Spinster and the “State of the Female” Article

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In 2012, The Atlantic released the cover article that became, for a little while at least, its most read article of all time: “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” by Anne-Marie Slaughter. The article was a long discussion of the ridiculousness of the “have it all” concept, the convention of making one woman’s success or failure stand for all women, and an argument for arranging working life around the family. The title was (as Slaughter explained early in the piece) tongue-in-cheek.

The curious thing about “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” is that it has come to represent, more than any of the articles The Atlantic ran about women in the 2000s and 2010s, the entirety of that genre. The Atlantic itself seemed to encourage this misreading of the article by putting on the cover a sarcastic picture of a baby stuck in a briefcase. Even as Slaughter’s article brought the magazine record-breaking traffic, it was undermined right out the gate. Today, most people I know remember it only for the title.

This packaging says something, not about the article, but about its audience. The articles about women that ran in the pages of The Atlantic were about feeding its readership a woman to judge, under the guise of journalism or memoir. It could do this whether the articles were good or bad—though as a protective measure, they were almost all written by women. Caitlin Flanagan, Hanna Rosin, Lori Gottlieb, Sandra Tsing Loh, and—more recently—Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, all wrote pieces either criticizing certain aspects of modern womanhood or universalizing their personal lives. (The subtitle for one of Loh’s articles: “The author is ending her marriage. Isn’t it time you did the same?”)

In The Atlantic, women were bad parents, smothered mothers, too deferential to men, too eager to shove men out of the way, not having enough sex, having too much. All of these things being true about some women some of the time, these articles could never be provably false. And many of these articles were good. The problem was the packaging.

Kate Bolick’s Spinster: Making a Life One’s Own was published, initially, as one of these articles: “All the Single Ladies” (2011). It was also an article that received a provocative cover—Bolick herself, staring somewhat defiantly into the camera, with the words “What, Me Marry?” printed below her face. In an interview on Slate, Bolick mentioned she was uncomfortable with the cover but “understood that it would sell magazines.” She was also asked not simply to write a reported story about singles, but to insert herself into the story. So she did. That sold magazines, too. She is also on the cover of her book.

About a quarter of the way through that book, Bolick discusses the tradition of women in journalism as begun by Nelly Bly. Is it a problem, she wonders, that women are expected to frame their stories in terms of their personal life?

On an individual level, it’s impossible to quantify the cost of mining your own life for sellable anecdotes, even—or especially—when your audience is large. But on a much grander scale, the New Woman was unwittingly building a sort of gilded cage: by putting her own life up for display, she was perpetuating the sexist tendency to equate women with “merely” personal matters, and even collaborating in her own objectification. Today, nearly every female writer I know has had to decide at some point whether she’ll accept an assignment to write about her dating life, a conundrum that is almost never presented to men.

Aside from this paragraph, Bolick never really deals with this tension, not when discussing the women in her book and certainly not when discussing herself. The story about the editor at The Atlantic asking that she insert herself into her own article isn’t present in the book. There is, of course, little point in biting the hand that gave you your book deal. All the same, I wish she had. And being cognizant of the larger pattern, I wish I had not hated this book. But I did. As with most of these articles and books, in fact, I read it feeling as if I were being slowly crushed to death.

The basic premise of Spinster is that Kate Bolick is forty and unwed and, even though she assures that she has in fact always wanted to be unmarried, she thinks she owes us an explanation. As she tells the story of her adult life, she considers the stories of her five “awakeners”—Edith Wharton, Maeve Brennan, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Neith Boyce—who helped her come to terms with being a single woman. The relation here is a little mystifying, because all of these women married. 

Spinster is at pains to reassure you that Bolick is a spinster because she wants to be, not because she has to be. Though Bolick makes some sort of gesture at feeling insecure about her appearance at the very beginning of the book, it’s clear that she is attractive to men and knows it, and furthermore that she would be unhappy if that were to cease to be the case. Bolick is always with men, has several serious relationships, and in fact seems to dislike being alone. (At one point, she goes to a writer’s retreat, only to discover that she hates the experience.) At the end of the book, she is dating a man seven years her junior.

Bolick breaks up with these men because she is seeking, she tells us, her self (which she refers to once as her “solitary self”). She worries a great deal about her true self, through many jobs and many boyfriends. This constant worrying that she is settling, not realizing her potential, or running away from her problems, accompanies what is in fact an excellent career: working at The Atlantic, getting a fellowship for New York University, becoming the executive editor at a (now-defunct) magazine at Condé Nast.

Bolick writes about these jobs as if she stumbled into them by accident. She is always bringing up what she is or is not—a writer, or a wife, or a spinster—but what she does, she barely touches on. Indeed, she often writes about herself as if she is an idiot, though she’s clearly not. Before breaking up with one boyfriend, she panics because she has apparently never before considered what it would be like not to split the bills with someone else. After they break up, we never hear about how Bolick handles her finances. My guess is not only that her finances were fine, but that her portrait of her financial incompetence was overblown, just as other insecurities she mentions (including, most bafflingly, her looks) were overblown.

Often, when Bolick writes about other women, her tone is off-putting, both dismissive and presumptive. The five women she writes about are worked into the book awkwardly, and their historical framework is ham-handedly presented, leaning heavily on clichés about the past conditions of women as without any means of expression at all. Bolick refers to other women she encounters by cute nicknames like “Childless Executive,” “Ex-Wife,” and “Having It All.” She reads Middlemarch while skeptically eyeing a woman pushing a baby stroller. Can women with babies read Middlemarch? Who can say?

At one point, Bolick says that Neith Boyce quotes Kierkegaard on marriage because there were no women she could have quoted, as “ambivalence over marriage wasn’t a woman’s prerogative.” But I cannot think of a single woman writer who was not ambivalent about marriage. (Or non-writer: in 1858, Queen Victoria referred to marriage as “a very doubtful happiness.”) Actually I cannot think of a single piece of writing, period, that is not ambivalent about marriage, an institution which might exist only so that people can have doubts about it.

She declares that marriage defines “every woman’s existence,” even women who have no interest in being married, but that seems like a bold claim that collapses easily under the weight of a handful of women saying “no, not really.” There are many such claims made on behalf of all women throughout the book, and if they don’t apply to you—and it’s hard to imagine them applying to everyone—it is going to make you angry. Such claims are also the source of that crushed-to-death feeling remarked upon before. I dislike that I am being summoned here to back up Bolick’s choices and I dislike that I dislike it. But most of all, the reliance on experiences being universal to women weakens the book throughout. Every woman is a role model, and all the models are bad.

What made the Atlantic-style State of the Female article so pernicious was not that it focused on “women’s issues,” or even exactly that it courted an audience hostile toward them, but that in them every individual woman stands for womankind. Bolick states that things are true for all women, not because they are—nothing is true for all women—but because if they are not problems for all women, they are problems for Bolick specifically. Every woman’s life is not defined by marriage—but perhaps Bolick’s is. And that is the sort of digging her memoir avoids.

People often accuse the writers of memoirs of narcissism, but Bolick’s is the opposite case; she gets herself out of the picture as much as she possibly can while still remaining in it enough for marketing purposes. Spinster apologizes for taking up your time and attention. After recounting the death of her mother—who died when Bolick was 23—Bolick writes, “I wish my experience had transcended such an obvious bid for your sympathy.” This is an insane statement, especially in a memoir.

Spinster holds the ghosts of three books: one on the authors that interest her, one on Bolick herself, and one on her mother (who forms a sort of “sixth awakener”). I hope she will write one of these books, one day—any one of them would have been a better book than this one.

B.D. McClay

B. D. McClay is associate editor at the Hedgehog Review and is a graduate of St. John's College, where she wrote her senior thesis on misanthropy and Gulliver's Travels. She has written for the American Conservative, First Things, and the American Spectator.