Websters dictionary defines “spinster” as an unmarried woman of gentle family, especially one past the common age for marrying. I suppose that by that definition, I’m heading into spinster territory.
Well, sort of: I’m not sure if I’m “of gentle family”. Nothing against my family, they’re wonderful and I love them. But I’m not sure that “gentle” is the first word I’d use for them. I’m also not all that far “past the common age for marrying”. After all, people get married at all ages. People get marries in their 80’s! I am past my late 20’s though and that seems to be the age when a lot of people get married. That was the age when I started getting asked “when’s your turn?” at weddings. Now it seems like when I meet people my age there’s roughly a 50/50 chance that they’re married. I’m sure those odds will change over the next few years though.
Am I a spinster by choice? Sort of. I haven’t met anyone that I particularly want to be married to, and I don’t see any reason to get married until I do. Would I like to fall in love and get married? Sure. But if I’m not marrying the right person, I’d rather be single. I’m not actively looking for love right now, because I’ve got a lot of other things on my plate. Maybe that’ll change at some point, maybe not.
But is “spinster” an “archaic” word as the dictionary claims? I don’t know. I do know that in the past couple of years I’ve found myself explaining why I’m still single more than I used to. For most guys in their early 30’s it’s not really much of a question. It becomes more of one later on, but less so than with women.
I recently finished reading Spinster: Making a Life On One’s Own by Kate Bolick. It’s sort of a memoir/exploration of the idea of “Spinsterhood”. In her book, Bolick looks at how our society and past societies have viewed unmarried women. She also looks at the subject through the lens of her “awakeners”; women of the past century who have inspired Bolick. These include essayist Maeve Brennan, writer/artist/social reformer Charlotte Perkins Gilman, poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, columnist Neith Boyce, and novelist Edith Wharton. Were all of these women incredibly accomplished? Absolutely. Were they all spinsters? Surprisingly not.
Actually they all had different experiences of marriage. Charlotte Perkins Gilman was married at the age of 24, separated at 28 and divorced at 34. Edna St. Vincent Millay was married for 26 years but she and her husband both had other lovers throughout. Edith Wharton married at the age of 23 but her husband was mentally ill and Wharton traveled extensively without him. Maeve Brennan was married at the age of 37 and divorced five years later. Neith Boyce married at 27 and had an open marriage. So were these women “spinsters” or simply women who had unusual/nontraditional experiences of marriage? And to what extent did this impact other areas of their lives?
Bolick could have found role models in women who never married. Just sticking to writers, there’s Jane Austen, Emily Dickenson, Harper Lee, and Louisa May Alcott. And that’s just off the top of my head! So why does she pick women whose romantic lives and married lives varied so widely? I think because in spite of what the title of the book says, it’s because Spinster-dom has never meant living life alone. Bolick’s “awakeners” illustrate that for women with fewer options career wise, marriage didn’t necessarily mean babies, suburbs, and domesticity. Nor did it mean love. But most of the “awakeners” had rich, fulfilling lives full of friendship and love, regardless of what kind of love that was and whether or not it took place in the context of marriage.
For contemporary women it’s the same, despite the fact that we have more choices. People today get married for many reasons. Some of those reasons are great. Others are no so great. But there’s an assumption that if a woman is unmarried by a certain point she’s doomed to a life of loneliness. That’s absolutely untrue. Bolick’s “awakeners” prove that there are all kinds of marriages out there. Happiness and love may be found in the institution in different ways. Or it may be found outside of the institution of marriage altogether.
So let’s stop asking women why they’re single once they hit thirty. And let’s adopt the same policy for men, while we’re at it. Being single doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with them. It doesn’t mean they’re doomed to a life of loneliness and misery. There are many reasons for someone not to get married. And there are many ways to live a happy and successful life.