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Book Review: Spinster by Kate Bolick (2015)

What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘spinster’? Do you picture an old maid, doused in stray cat hair, cloistered in her attic? Or a bag lady spewing nonsense at strangers on street corners? Interestingly, the term was once positively connoted, and designated honourable single women who spun thread to earn their livelihood. Back in the thirteenth-century, it was actually the male equivalent that was derogatory, since ‘bachelor’ meant a man without a master’s degree in France. How times have changed.

In her hybrid memoir-biography, journalist Kate Bolick aims to unshackle the term ‘spinster’ from its negative image in the contemporary imagination. With the meticulousness of an archivist, Bolick authoritatively interlaces tales of her own career and personal growth with the history of five, mainly forgotten, female writers who lived their lives as they pleased, notwithstanding the last century’s restrictive sexual politics. The author dubs these women her “awakeners” and recounts how their bravery to fly in the face of conventionalism helped steer the course of her own ‘unconventional’ husbandless existence.

Despite the many decades separating Bolick from her heroines, it is frustrating to learn that reigning attitudes towards marriage and childbearing have steadfastly remained almost identical. To this day, women who fail to tie the knot are viewed with suspicion, as are those who resist the pressure to succumb to motherhood. Just last week Gadgette editor Holly Brockwell was harassed on social media after admitting she never wanted to reproduce in a BBC article. As Bolick says, it is not until women are relieved of these culturally endorsed expectations that we will finally achieve true gender equality.

Following its release earlier this year, Spinster has landed a spot on the New York Times bestseller list and has rightly been hailed as an important work of social criticism. The book is ablaze with thoughtful observations and draws on myriad references – from US census statistics to etymology – providing readers with fodder for sparkling dinner party conversation. At once an honest meditation on Bolick’s struggles and an elegant feminist manifesto, Spinster taps into issues at the heart of our modern conscience with candour, style and verve.


Written by Yasmin Omar

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