All the single ladies
Once upon a time, spinsters were figures of derision, but thanks to a new book, they are seen as central to a new social and cultural elite
Published 20/03/2016 | 02:30
It's not that long ago that the unmarried woman was viewed with suspicion, if not outright hostility. Levelled often as an insult, the word spinster conjured up a vision of a sexless, bitter being; a barren husk both emotionally and physically.
In 20th-century Ireland, the spinster was in a sub-class of her own in a Catholic culture where repression and desire were suppressed. Yet she wasn't alone; for most of the last century, Ireland had the lowest levels of marriage compared with other countries.
In the last few decades, there has been a reboot, thanks to a cultural shift. Kicked off in the 1960s by Mary Tyler Moore, the spinster was carried by glam on-screen bachelorettes towards a kinder place.
Still, the fact remained, unmarried women were figures of pity, while their male counterparts were playboys.
Sex and the City levelled out this playing field, turning singledom from a grisly fate into an aspirational lifestyle choice. Yet for all its groundbreaking fabulosity, Sex and the City's four sexual libertines are starting to look a bit… outdated.
Never mind the leggings and scrunchies; their prudishness about bisexuality and certain sexual kinks went out with the Juicy Couture tracksuit.
And as most women of a certain age know all too well, single life isn't an unending succession of flings, shopping and cocktail bars.
The truth is that if you've been single for any amount of time, the tumultuous dates and flings have likely ebbed away, leaving Netflix, a nagging gnaw of loneliness and a sense of personal agency in their place.
It's not the being alone that rankles; it's the society that still see weddings and marriage as some kind of meritocracy, or as a milestone in life that has to be hit by hook or crook that is the problem.
In place of Carrie Bradshaw and her cohorts, there now are other, even cooler role models for the single woman.
We now have Ilana and Abbi, the irrepressible characters of Comedy Central's Broad City as role models: two women who are unapologetically single and devoted more to their friendship than any sexual partnership.
It's time, in other words, for another version. Enter Rebecca Traister with her book All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation.
A mix of socio-history, memoir and cultural comment, Traister's message is resoundingly clear: we are now living in the age of the single woman.
What's more, the book has been already praised as a landmark account of the single-woman experience.
"For women under 30, the likelihood of being married has become astonishingly small: today, only around 20pc of Americans aged 18-29 are wed, compared to nearly 60pc in 1960," notes Traister.
"The most radical of feminist ideas - the disestablishment of marriage - has been so widely embraced as to have become habit, drained of its political intent but ever-more potent insofar as it has refashioned the course of average female life."
Traister also argues that in making up 23pc of the electorate, the single woman is becoming the most powerful voter in 2016.
In Ireland, we may not command such power yet; certainly, few politicians gave us the nod in their recent manifestos, preferring instead to focus on families.
But we are swelling in numbers nonetheless: the 2011 Census also indicated that there are now 392,000 one-person households in Ireland.
According to the market research firm Euromonitor International, the number of people living alone globally is sky-rocketing, rising from about 153 million in 1996 to 277 million in 2011 - an increase of around 80pc in 15 years.
In pinpointing the new singlehood phenomenon, Traister argues that, for women at either end of the spectrum, marriage is no longer seen as a viable choice; for middle-class women, other options - creativity, travel, career - are available to make up a full and interesting life.
Yet on the other end of the socio-economic spectrum, domestic violence and high unemployment rates make marriage look like a less appealing option.
Traister also explores the idea of female friendship in her book, too, and it's clear that for many single women, friends provide the emotional and psychological support once asked from a romantic partner.
"Single women deal with their intense dependence on friendship in different ways," argues Briallen Hopper in New York Magazine.
"Some of us rely on a best friendship that's as complicated as a love affair, or a few close friendships that are as familiar as a family."
Traister's book comes after two other significant accounts of spinsterhood.
In her book The Art of Sleeping Alone, French magazine editor Sophie Fontanel recalls how, aged 27, she took the decision to stay celibate for 12 years.
And somewhere in the middle of her celibate spell, she suspected that more women would like to take a breather from the sex and relationship grind than one might suspect.
"All the French women I know are the queens of sexual activity," she told the Wall Street Journal. "But I'm sure French women are very big liars."
Last year, Katie Bolick published the book Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own on the back of a well-received essay on singledom in The Atlantic.
Her central thesis was that spinsters shouldn't be looked down on in society, as they were several years ago.
Those looking for a comforting account of a single woman licking her war wounds may need to look elsewhere though.
Instead, Bolick recounts the lives of five spinsters from previous years (of which, one is Irish-born writer Maeve Brennan).
All appeared to have full, interesting and opportunity-rich lives as single people… their lives lead Bolick, once a serial monogamist, to explore her own ambivalence about marriage.
The book is a paean to those comfortable with their unencumbered status, yet even Bolick acknowledges that we still make assumptions about the agency of women's life choices, even if the myriad pleasures and possibilities of solo life are very much there for the taking.
Make no mistake; Traister, Bolick and their ilk are not arguing that singlehood is better or more life-enhancing than coupledom.
Rather, they'd like to see singlism abolished, and singledom seen as less of a bold, transgressive choice than merely dealing with the hand in life that one is dealt.
For that's all that most of us are only ever really doing, isn't it?