“There still exists little organized sense of what a woman’s biography or autobiography should look like,” Carolyn G. Heilbrun wrote in her 1988 classic,...

“There still exists little organized sense of what a woman’s biography or autobiography should look like,” Carolyn G. Heilbrun wrote in her 1988 classic, Writing A Woman’s Life, noting, “Even less has been told of the life of the unmarried woman.” One can only hope that Kate Bolick‘s Spinster is a sign that, nearly thirty years later, the circumstances Heilbrun described are, at long last, about to change.

Bolick burst onto the national scene when her article in The Atlantic, entitled “All the Single Ladies,” went viral in November 2011. But Spinster is a departure from her reportage rather than a continuation or a sequel– a biographical/autobiographical/sociological mash-up that is engaging, observant, and fiercely critical. Examining the socio-historical phenomenon of the feme sole, Bolick mines her own experiences and the lives she’s read about to examine how, as Heilbrun suggested, we use the stories of other lives to navigate our own. “Taken together,” Bolick writes of the people whose lives interested her, “they were a dynasty of adopted uncles and aunts adults who weren’t my parents who opened portals to lives I couldn’t have imagined until they showed me how.”

This is a process of which we are often unconscious as it’s happening, but which becomes visible in hindsight. It is also, I believe, one of the great values of reading biography: the ability of these stories of other people’s lives to open possibilities within our own. It’s a dynamic not limited to stories of the lives of women, but it does appear to hold particular resonance for female readers, perhaps due to the relative cultural scarcity of representations of unconventional female lives. In her quest to become a writer, Bolick notes, “Maeve Brennan served a psychological purpose for me. By climbing into her point of view and trying it on for size I was cobbling together a template for my own future.”

Spinster provides compelling evidence of both the personal and collective power of stories and our use of them. It also reveals something of the life of the unmarried woman, elegantly illuminating an experience that has, up to now, been culturally undervalued and, often, biographically ignored.


Oline Eaton is a doctoral researcher at King’s College London. She is writing a biography of Jackie Onassis and has written extensively on the subjects of biography, celebrity, and gossip, and the flow of stories through culture. Her work can be found at FindingJackie.com.

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