What Does It Mean to Be a 'Spinster'?

Until recently, the image we associated with the word "spinster" was fairly universal: a bottled-up woman in a high-neck shirt, hair pulled into a tight bun. So it was a good sign of progress when the term was discarded and replaced with "single woman." With an interesting career, great apartment and lots of cocktail-party invitations, this new archetype enjoyed a life of freedom and fun, even if she sometimes imbibed a few too many cosmo-tinis.

Now, author Kate Bolick is attempting to revive the more antiquated term. In her new book, Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own, Bolick writes of her "spinster wish" that was inspired by five strong-willed women writers of the past, including poet Edna St. Vincent Millay and New Yorker columnist Maeve Brennan. Though none were lifelong spinsters, their lives are characterized by both gravitas and independence, making them an inspiring contrast to all the old stereotypes.

Bolick writes about spinsterdom as a firm choice. She and her muses not only have interesting careers and the means to support themselves, they also have the power of refusal with men -- these women could have married, but they chose a different path. But for many singles, it's a bit more complicated than that.

Television writer Gina Fattore also chose spinsterhood, as she recounts in a terrific TED talk she gave earlier this year. Some of her reasons are similar to Bolick's -- she wanted to focus on her career and it worked; Fattore has written scripts for many popular shows such as Dawson's Creek, Californication, Gilmore Girls, Masters of Sex and Parenthood.

But she also had another reason: She didn't think the more conventional narrative -- get married, have kids -- was available to her.

Since she was a young girl, Fattore loved analyzing stories, and when she was in junior high she noticed that love stories had a constant:

It occurred to me that all stories about falling in love had the same catalyst: the girl's prettiness. Now there was some wiggle room here: the pretty girl in a falling-in-love story could a blonde with a hot body or a she could be brunette with a hot body, but on TV and in the movies and even in most books the pretty part was not negotiable.

For various reasons, Fattore didn't see herself meeting this standard, and while I'm sure Fattore has since noticed that in real life women who don't conform to Hollywood beauty ideals get married all the time, the point is the revelation didn't cause her to despair. Instead, she simply chose a different story -- one that had worked out nicely for a lot of women she admired, such as Jane Austen, Florence Nightingale and Oprah:

In every way that mattered at the time, the prospect of growing up to be a spinster actually held a lot of hope and promise. It didn't seem like a tragic story or a pitiful one. It seemed like the key to a better life.

Of course, many single women and men don't consciously decide to live on their own--it's just how things have worked out. When this is a case, it can be more difficult to feel empowered by your situation. After all, if it's not a choice, aren't you just a hapless victim, a slave to the universe's whims?

No. A recent essay by Briallen Hopper explains this distinction beautifully. In the Los Angeles Review of Books, she describes how three African-American women, ten to twenty years her senior, taught her how to be a single woman. Her mentors, she explains, face demographic realities that make longtime spinsterhood a fairly common occurrence in their community -- and thus not something they took too personally:

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.

In my own writing, I've often made distinctions between people who are single by choice and those who are not. But I sometimes wonder if this is a false comparison. Most people who are seeking a relationship have chosen their singlehood at some point -- by ending a relationship or by simply not pursuing a particular one. And I suspect there are very few in the single-by-choice camp who aren't at least open to the idea that they might one day happen upon someone who is worth the effort.

In every area of our life -- work, health, family -- we're all masters of our destinies, and we're all victims of circumstance. Singlehood doesn't have to be a choice or a curse. It can simply be what is happening now: a good life, but one that is also subject to change.