest.
We drank tea and talked, and Ellen rolled her own cigarettes and smoked thoughtfully. She talked about how the Dutch don’t regard being single as peculiar in any way—people are as they are. She feels blessed to live at the Begijnhof and doesn’t ever want to leave. Save for one or two friends on the premises, socially she holds herself aloof; she has no interest in being ensnared by the gossip on which a few of the residents thrive—but she loves knowing that they’re there. Ellen has a partner, but since he’s not allowed to spend the night, they split time between her place and his nearby home. “If you want to live here, you have to adjust, and you have to be creative,” Ellen said. (When I asked her if starting a relationship was a difficult decision after so many years of pleasurable solitude, she looked at me meaningfully and said, “It wasn’t a choice—it was a certainty.”)
When an American woman gives you a tour of her house, she leads you through all the rooms. Instead, this expat showed me her favorite window views: from her desk, from her (single) bed, from her reading chair. As I perched for a moment in each spot, trying her life on for size, I thought about the years I’d spent struggling against the four walls of my apartment, and I wondered what my mother’s life would have been like had she lived and divorced my father. A room of one’s own, for each of us. A place where single women can live and thrive as themselves.