On Spinsters

By Briallen HopperJuly 12, 2015

On Spinsters

Spinster by Kate Bolick

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It’s the queers who made me. Who didn’t get married …

— Hilton Als, White Girls


I EXPECTED to like Kate Bolick’s recent book Spinster. I would certainly seem to be its ideal reader. After all, I’m someone who sometimes identifies as a spinster, who reveres “spinster” as a cultural category, and who was clunkily complimented by a fellow grad student when I was 29 for “the bold way you are resignifying the term.” I love personal narratives laced with historical research and cultural criticism, and Bolick’s 2011 piece “All the Single Ladies” was my favorite of the many viral-Atlantic-stories-about-women-turned-book-deals. I preordered Spinster as soon as I heard about it: I was eager to read something about being a woman that wasn’t about getting married, leaning in, or having it all.

Bolick’s book was inspired by something she calls her “spinster wish,” which is “shorthand for the extravagant pleasures of simply being by myself.” A fragment she quotes from her diary describes “a long, perfect spinster wish of a Sunday, read all day, took two naps.” But despite all the lounging, to Bolick the embodiment of a spinster wish is not a couch potato but an Art Deco sprite:

In my mind’s eye, the spinster wish was the shape of that small, steel sylph gracing the nose of a Rolls-Royce, arms outstretched, sleeves billowing, about to leap from her earthbound perch and soar.

Spinsterhood, for Bolick, is not simply being an unmarried woman. Nor is it cat-collecting, celibacy, or the social indignity of life as a human Old Maid card. Instead it is something luxurious, coveted, and glamorous, associated with long days of reading, plenty of room to sprawl in bed, ecstatic self-communion, and, as befits the former executive editor of the decorating magazine Domino, a well-appointed apartment of one’s own.

Bolick’s sensuous vision of solitary self-care and self-indulgence recalls the glorious Live Alone and Like It, a classic 1936 self-help guide by Marjorie Hillis that’s listed in Bolick’s bibliography but is never directly cited in her text. But Live Alone is much clearer about its topic than Spinster, and much grittier. Its subject is less sylph-inspired wishes and more, well, living alone. And its brisk, humorous tone is miles away from Bolick’s wistful reveries. Like a true first-wave feminist, Hillis rejects words that define women by their relationship to marriage:

If you are in the habit of thinking of yourself as a widow or a spinster, this, too, is something to get over as speedily as possible. Both words are rapidly becoming extinct — or, at least, being relegated to another period, like bustle and reticule. A woman is now a woman, just as a man is a man, and expected to stand on her own feet, as he (supposedly) stands on his.

But 80 years later Bolick still thinks of herself as a spinster, even though for her the word is so metaphorical as to be almost meaningless. For Bolick, spinsterhood is quite compatible with dating (she is seemingly never not dating), cohabiting, and even marriage. Ultimately Bolick defines spinsterhood as an identity available to any woman, married or single, who sometimes feels suffocated by conventional cohabitation and who has decided to prioritize me-time: “For the happily coupled […] spinster can be code for remembering to take time out for yourself.”

As I read Spinster I found myself resisting it on almost every page. This is partly because I don’t really share Bolick’s solitary spinster wish: most of the time I would rather sprawl and read with someone I love nearby, and luckily I get to do this a lot of the time. But more significantly, Bolick lost me at the beginning of the first chapter with this astonishing set of statements:

Whom to marry, and when will it happen — these two questions define every woman’s existence, regardless of where she was raised or what religion she does or doesn’t practice. She may grow up to love women instead of men, or to decide she simply doesn’t believe in marriage. No matter. These dual contingencies govern her until they’re answered, even if the answers are nobody and never.

I don’t do well with anachronistic absolutes. I wrote “too much” in the margin. (As Laura Kipnis observes in her excellent review in Slate, “All this seems far too sweeping.”) I’m in my 30s and haven’t married yet, but marriage is not in my own top five questions and hasn’t been for some time. I’m much more interested in whether I’ll write a book or have kids, and much more defined and governed by race, class, gender, and the changing climate. I might feel differently if I were a socialite or sorority sister or a member of a fundamentalist religious community, but the world Bolick describes is not the one I live in.

Bolick goes on to ask,

You are born, you grow up, you become a wife.
But what if it wasn’t this way? […]
What would that look and feel like?

with dramatic line-drops between each question, as if she is blowing our minds; as if these exact questions haven’t already been asked and answered by generations of women for decades or centuries. I couldn’t help but wonder: why does Bolick’s account of women’s existence seem so much more archaic than a book published in 1936?

Spinster begins with overstated claims about the all-importance of marriage, but it quickly turns around and acts as if marital status is irrelevant — an equally inaccurate assumption. Over its 300 pages Bolick answers her questions about what “spinster” lives might look like with micro-biographies of five women from the early-to-mid-20th century — the two you’ve probably heard of are Edith Wharton and Edna St. Vincent Millay — who all were born, grew up, and became wives. Some of them also got divorced or separated or had open marriages and/or second marriages, but none of them were spinsters according to the standard definition of the term. And marriage isn’t all that Bolick’s “spinsters” have in common: all of them were writers who lived in the American Northeast; all of them were white; almost all of them were redheads. Bolick calls them her “awakeners” — the ones who helped her cultivate her ethereal “spinster wish.” These five women may not have known much about what it’s like to not become a wife (or about what that would look and feel like!), but their stories allow Bolick to rhapsodize about many of the things she loves the most: magazine writing, interior decorating, New York City. I enjoy all those things too, but I would have enjoyed Spinster a lot more if it had been titled Red-Headed Writers or Dating and Divorce.

But my fundamental resistance to Spinster isn’t just about the bait and switch of its title and content. It comes down to the way Bolick’s small and not especially spinster-based archive radically limits the potential of her book, both culturally and politically.

In history and literature, the spinster is not typically cool and stylish like Bolick’s glamorous “awakeners.” She is often weird, difficult, dissonant, queer — like an unnerving dream, or a pungent dose of smelling salts. And her social and emotional life is not primarily oriented around the familiar forms of straight romance — dating men, hooking up with men, living with men, getting engaged to men, marrying men, divorcing men, etc.; in other words virtually all the important adult relationships given significant space in Bolick’s book. Instead, the spinster may find herself immersed in an ocean-deep existential solitude that remains impervious to Tinder or brunch. Or she may forge powerful forms of female love, friendship, commitment, and community, like the Boston marriage, the matriarchal family, or the settlement house. These varied modes of life are what make spinsters different from single ladies, debutantes, divorcées, and wives. Why would a book called Spinster gloss over them?

Chronically unmarried women have long endured the injustice of being set aside, ignored, dismissed, made invisible. This experience of social erasure is at the heart of the drama of many spinster stories. And the irony of Spinster is that, despite its title, it is often curiously committed to ignoring actual spinsters. I was floored when Bolick mentioned the boy-crazy, glamorous, and/or eligible Henry James heroines Isabel Archer (married) and Daisy Miller (a teenager) as “New Woman” precursors for what she’s calling a spinster, but name-checked The Bostonians only as a way to signify the “WASP decorum” of The Atlantic office where she worked. Has Bolick even read The Bostonians? Henry James is practically the poet laureate of Spinsterland, and Olive Chancellor of The Bostonians is one of the greatest spinsters of all time. As James explains:

There are women who are unmarried by accident, and others who are unmarried by option; but Olive Chancellor was unmarried by every implication of her being. She was a spinster as Shelley was a lyric poet, or as the month of August is sultry.

Olive is the Platonic ideal of James’s magnificent spinsters, out-spinstering even the spurned and spurning Catherine Sloper of Washington Square and the triumphant pyromaniac Miss Tina of The Aspern Papers. She is passionate, twisted, harsh, awkward, indecorous, bold, bitter, self-immolating. She probably wouldn’t fit in well at The Atlantic offices, or anywhere else for that matter. And a book called Spinster that excludes Olive and the rest of the literary spinster pantheon while honoring Isabel Archer does violence to my soul as a spinster, a spinster fan, and a scholar of 19th-century literature.

You would scarcely guess it from Spinster, but the figure of the never-married woman of a certain age evokes a vast constellation of abrasive, eccentric, no-nonsense, sour, strong-minded, or socially invisible women who were born to inspire drag queens, tomboys, lesbians, late-bloomers, loners, joiners, haters, do-gooders, nuns, divas, misfits, misanthropes, saints, wallflowers, or various combinations of the above. This starry host includes towering archetypes of female genius such as Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, and Flannery O’Connor; haggard paragons of power such as Elizabeth I; and the apotheosis of the fictional spinster, the formidable Miss Havisham of Dickens’s Great Expectations, with her ragged wedding dress, spidery cake, and quenchless thirst for revenge.

It also includes voluble and vulnerable women like Miss Bates in Emma, brave late-bloomers like Joanne Woodward in Rachel, Rachel, sadder and wiser fallen women like Marian the Librarian in the Music Man, conflagrations of thwarted lust like Rosalind Russell in Picnic, the feral and fabulous Little Edie of Grey Gardens, the radiant spinster-in-training Julia Roberts dancing with her gay best friend at the end of My Best Friend’s Wedding, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple (who uses her social invisibility to solve murders!), Frances McDormand’s despairing and heroic nursery governess in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, the centuries-old Aunt Ester who presides over all August Wilson’s plays as the ancestor of her people, the varied church ladies and pink-collar workers and fag hags of Barbara Pym, and the consummate artist Pym herself.

And it encompasses busy “career women” of various stripes: educational innovators like Maria Louise Baldwin, educational cautionary tales like Miss Jean Brodie, social visionaries like Jane Addams and Louisa May Alcott (who each get a brief shout-out in Spinster, but whose decidedly queer and/or woman-oriented emotional lives are ignored), odd couple friends like Mary and Rhoda on the Mary Tyler Moore Show, and tenacious long-lived professional sister pairs like Susan and Anna Warner, Sadie and Bessie Delaney, and Alice and Harper Lee.

These many magnificent spinsters and their unnamed sisters expand the range of femininity far beyond the familiar territory of the cute, cool, or easily commodified, and ignoring or shunning almost all of this classic spinster pantheon — as Bolick does — has political consequences. Above all, it domesticates the threat that the spinster poses to normative systems of love, sex, and power. There is a reason the word “spinster” has long been a queer-tinged insult with a straight-slicing edge — a reason why Katharine Hepburn, one of cinema’s great spinsters (Summertime! Desk Set! The African Queen!), was devastated in The Philadelphia Story when her ex-husband called her a “married maiden” and her estranged father called her a “perennial spinster.” Historically, spinsterhood has meant a kind of radical unavailability to straight men, implying either rejection of them or rejection by them or both.

This sought or unsought rejection has the potential to be experienced by women as a source of strength. It can mean making the choice not just to set your own terms on the marriage or meat market, but to opt out of the market altogether. To quote the introduction of the great 1970s second-wave anthology SOLO: Women on Women Alone, another book that was published before I was born but feels infinitely more modern than Spinster:

Under the theme of independence, there are stories about women who are coping with, even enjoying the state of singleness. In this group of stories, the women are not only effectively managing solitary existences they may not have sought, but they are actively creating self-contained existences that leave them relatively free of what those forces that govern growing up had defined to them as a “natural need” — dependence on men. We see them in the process of “kicking the habit.”

The editors of SOLO celebrate independence from men using the language of creativity, freedom, and recovery. Their language is important because all too often female independence without the approval-stamp of male desire is seen as a source of shame, and is blamed on the spinster’s supposed spiritual or sexual frigidity, and/or her ugly or invisible body. Spinsterhood is commonly interpreted as a symptom of a guarded soul and hardened heart.

In this way the challenge that spinsterhood poses to patriarchy is contained and punished by the imposition of a sexual stigma. And too often the prescribed patriarchal cure for spinsterhood is reorienting spinsters' lives around straight men. Hepburn’s cure in The Philadelphia Story is remarriage to her ex-husband, a man who once toppled her to the ground by shoving her in the face. Meanwhile, earlier this year, a self-loathing self-identified spinster writing under a pseudonym in Salon describes her decision to hire a male sex surrogate to “cure” her spinsterhood: a kind of reparative therapy. She falls in unrequited love with the man she hires to have sex with her, an attachment that causes new shame and pain, but apparently anything is better than the shame of being a spinster.

Too often in our culture a spinster needs a man like a fish needs water. This is part of why I’m so disappointed in Bolick’s self-narration, which barely passes the Bechdel test. Bolick writes page after page about her ex-boyfriends, delving deep into their personalities and relationship dynamics, but she spends only a few paragraphs writing about female friends she’s known for decades, who remain relative ciphers. With the exception of Bolick, the only women who really matter in Spinster are dead. Bolick thus takes the teeth out of the trope by making spinsters into a kind of dream girlfriend for Nathaniel P–type Brooklyn boys: exactly as man-oriented as every other girl, except maybe less interested in commitment.

Throughout Spinster, Bolick defends spinsters in unthreatening, individualistic terms. She accepts the heteronormative assumption that conventional romantic and familial relationships constitute “strong ties” while other forms of relationships are “weak ties,” and she equates being a spinster with prioritizing oneself, not with committing oneself to different but equally demanding forms of love and connection. According to Bolick, spinsterhood is aloneness, and being single “means having nobody to help you make difficult decisions, or comfort you at the end of a bad week.” Even when she writes about Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, a 1915 utopian novel about a communal, matriarchal society of Amazons raising their female children together as one family, her takeaway is incorrigibly individualistic: Bolick zeroes in on the way the women have to sacrifice a measure of “personal joy” for the greater good of their society. For Bolick, the primary lesson of Herland is not the exhilarating potential for new women-oriented or collective forms of social and emotional life, but instead an individual lament that whether you’re in Herland or the United States, you can’t always get all of what you want.

I love Herland, but my own favorite spinster manifesto (which doesn’t appear in Spinster) was written almost half a century earlier, in 1869. It’s a chapter in Louisa May Alcott’s misleadingly titled An Old-Fashioned Girl, a novel about being a youngish woman in Boston (which Bolick once was, but there the resemblance ends). Polly is an unmarried music teacher struggling with loneliness and depression; her friend Fan is an unmarried lady of leisure also struggling with loneliness and depression. When Polly suddenly becomes happier, Fan assumes her good mood must be because she’s falling in love with a man, but Polly corrects her: “No; friendship and good works.” Polly takes Fan to see her new spinster friends, whom she describes as “lively, odd, and pleasant,” and the young women share an improvised indoor picnic (“it’s so much jollier to eat in sisterhood”) and a riotous feminist discussion at the home of Becky and Bess, both artists, who are partners in a Boston marriage. As Polly explains, Becky and Bess

live together, and take care of one another in true Damon and Pythias style. This studio is their home,— they work, eat, sleep, and live here, going halves in everything. They are all alone in the world, but as happy and independent as birds; real friends, whom nothing will part.

Becky is sculpting a giant statue of the woman of the future, “bigger, lovelier, and more imposing than any we see nowadays,” who is “strong-minded, strong-hearted, strong-souled, and strong-bodied.” The women all admire the statue-in-progress and make suggestions. Becky refuses to put a child in the woman’s arms or a man’s hand in her hand, but she puts a ballot box, pen, and broom at her feet. When Kate, an author, announces that one of their mutual female friends is getting a trip to Europe all expenses paid (courtesy of another female friend), everyone celebrates: “It was good to see how heartily these girls sympathized in their comrade’s good fortune. Polly danced all over the room, Bess and Becky hugged one another, and Kate laughed with her eyes full, while even Fanny felt a glow.”

Fanny is astounded at how rich women’s lives can be without men at the center:

she listened, finding it as interesting as any romance to hear these young women discuss their plans, ambitions, successes, and defeats. It was a new world to her. […] [B]elow the light-heartedness each cherished a purpose, which seemed to ennoble her womanhood, to give her a certain power, a sustaining satisfaction, a daily stimulus, that led her on to daily effort, and in time to some success in circumstance or character, which was worth all the patience, hope, and labor of her life.

Spinsterland in 19th-century Boston is not yet a Herland-style utopia. Women still can’t vote, and they work too hard for their money: Fanny observes that “Kate looked sick, tired, and too early old.” But they have “the religion of their sisterhood” to sustain them, and nothing could be stronger than that faith.

It’s hard not to compare Alcott’s grand, broad-shouldered statue symbolizing women’s strength, labor, and potential political power to Bolick’s small silver hood ornament on an unaffordable car. I won’t dwell on what the comparison says about Bolick’s spinster wish. Instead I’ll just say that Alcott writes about spinsters as women of substance, comrades, friends, activists, and insatiable eaters of sardines, whose conversations and shared hopes cause each other’s hearts to glow. And if you want to read a book about spinsters that will inspire you to pursue a purpose in life beyond your own personal wish-fulfillment, you should read Herland or An Old-Fashioned Girl.

When I was first learning how to be a spinster, my mentors were three straight African American women, 10 or 20 years ahead of me, who spent long years of their youth in a small mostly white town in suburban New Jersey. All of them had lives full of friendship, faith, family, community, political purposefulness, significant caregiving responsibilities, dazzling professional success, and, occasionally or eventually, real romance. But they also had lives marked by the demographic reality of blackness in America. None of them had the standard story of most of their white peers: pair off in your 20s or 30s; marry; have kids. From these women I learned to measure singleness in years or even decades, not months. As one of them quipped when I asked about her love life when she was my age, “I know why the caged bird sings.”

These women taught me to question my own entitled white-girl assumptions about relationships and marital status: that marriage (or spinsterhood) is a simple matter of figuring out what you want and waiting for it to happen, or making it happen. They taught me not to self-dramatize or presume, and not to project my own experiences onto others. I remember one of them telling me, clear-eyed and matter-of-fact, “If I’d met someone when I was younger and we’d had kids together, that would have been my life, and I would have had those experiences. But I didn’t, so this is my life instead, and now looking back it’s hard to imagine it any other way.” For them, marital status was less about chasing wishes or fulfilling a destiny and more about making something meaningful with the life you have.

My mentors taught me that friendships are family and friendships are love. One of them told me that even though she’d spent many years in romantic relationships, it was her friendships with women that first taught her about intimacy and caregiving. They also taught me to think systemically, 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. Once I was assigned last place in a grad-student housing draw because I was single and the housing authorities were giving priority to couples because they might need more space. I was bummed out, but my mentor was incensed. “They don’t know your life! Just because you don’t have a boyfriend or girlfriend doesn’t mean you’re always home alone. Anyway you’re all paying the same. You should all be treated the same.” In a way these women taught me a new kind of entitlement: one that insists on the value of my life and relationships, and resists all the ways, large and small, that lives are diminished by the dominance of the couple form.

There are urgent reasons why spinsters need to look beyond the self and resist the system. As Alcott’s insistence on the ballot box suggests, insofar as the conversation about unmarried women remains a conversation about choice and individual temperament and not about politics, it is missing something important. Even though the contingencies of when and whom I marry don’t define my existence, marriage is still an important legal and social category with implications for many practical and symbolic aspects of adult life. Because in our culture, marriage is a choice, but it also isn’t. It’s a rom-com ending and a party with a cake, but it’s also a systemic mechanism that separates the enfranchised from the disenfranchised, the included from the excluded.

And unfortunately, the momentous Obergefell v. Hodges SCOTUS decision remedies some of these injustices while shoring other injustices up. In too many important ways, marriage and the couple form are still the legal and social prerequisites for the sharing of resources and lives, the care of sick, the parenting of children. And this arbitrary conflation of marriage with the commitments and responsibilities of adult life sometimes turns unmarried people into second-class citizens, and devalues many necessary forms of love.

I’m glad gay marriage is now legal. But as a spinster who craves connection and community above all and who has found it outside of the standard couple form, I’ve come to realize that I owe an immeasurable debt to the intersecting groups of people who have historically been barred from the privileges of marriage by law and demography, and have learned to create intimate lives apart from it. In other words, I’m indebted to queer people and to African Americans, and to all who have seen their loves and families treated as nonexistent or pathological, and who have had marriage used as a weapon against them or as a compulsory straight and narrow path to equality. These people are more than “awakeners”: they have done the hard work of loving and world-making in defiance of the powers that be, and all unmarried people benefit from their centuries of emotional and material labor.

For years, queer people have made lives and loves without access to most legal protections or religious rituals. Now in the age of legal gay marriage many queer people are being forced to adopt the traditional form of marriage (regardless of whether it fits the shape of their lives) in order to access health benefits or shared custody, a prospect that is often less than liberating. Meanwhile, from the cruelty of slavery to the cruel “Marriage Cure” of the George W. Bush administration, from the Moynihan report to the million and a half “missing” black men, marriage has been made simultaneously compulsory and unattainable for millions of African Americans whose family formations and most cherished relationships aren’t honored by American society or the state. And there are so many others whom marriage fails to recognize or protect: all whose families are torn apart by citizenship status and national borders; all whose loves and commitments exceed the boundaries of the nuclear family norm.

The author of Spinster champions an individualistic kind of feminism, but she is uninterested in reflecting on the politics of marriage as a system and the way its oppressiveness might prompt privileged people like herself to seek alliances with people she pushes to the margins: poor people, queer people, people of color. And this disturbing marginalization is not an accident. Single black women feature as a kind of cautionary tale in Bolick’s Atlantic article, but in Spinster she repeatedly makes the conscious decision to exclude them altogether. At one point she starts to compare one of her “awakeners” to Billie Holiday, but stops abruptly after a few sentences, informing her reader that it would be “specious” for her to attempt to include black women in her book, because they should have a (separate but equal?) spinster book of their own. Meanwhile, Bolick’s  willfully oblivious defense of the absolute whiteness of her “awakeners” has infuriated every woman of color I know who has read it:

Not until I was driving through my blindingly white hometown did I realize that the only characteristics all five women had in common were a highly ambivalent relationship to the institution of marriage, the opportunity to articulate this ambivalence, and whiteness — each of which, arguably, was inextricable from the rest. During the period I was drawn to — primarily, the turn of the last century — vanishingly few women of color were given the privilege to write and publish and, therefore, speak across the decades.

If Bolick is interested in writing only about pale redheads, she should own this preference and not use words like “vanishing” to try to make it go away. Because the late 19th and early 20th-century period she writes about was full of writing women of color with ambivalent relationships to the institution of marriage: Nella Larsen and Zora Neale Hurston are not exactly obscure writers, and they wouldn’t even require Bolick to look beyond New York City. When Bolick says whiteness was an “inextricable” characteristic of women who wrote ambivalently about marriage, she is perpetuating racism, not describing it.

And the truth is that Bolick didn’t need to do a deep archive dive to find out how women create full lives without being wives. She could have chosen to pay attention to the lives of women of varied classes and colors living in her own city right now. But Bolick’s spinster wish is not political. It is pretty and private and pristine and pale. And this is a problem. As Jessa Crispin has tweeted, “if the pretty people now get the word ‘spinster’ I am comfortable switching over to ‘hag.’” Hag is a splendid word, but I don’t think we need to surrender “spinster.” We still need spinster. We need Anna Howard Shaw Day and the young Princeton women who wore “Spinster-In-Training” T-shirts to protest the Princeton Mom. We need Connie Sun’s wry “Lessons from an Old Maid” at McSweeney’s and Ashley Boney’s bold “I’m a Single Black Girl and I Refuse to be Scared by the Statistics Saying I Will Never Get Married” in xoJane. We need the humane voice of Sara Eckel, who writes so wisely about mid-life loneliness and love’s randomness, and the affectionate spinster-love of The Toast, and the passion of Emily Rapp’s tear-stained love letter to the spinsters who taught her about “Transformation and Transcendence: The Power of Female Friendship.” We need satire and protest and unapologetic in-your-face-stigma and courage and unhinged adoration and matter-of-fact, no-nonsense happiness. We need fierce female loves.

I still cling to the term spinster in the second decade of the 21st century because it serves as a challenge to the way our society still conflates coupledom with love, maturity, and citizenship, while seeing unmarried people as — to quote Justice Kennedy — “condemned to loneliness.” And, to borrow a phrase from second-wave historian Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, I cling to the word because it links me with my spinster sisters throughout history in a shared “female world of love and ritual.” I cling to it and hold it close because, to riff on a refrain from Hilton Als, it was the spinsters who made me.

It was the spinsters who made me. Who made farm-share feasts with 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. Who told me about their abortions. Who bought me a dress for my yet-to-be-adopted daughter. Who made me the aunt of their one-eyed Chihuahua. Who sat next to me in church. Who swayed on the piano bench as they accompanied the gospel choir with a ring on every finger, playing from “sheet music” that was simply a piece of paper saying “Abundantly Blessed in F.” Who burned sage in my apartment and said blessings and jingled bells and burned small sticks of aromatic Panamanian wood to drive out the bad energy after my roommate’s psychotic break. Who came into money unexpectedly and paid off my $65,000 student loans and changed my life forever. Who left me long delirious voicemails on the happiest day of their life with their voice stretched almost to breaking with joy. Who sent me lilies on my birthday (“It’s Heavenly to Be With You” in the language of flowers) and filled my Easter basket and stuffed my Christmas stocking and made me black-eyed peas on New Year’s for good luck. Who invited me over for cava in the garden or vinho verde on the deck. Who invited me to stay with them during a hurricane when my house was shaking. Who were my family and made me their family as they lived with metastatic cancer. Who called me Lovely and Lady and Sweetie-pie and Dear. Whom I called Lovely and Lady and Sweetie-pie and Dear. Who are my readers and editors and muses and collaborators and confidants. Who are my loves. Who know that although in the eyes of the world and the law we are alone, we are not alone.


So often with spinster stories it is the endings that betray us — with their tall handsome boyfriends who appear in the nick of time (as happens in Spinster), their well-tamed shrews and prettified tomboys, their inevitable weddings. Of course I finished the first draft of this essay while attending a glorious wedding in the Catskills on the very same weekend that Ireland voted to legalize gay marriage, and of course I finished the final draft on the weekend that SCOTUS followed suit. Of course I wept with joy when my glowing friend read her wedding vows in the dappled May sunshine and leaned against her new husband with utter trust, and I wept with gratitude when I read the tweets of all the Irish people who traveled #HomeToVote, and I rainbowed my Facebook profile picture along with everybody else. I could feel the tide-like tow of the marriage plot and the ancient satisfactions of the Hollywood happy ending, and I was susceptible to conflicting surges of spinsterish and un-spinsterish feeling. All of this is perfectly predictable and understandable — after all, I’ve written other essays about my love for straight men and wedding vows — but ambivalence is not where this essay is destined to end, because unrelenting spinster endings are too hard-won.

I’ll leave you instead with benedictions from three of my favorite spinster texts, each with a different spin on the spinster and her final fate. I don’t know what the future holds for me and the rest of my spinster sisterhood, but I know I would rejoice to have any of these as my epitaph.

Louisa May Alcott, An Old-Fashioned Girl (1869):
Lest any of my young readers who have honored Maud with their interest should suffer the pangs of unsatisfied curiosity as to her future, I will add for their benefit that she did not marry Will, but remained a busy, lively spinster all her days.

Bette Davis as Charlotte Vale in Now, Voyager (1942):
Don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.

Emily Nussbaum, “Difficult Women,” on a counterfactual version of Sex and the City in which Carrie does not marry (2013):
What if it were the story of a woman who lost herself in her thirties, who was changed by a poisonous, powerful love affair, and who emerged, finally, surrounded by her friends?


Briallen Hopper is a Lecturer in English at Yale.

LARB Contributor

Briallen Hopper is the author of Hard to Love: Essays and Confessions (Bloomsbury, 2019), a Kirkus Best Book of the Year and a CBC Best International Nonfiction Book of the Year. She has been writing for LARB since 2012 and is proud to say that seven of the essays in Hard to Love originally appeared in LARB or its channel Avidly. Thanks to an unexpected shout-out from John Green, her review of The Fault in Our Stars remains the most-clicked piece in LARB history. She is co-editor-in chief of the literary magazine Killing the Buddha, associate editor at the independent press And Other Stories, and assistant professor of creative nonfiction at Queens College, CUNY, where she teaches in the MFA program. She can be found online on Twitter and Instagram and on her website


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