Rebranding the spinsterhood
Why does a single female of a certain age get tagged with 'spinster' status when a man is deemed 'eligible'? Society's attitude needs to change
I woke up with a feeling of panic on my 30th birthday. Not only had I reached this milestone with nary a romantic prospect, but I feared I was staring down the barrel of perpetual singledom.
I busied myself that day by preparing for the booziest of all parties to mark my departure from my 20s. But I couldn't shake a vision of single me in my late 60s; wandering around a ramshackle cottage alone in a housecoat, tending to the feral cats I'd been hoarding, and nattering away to a collection of injured pigeons I'd rescued.
Those images of spinsterhood continued to haunt me for years and prompted a frenetic search for a partner. After all, I'd been a serial monogamist in my late teens and 20s - surely finding another serious relationship in my 30s couldn't be that hard?
Relationships came and went. I closed my online dating accounts and gradually embraced singlehood, until, one day, it hit me: I'd never really been that keen on matrimony or having babies at all.
Blinded by pursuit of perfectionism in every aspect of life, I'd treated both as a box-ticking exercise. Own home - tick. Decent enough career - tick. Mate and procreate - tick.
The cheeky questions about when I'd be getting hitched began to fade. When my late grandfather, still witty at 92, looked up from his armchair shortly before he shuffled off this mortal coil and suggested I could give him a Big Day Out, I said I couldn't because I was a lesbian. That answered that - everyone knew lesbians couldn't get married.
I thought about his laugh to that response when I saw young people queuing earlier this week at garda stations and civic offices for forms to register to vote in this month's marriage equality referendum.
I thought about how close two of my gay friends, who have been together for 20 years, were clamouring for the right to strengthen an institution that I had the luxury of happily ignoring.
Regardless of the referendum's outcome, we've come a long way since an unmarried man in his 40s or 50s with no apparent interest in women was dismissed as a "confirmed bachelor" with a nod and a wink.
Indeed, the word 'bachelor' itself has few negative connotations, especially if prefaced by the adjective 'eligible'. George Clooney was an 'eligible bachelor' right until he got married last year at the tender age of 53.
But Jennifer Aniston, an accomplished, clever, attractive actress who is just seven years younger, is dubbed 'Poor Jen' by the gossip magazines that endlessly speculate about whether her latest relationship has failed or if she's pregnant. As she told a conference on women's issues recently: "Being a woman, our value and worth is basically associated with our marital status or whether or not we have procreated."
More than a handful of magazines have referred to Poor Jen as 'America's Spinster'. The word 'spinster' derives from a medieval description of women who spun thread for a living and were usually unmarried, but has long since become more loaded. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a spinster is "always a derogatory term, referring or alluding to a stereotype of an older woman who is unmarried, childless, prissy, and repressed".
But the word is about to undergo a radical transformation. Chick-lit and romantic films might insist women need marriage to have a happy ending. But a raft of films and books coming out this summer suggest otherwise, celebrating single woman who are not defined by whether they have a boyfriend or ever get married. Nicole Kidman will star in Queen of the Desert, a biopic about Gertrude Bell, the unmarried explorer who travelled 20,000 miles by camel to map the Arabian desert and helped draw the boundaries of what is now modern-day Iraq.
In Far From the Madding Crowd, the new film adaptation of Thomas Hardy's 1874 pastoral novel, Carey Mulligan plays Bathsheba Everdene, who runs a farm she has just inherited from her uncle, and although she attracts three suitors, relishes her independence.
Kate Bolick is never short of suitors either. The author of Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own, a book due out this summer, had lived with a boyfriend in her 20s and appeared destined to get married, until Bolick shied away from the relationship.
The pattern was repeated with another man when she was in her 30s, but she broke off that serious relationship too. She wanted time alone to write and discovered she didn't really know herself in a relationship.
"Being alone is something that can be treasured not feared," she writes.
In 2011, Bolick wrote a long essay for The Atlantic, called 'All The Single Ladies', that examined the reasons for the decline of marriage.
The institution was founded on men's economic dominance, she wrote. Now that women are financially independent, this basis for matrimony no longer applies.
Amid a dearth of middle-class men who are as educated and successful as they are, it's become more difficult for women to 'marry up', which used to be the traditional purpose of marriage. Bolick claims single women were now forced to choose "between deadbeats (whose numbers are rising) and playboys (whose power is growing)".
In Bolick's new book on the subject, she argues that it is time for a rebranding of spinsterhood and challenges the notion that women who eschew marriage in favour of singledom are sad, lonely, and pitiable.
"The single woman has always been stigmatised as a lonely old spinster with too many cats," she writes.
Overhauling the word 'spinster' to mean an independent woman who is self-reliant and enjoys the pleasures of being unattached, doesn't mean forgoing men or marriage forever, Bolick says. It's just time to stop defining women by their romantic status, she believes.
Like Bolick, I too would never discount the possibility of another relationship. In the meantime, I'm content to work hard, walk my dog and enjoy being with my friends and family. I don't have to account to anyone and never have to hand over the remote control. Bring on the housecoat.
Kate Bolick's 'Spinster: Making A Life Of One's Own' is available as a Kindle download. It will be published in Ireland in August.
Alone and happy: 'singles by choice' have no regrets
Marriage has surged in popularity since 1946, when half the adult population was single and Ireland had the highest rate of permanent celibacy in the world. Yet there were more than 92,800 single women living alone in Ireland at the time of the 2011 census, according to CSO figures.
One of the main criticisms of spinsterhood is how women will fare in old age, without a husband or children to care for them. According to new research by Trinity College Dublin, that may rest on whether singlehood is their choice, and their economic status.
Professor Virpi Timonen, a professor of social policy at Trinity, carried out in-depth interviews with 26 single men and women aged from their 50s to their 80s. She discovered that both men and women fell into two groups - those who had chosen singlehood and those who had no opportunity to marry.
Willing singles were more independent and self-fulfilled than those who never had a choice of marital status. The latter group expressed dissatisfaction with their single status. This was particularly acute as they aged - they felt lonely because they didn't have the chance to be a spouse, parent or grandparent.
"A lot of the men in our sample said they ended up as carers of both parents and that carer status meant they were very confined," Timonen says.
"Many of the men and women who didn't choose to be single harboured huge regrets. One said: 'I'm so envious of my peers, because they have grandchildren, they get help from adult children and grandchildren, and here I am in a nursing home and I really regret not having married.' However, some of them had actually met somebody in their later years - the kind of people dating services would write off as hopeless cases."
The dividing line was socio-economic status. The women who chose not get married tended to have higher education, earning potential and a career. They could cultivate a wide range of interests and had a good group of friends. They might have come under pressure to marry and been stigmatised for not doing so, but they had managed to ward off all of that and, for them, the advantages of being single outweighed any potential disadvantages.
"One of the those women said: 'I cannot see any advantage in being married.' She said 'having to be there at 5.30pm with dinner on the table - that was marriage and it would have affected my ability to do my own thing'.
"This was in stark contrast to the second group. They felt they had no choice in this matter in their younger years. Their occupational status was so low they couldn't afford marriage, because when they were younger, marriage equalled heaps of children, and they were not a strong prospect for women. The same sort of pressures exist nowadays on people's marriageability."