If the word “spinster” makes you think things like “frumpy,” “dowdy,” “unloved,” or “alone,” you are missing an important cultural moment. You need to meet more real single women – and not as potential dates!
People of a certain age and those who know something about history understand that “queer” was once a put-down. Then it went through a process of getting reclaimed. Now “queer” is everywhere, proudly and unapologetically, including in the titles of “Queer Studies” programs in respected universities. What a delightful and resoundingly successful form of resistance!
I think “spinster” has been the loving target of the same sort of makeover. Many people deserve credit for that. Here I’ll focus mostly on two books: Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, in which Kate Bolick began the rehabilitation with her title and went on from there; and Hard to Love: Essays and Confessions, Briallen Hopper’s engaging new book filled with great insights about the many varieties of spinsters. Both authors have a great command of the literature and popular culture, so some of their examples come from those domains.
Taking back the term “spinster” starts with a hard “no” – no, that pitiful stereotype is not who we are. But then, who are we, really? Happily, there is more than one answer.
I’m going to describe some of the most important types of spinsters. In fact, though, I think many of us identify with aspects of more than one of these types – and probably some others I’m missing. I’m celebrating the stereotype-defying types, so you won’t find any self-loathing varieties here.
1. The “Sex and the City” spinster
“Sex and the City” demolished the “poor me, I’m single” storyline. Gone was the frumpiness, the celibacy, the small and sad spinster life. Those four single women were brilliant, beautiful, bold, and stylish. Whatever they wanted, they went for it.
Sadly, though, it did not end well. Or at least not for those of us who want something far more imaginative and spinster-loving than the tired old tale that closes with protagonists who are single no more, having been deposited into the arms of a committed romantic partner. Boring!
2. The spinster who loves her time alone
The pitied spinster is imagined as holed up in a wretched place, all by herself. An important variety of new spinster also has a place of her own, but she loves it. She savors her solitude and embraces her single life. In Briallen Hopper’s book, this is the spinster who “may find herself immersed in an ocean-deep existential solitude that remains impervious to Tinder or brunch.”
Social science research has identified different kinds of loners, including men as well as women. I’ve described those here. (I don’t use the word “loner” as a pejorative.) In my own research on people who are “single at heart” – people for whom single life is their best life – I found that they tend to cherish the time they have to themselves, rather than fretting that they could end up feeling lonely.
From a literary perspective, Kate Bolick offers these varieties of people who live alone:
- The artist or bohemian, the “most glamorized version.”
- “The loner [who] is romanticized as a rebel, as long as he’s a he…”
- “The recluse or hermit – the secular person who shuns human society in all forms.” Bolick notes that this variety of loner “tends to be regarded as eccentric, usually with disdain.” But we don’t have to go along with that prejudice.
- The turbulently alone have tempestuous romantic relationships and end up “seesawing between periods of intense connection and isolation.”
- The “gregarious recluse” who is “easily drained by being around others, but…energized by parties and conversation.”
- “Social aloners” such as monks and nuns who “live alone with like-minded people.”
3. The sociable spinster whose love runs wide and deep
The irony of the isolated and lonely spinster stereotype is that a lot of research suggests that just the opposite is true. Single people have more friends than married people do, they do more to stay in touch with their friends, relatives, neighbors, and coworkers, and they get more happiness out of the time they spend socializing.
The interconnected single woman is the spinster who, as Brianna Hopper describes her, “may forge powerful forms of female love, friendship, commitment, and community, like the Boston marriage, the matriarchal family, or the settlement house.” Or, from literature, “Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, a 1915 utopian novel about a communal, matriarchal society of Amazons raising their female children together as one family.”
In Spinster, Bolick also writes about single women’s communal living arrangements. She, too, believed that spinsters can forge “an intricate lacework of friendships varying in intensity and closeness that could be, it seemed, just as sustaining as a nuclear family, and possibly more appealing.” (Kay Trimberger made a similar argument a decade earlier in The New Single Woman.)
Describing her own spinster friends, Briallen Hopper says:
“It’s the spinsters who made me. Who made farm-share feasts for me for our family dinners and watched Golden Girls with me every night. Who sent me silver-framed photographs of us at a Houston diner, and glitter-framed photographs of us at Graceland, and magnet-backed photographs to put on my fridge of us sharing a bed at a Palm Springs hotel. Who talked with me for hours on the phone as we lay a thousand miles apart in bed in the dark until one of us finally fell asleep. Who asked me to help them choose their mother’s gravestone…”
And on and on that description went, through moments small and touching and big and terrifying, until it was three times as long as what you just read.
4. Career-women and other high-achieving spinsters
When my colleagues and I did studies of perceptions of single people, we found a depressing array of stereotypes. People thought that single people were more miserable, lonely, immature, self-centered, and envious than married people. (They were wrong.) They also believed that single people were more career-oriented. They may or may not have meant that as a positive description, but both Bolick and Hopper recognize what career-oriented single women have accomplished.
In Spinster, Bolick noted that the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize was Jane Addams, a lifelong single woman. Among the many demeaning portrayals of spinsters that Bolick finds in history, literature, and popular culture, she also discovers depictions of power, as in Rosie the Riveter, Joan of Arc, and Wonder Woman. In Hard to Love, Hopper points to “towering archetypes of female genius such as Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, and Flannery O’Connor” and others, too.
When I first started studying single people many years ago, I wondered whether there was anything they could do that would not be undermined somehow. I found, much to my chagrin, that just about every accomplishment, interest, and life choice could be turned against them, including career achievements. In a small act of resistance, I wrote titles for the chapters of my Singled Out book that mocked those myths. For example, in the chapter about single women, I described the myths about them this way: “Your work won’t love you back and your eggs will dry up. Also, you don’t get any and you’re promiscuous.”
Look back far enough, to fifteenth century Europe, as Bolick did, and you will find that “spinster” was initially “an honorable way to describe the girls, most of them unmarried, who spun thread for a living – one of the few respectable professions available to women.” This valued, self-supporting professional woman was the original spinster.
5. The charmingly eccentric spinster
Both Hopper and Bolick find charming and eccentric single women to be among the many-splendored varieties of spinsters. Bolick, for instance, points to Marry Poppins, Auntie Mame, and Holly Golightly. Social scientists rarely train their sights on quirky characters such as charming eccentrics, so, disappointingly, I have nothing to add here.
6. The selfless spinster
Selfless spinsters have an important place in history and culture, as Bolick reminds us by mentioning Mother Teresa, Florence Nightingale, and Lady Liberty. The stereotype of singles as selfish, though, is a sticky one. Even single people can be a bit too quick to internalize it. That is particularly exasperating in view of the stack of studies suggesting just the opposite. In many domains, volunteers are disproportionately single. When aging parents need help, they are more likely to get it from their grown children who are single than from those who are coupled. When people who may not even be relatives need help – not just for a moment, but for months – again, they are more likely to get it from spinsters than from wives.
7. The spinster activists and thinkers who rock the boat in hopes that we can all sail more smoothly some day
Spinsters have a long and impressive tradition of challenging the conventional wisdom and the social structures that leave too many people unfairly disadvantaged. Bolick noted, for example, that one of the first major unions of working women in the U.S. was created by factory workers, many of whom were single.
Another book, All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, is full of names you know or should know of spinsters in the U.S. who bent the moral arc toward justice.
Also significant are the spinsters doing important social justice work without recognition. Hopper, for example, thanks three of her African American friends who, she said, “taught me to think systematically, and to question the structural injustice that honors the commitments of couples and married people but fails to recognize the validity of other forms of family and the immense caregiving work done by daughters, sisters, aunts, and friends.”
Hopper also notes that millions of women participated in the January 21, 2017 Women’s March, “the biggest global protest in the history of the world, a tsunami that swept over seven continents.” Many of those marchers were spinsters.