In her late 30s, Kate Bolick realised that she might never marry. Rather than being a cause for despair, as it is often depicted, the American journalist found contentment in this realisation.
She penned a 10,000 word essay on the subject examining marriage and relationships through the prism of feminism, societal change and the different roles of men and women. She challenged the notion that being single is the worst thing that could happen to a woman.
It was The Atlantic’s cover story in September 2011 and was published online in November. To say her conclusion, that many women can and will thrive alone, struck a chord is an understatement of epic proportions.
Her essay became The Atlantic’s second most popular story for the year, quickly gathered 30,000 Facebook likes, sparked more comment pieces than Bolick has ever managed to read, garnered her a book deal and formed the basis of a television series.
My first two questions for Bolick, who will be visiting Australia next month for the All About Women event in Sydney, are obvious but I ask anyway.
Why did the piece resonate to the extent that it did? And was she expecting it?
“The reason it’s so provocative is because as a society we have always been threatened by single women. We think of women as wives and mothers foremost,” Bolick explains. “It doesn’t make sense rationally because there are so many of us [who aren’t wives and mothers] but I think it hits some primal fear about gender roles.”
Comparing the tag ‘Bachelor’ to ‘Spinster’ neatly illustrates the different assumptions we make about single men versus single women. A bachelor is a fun-loving man unwilling to settle down. A spinster is a lonely woman who can’t get a man.
The feedback Bolick received after exploring this topic so comprehensively was overwhelming.
“The first wave of feedback was negative and angry. It was weird and scary I felt really sad for these men who felt they had to lash out at me. I got death threats,” she says.
There was also pushback from women.
“Lots of women in the South, where it’s still a traditionally-oriented place said ‘We love being married’. But predominately I heard from people who thanked me for speaking to their life.”
A few weeks ago The Atlantic re-shared her article and despite four years having passed in the interim, it sparked an almost identical wave of feedback. “I was flooded with emails and it felt like it was 2011 all over again,” she says.
So little has changed? “Our society is organised around the nuclear family unit and dismantling that or taking it in a different direction, is threatening,” Bolick says.
Her first book Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own will be published later this year.
“My book editors wanted me to turn the article into a book but I felt I’d said enough,” she says. “The book is a history of single women in America. It’s part-memoir and follows the lives of five women who have influenced me. My hope is that because there is so much interest in this conversation readers will appreciate something more layered.”
She says there are parallels between what women are dealing with now and what they were dealing with at the end of the 19th century with regards to work and study.
“There is a timelessness to the conversation when women speak in a feminist way, consciously or not, about their own independence,” she says.
Having spent so much time researching the history of women’s liberation, does the pace of change frustrate her?
“It makes me understand how unpredictable progress is. History moves in cycles and we have come so far but progress is always slow,” Bolick says.
Momentum, however, is gathering around the subject of feminism which she credits to the internet, the reach of women like Beyonce and Taylor Swift and a critical mass of women like her, who are now in a position to shift the conversation.
“Right now we are having a big moment for feminism. Part of it is because women of my generation are now old enough to make ourselves heard,” she says. “Our mums were feminists of the second wave and there is a groundswell of interest because of the sheer number of women with careers, degrees and independent lives.”
The fact pop culture is choosing to reflect the ideals of feminism is very powerful, as is the visibility of female icons like Beyonce openly embracing it.
In terms of progressing beyond the antiquated view that without a diamond ring or a family, a woman has somehow failed, Bolick sees positive change ahead.
“The rise and visibility of liberal values and same sex marriage has done wonders for making people thinking about less conventional ways of living their lives,” she says. “It’s created a conversation in critiquing expectations which has been helpful.”
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