The book chronicles Bolick’s personal and professional life from her childhood in Massachusetts through her years as a young writer and editor in New York City. Along the way, she’s inspired by five dead women she terms her “spinster awakeners”: New Yorker essayist Maeve Brennan, Vogue columnist Neith Boyce, Bohemian poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, novelist Edith Wharton, and feminist writer and theorist Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Despite the title of her book, none of Bolick’s “spinster awakeners” was a lifelong spinster; all married at some point, with varying degrees of success. A more dedicated spinster — and equally attractive role model — is another writer whom Bolick mentions only glancingly: Louisa May Alcott.
Alcott was active, bold and adventurous. She did not shy away from her single status; she ardently embraced it. When her elder sister married in 1860, 27-year-old Louisa remarked: “I’d rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe.” Louisa had never been satisfied with prescribed female roles. As a child, she preferred boys’ games and was an unrepentant tomboy; as an adult, she strove for the freedom that men had by birthright but women achieved only with concerted effort. She knew from bitter experience that depending on men could lead to disaster. Her father, Bronson Alcott, was incapable of supporting his family, so that task fell to his wife and daughters. By the time Louisa was in her 20s, she was the family’s primary breadwinner, taking any job that was offered – teaching, sewing, domestic service – but her real love was writing. She began publishing at age 18, selling poems, fairy stories and romances.
When the nation plunged into Civil War, it inadvertently opened doors for millions of American women. With men away at the battlefields, women ran farms and businesses, entered government service and raised money for the troops; a few even disguised themselves and fought as soldiers. As a single woman, Louisa was free to answer the call. An ardent abolitionist who “longed to see a war,” she saw her chance to earn money, experience adventure and serve the Union cause. In November 1862, she applied to be a war nurse, and in December, she left her home in Concord, Mass., for the Union Hotel Hospital in Georgetown. It was a declaration of service and independence.
Three days after her arrival in Georgetown, the hospital was inundated by wounded soldiers from the Battle of Fredericksburg. Louisa dressed wounds, applied poultices, dispensed food and medicine, handed the surgeons their saws for amputation and their needles for surgery. She washed filthy and bloodied naked bodies, spoon-fed those who lacked the strength to eat, and performed what she called “the saddest and hardest duty a nurse has to do” – writing letters to the family and friends of soldiers who died in her care. By mid-January, she had fallen ill and was ordered to bed; it was strongly suggested that she return to Concord. Like a good soldier, she wanted to stay at her post. But when Hannah Ropes, the matron of the hospital, died a few days later, Louisa was ready to go home.
All that winter, Louisa fought the typhoid fever that threatened her life. By spring, she had recovered and was writing a series of stories based on her nursing experience for the anti-slavery newspaper Commonwealth. These stories proved so popular that in August they were published as a book, “Hospital Sketches.” It was her first bestseller.
The success of “Hospital Sketches” meant an immediate demand for her work; never again would she have to teach or take in sewing. And she continued to supply her readers with works that celebrated single women. In 1868, she published “Happy Women,” a paean to “all the busy, useful, independent spinsters I know, for liberty is a better husband than love to many of us.” Written as an advice column for young ladies in the New York Ledger, “Happy Women” ends with an overt challenge to the prevailing ethos of the day: “My sisters, don’t be afraid of the words, ‘old maid,’ for it is in your power to make this a term of honor, not reproach.”
As a working woman with a family to support, Louisa knew she had to write in response to market demands. In 1867, the Boston publisher Thomas Niles asked her for a girls’ book. It was not a genre she admired, and she was unenthusiastic about the project but agreed to try. Shortly after the publication of “Happy Women,” she began her most famous work, “Little Women,” an idealized rendition of her family and youth. The father of her fictional family is initially absent, serving as a chaplain to soldiers, leaving a mother and four daughters in charge. “Little Women” challenges the doctrine of its time by depicting a world run by capable, intelligent and virtuous women. Moreover, they do not see marriage as the ultimate achievement of a woman’s life. Jo, the lively heroine of “Little Women,” turns down a marriage proposal from a boy she does not love and supports herself until the right man comes along. Marmee, the book’s matriarch, stoutly declares: “Better be happy old maids than unhappy wives,” though Alcott softens this position somewhat by ultimately finding worthy husbands for her characters.
Bolick and Alcott both attempt to reclaim the term “spinster” from its negative connotations. Alcott does so more directly. In “Little Women,” she breaks off the narrative for several pages to defend single women: “Don’t laugh at the spinsters, dear girls, for often very tender, tragic romances are hidden away in the hearts that beat so quietly under the sober gowns, and many silent sacrifices of youth, health, ambition, love itself, make the faded faces beautiful in God’s sight.”
“Spinster,” on the other hand, hews so closely to the trajectory of the romantic quest that we expect it to end precisely as it does: with Bolick meeting the right man. Though she leaves open the possibility that she may not settle down, she seems to prefer spinsterhood more as a theoretical construct than as a way of life.
So are millennials simply delaying marriage, like Bolick’s spinster awakeners, or are they eschewing marriage altogether, like the redoubtable Louisa May Alcott? No one is quite sure.
What is certain is that marriage patterns are extremely sensitive to economic trends. During these insecure economic times, it is not surprising that many people are delaying marriage, just as they did during the Great Depression. What is curious is that spinsterhood continues to have a negative connotation — an aura of loneliness and disappointment — while bachelorhood does not.
Why should it be assumed that the bachelor chooses his life, while the spinster has it thrust upon her? Again, the answer is simple economics: Men make more money than women. Their greater wealth allows them greater freedom and greater ability to arrange their lives. In some ways, spinsterhood has economic benefits for women: Single women, on average, have higher incomes than married women of similar age and educational level. Yet women, on average and regardless of marital status, still earn about 78 percent of what men earn.
It is not spinsterhood per se that is scorned, but the narrowness of choice that spinsterhood traditionally implies. As Jane Austen, whom W.H. Auden called “an English spinster of the middle class,” remarked in “Emma”: “It is poverty only which makes celibacy contemptible to a generous public! A single woman with a very narrow income must be a ridiculous, disagreeable, old maid! the proper sport of boys and girls; but a single woman of good fortune is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as anybody else.”
So long as men make more money than women, bachelors will earn more respect and will lead more comfortable lives than spinsters. It is this inequality that all of us — male and female, single and married — should take pains to eradicate.