Being a single woman is rough these days, especially if you're happy as an uncoupled person. There's an immense societal pressure for young women to find a mate, get married, and build a family. I know, everything is supposed to be A-OK and kumbaya and "you do you, boo," but as Save the Date author Jen Doll points out in an article for The Atlantic, "if that's the case, why do we have to keep talking, talking, talking about" women's decisions to remain single and child free? If your life doesn't follow the path of your foremothers, public opinion says you've failed somehow.
What if we could harness our singledom, resist external pressure, and blaze our own trails? The world would be a radically different place if women everywhere had the same levels of social, economic, and political freedom as men.
Enter Kate Bolick. As a contributing editor for The Atlantic, with bylines in The New York Times, Salon, and Vogue, she's living her best life, at least by my standards, but she didn't get there on her own — she used literature as a tool to discover herself and find her path in the world. In her 2015 memoir Spinster, Bolick identifies five women writers who had a profound influence on her life and its trajectory: Maeve Brennan, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Neith Boyce, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Edith Wharton.
"It would be easy to think these women were my heroines." Bolick tells Bustle, adding that she "wanted to make it clear that these women were not [her] heroes," not people whose work she greatly admired, but whose lives and work had helped her in her hour of need.
If you've been feeling down and out about your place in the world as a singleton, or if you're a coupled person who feels like a stick in the mud, Spinster is the book you need to read to inspire your next move. The author blends her own life story — which includes losing her mother to cancer while Bolick was in her early 20s — with those of the five women above, whom she calls her "awakeners."
Before we dive into Bolick's relationships with her awakeners, and how you can find yours, let's back up for a moment: What exactly is an awakener?
"I borrowed the term from Edith Wharton, who used it to describe the thinkers and books that had guided her intellectual journey," Bolick says. "As for me, I used the word because I felt like it was easy to confuse the women I was writing about with heroes."
It's interesting to note that all five of Bolick's awakeners were spinsters, in a sense. Although each of them married, more or less unhappily, they all found, demanded, dug up, or claimed the space in which they could write, the "room of one's own" Virginia Woolf wrote about so famously, and that Bolick alludes to in Spinster's subtitle. More importantly, none of them lived within the prescribed gender roles of their times and places.
"All of them were living very modern lives, the lives we live now," Bolick says. "They were doing it at a time when it was very unusual. Charlotte Perkins Gilman got married, had a child, left her husband and her child and lived alone for 10 years, from ages 30 to 40. She really invested in making herself flourish and becoming the woman she wanted to be."
Each of Bolick's awakeners possessed specific qualities that imprinted onto her life. "Neith Boyce was the first conscious awakener for me," Bolick says. "She taught me about the importance of work for single women, and [about] financial independence.... Neith was middle class and wanted to live by herself in this city and just do all of these things that we take for granted. And she understood that she needed to work for herself."
Boyce was a Modernist fiction author who first made a name for herself in an 1898 Vogue column. The confirmed "bachelor girl" eventually married fellow writer Hutchins Hapgood, with whom she would have four children. The couple married with the intention of having an open and equal marriage, but they encountered difficulties when trying to enforce equality between the sexes. However problematic their marriage might have been, Hapgood supported Boyce's writing, and the couple wrote a play together, titled "Enemies." And despite Boyce not being a "single girl" forever, she still played a strong role in shaping Bolick's life.
Perhaps the most recognizable of Bolick's awakeners is Edith Wharton, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her 1920 novel The Age of Innocence. Wharton imparted valuable life lessons on balancing a rich social life with solitary living upon Bolick. "Living alone well is not something that comes easily to everyone," she says. "I’m a homebody. I love my family. I love having friends over for dinner. I was having a tough time squaring domestic urges as non-superficial things, and Edith Wharton's decorating manual, called The Decoration of Houses, allowed me to take the decoration of my home seriously."
Yep, it turns out Wharton also wrote a book on interior decorating. The Decoration of Houses was Wharton's "first major book," according to the website of The Mount, her Massachusetts country home, and was published in 1897, when she was 35. At the time, Wharton had been married to her "imperfectly suited" husband, Teddy, for 12 years. They would divorce in 1913, after which time she relocated permanently to France. She never remarried, nor had children.
Another awakener, Irish author Maeve Brennan, also helped Bolick style her life and space. She says, "Maeve for me was like an example of living the exact same life as I was living [when I found her]. It felt so parallel to my own life... She had great style that I loved. The way that she thought about style... not only how she dressed herself and how she arranged her apartments, but also how she arranged her writing."
In the mid-20th century, Brennan moved among New York City's hottest literary magazines, holding positions at Harper's Bazaar and The New Yorker. A brilliant writer who endured a short, rocky marriage to a New Yorker editor, Brennan would eventually be defined by her mental illness, which manifested in mid-life and ended her writing career.
For go-to dating inspiration, Bolick turned to Pulitzer Prize winner Edna St. Vincent Millay. Bolick says she "found casual sex and dating confusing," and goes on to say: "I felt I should be tough and ballsy and have a harder heart. The fact is that I have a very soft heart. [In Edna St. Vincent Millay,] you can see the independent woman who is negotiating sex and love outside of relationships without being a jerk. I could be honest and treat men with the integrity that I wanted them to treat me with."
Millay was "raised by her strong, independent mother, who divorced the frivolous Henry Millay and became a practical nurse in order to support herself and her three daughters," according to Poetry. She kept lovers, men and women, throughout her life, even during her 26-year-long, open marriage to Eugen Jan Boissevain, which ended with his death in 1949.
The final awakener, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, is perhaps best known for her haunting short story "The Yellow Wallpaper." But to Bolick, Perkins Gilman "wrapped a bow around all of those ideas: sexuality, home, living, independence. She touches on all of those elements and politicizes them. She really showed me that all of this was a political conversation that was still ongoing."
Like Millay, Gilman was also raised by a single mother, in this case as the result of Frederick Beecher Perkins' abandonment of his family. She married twice, first to the father of her daughter, Katherine, whom she divorced in 1894, two years after the publication of "The Yellow Wallpaper." Her second marriage to her cousin, George Gilman, lasted "until his death in 1934," according to Biography.
The awakeners also imparted their wisdom regarding the importance of self-determination and drive. "Being a writer is so hard," Bolick says, "and it requires falling back on the self again and again and again, because you can’t count on anything externally. Yes, some people are born with exceeding strong wills, but other people make that happen for themselves, or earn it, or create it, and that’s what they all did in their different ways."
So how can you find your awakeners? Bolick tells me you should "read and watch and listen to everything you possibly can, because you never know where you’ll find her or him. You can never predict where an awakener will present itself. It may even be someone you’re already aware of." When you've found "someone who is mak[es you] see the world in a new way," you'll know you're on the trail of a potential awakener.
Bolick is quick to note that singledom is not a one-size-fits-all arrangement for women, nor is it the complete and polar opposite of being married.
"As I come to at the end of the book, I talk about how I had conducted my young adult life as if the single life and marriage were opposites, and that it really wasn't until I was writing the book that I realized that doesn’t even belong in the 21st century," she says. "I just want to remind people that ... society tells us that marriage is the ultimate personal goal, and that’s where happiness resides. But the way people live today is serial monogamy... and I think that’s an important thing to remember when you’re in a very single state: that everything is impermanent. There are some people who swear that they are going to be single forever, but they are a minority. It can feel kind of untenable sometimes, when you’re single and you want it to end. Relationships are the same way. They’re just as impermanent."
Bolick adds that it's OK to not feel entirely secure in your singledom. You don't have to spend every day being the bold, badass single lady Beyoncé sings about.
"I guess this is now circling back to why I wanted to use the term awakeners," she says. "I was really frustrated by how poorly single women were being represented in film, literature, and TV: either a miserable Bridget Jones, or a fabulous Carrie Bradshaw, or a tough person who doesn’t need love. All of those are caricatures, and all of them can contribute to single women feeling really bad about themselves. I think that’s not productive, and most people feel ambivalent."
If you're not happy as a coupled person, or are single and want another person to share your life with, Bolick says you can be content in the knowledge that most things will pass in time.
"To feel OK with where you are means embracing where you are," Bolick says. "It’s important that everybody keep in mind that being single can be amazing on a lot of levels and in a lot of ways, but that doesn’t mean that it always is or always will be, and it can be unproductive to overly celebrate it."