April 30, 2015 6:40 AM EDT



In 1892, Elizabeth Cady Stanton delivered a famous speech called “The Solitude of Self.” At 77, Stanton was retiring as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. She declared, “No matter how women prefer to lean, to be protected and supported, nor how much men desire to have them do so, they must make the voyage of life alone.” Equal rights for women were important, she argued, because essential aloneness is a human condition: “There is a solitude which each and every one of us has always carried with him, more inaccessible than the ice cold mountains, more profound than the midnight sea; the solitude of self.” Stanton’s emphasis on women as individuals, who must rely on themselves, was revolutionary in its time.

One hundred and twenty-three years later, Kate Bolick’s new book, Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, might seem quaint. “Whom to marry, and when will it happen–these two questions define every woman’s existence,” Bolick writes, in an opening sentence that could have been written a century ago. Bolick herself suggested that the premise is outdated in the 2011 story for the Atlantic that inspired this book. As she noted then, demographics are shifting: American women are marrying less, marrying older and delaying or forgoing having children. We are, it seems, doing fine by ourselves.

You might not know it from the recent and hugely popular canon of books that take on contemporary women’s existence. But Spinster is not a manifesto in the vein of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. Nor is it straight memoir, like Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl. It is generational, though, and it’s personal, chronicling Bolick’s journey from romantic girl, imagining whom she might marry, to “spinster,” which could be hashtagged in winking irony. On her way, Bolick is inspired by five writers she deems “awakeners” (a term she borrows from Edith Wharton): Neith Boyce, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edith Wharton and Maeve Brennan. “The only characteristics all five women had in common were a highly ambivalent relationship to the institution of marriage, the opportunity to articulate this ambivalence, and whiteness,” she explains. Gilman published “The Yellow Wall-Paper” in 1892; two years later she left her husband and daughter and began touring as a feminist speaker. Boyce, a playwright and culture columnist, proudly declared in an 1898 issue of Vogue that she was a “bachelor girl.” Millay, who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1923, at the age of 31, remains famous for her single years–and many lovers of both sexes–in Greenwich Village. Brennan wrote essays for the New Yorker during the 1950s. All of these women were decades ahead of their respective eras in terms of attitudes toward marital convention. Bolick writes, “These charismatic radicals felt like century-old emissaries of my own emotional storm. To break with the past and invent a new future was a rebellion I wanted to get behind.”

Perhaps some will find it curious that she had to go back in time to find inspiration. After all, there are increasing numbers of contemporary single women. I’m one of them. At 41, I am, like Bolick, ambivalent about marriage and happily making a life of my own. Unlike Bolick, however, who describes herself as a “serial monogamist,” I’ve spent most of my adult life alone. Friends say I just haven’t met the right person, but I haven’t learned how to hold on to my sense of self when I’m part of a couple. I need my solitude; I’m more self-assured by myself. I wrote about my life as a single aunt in the recent anthology Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids. I relate to Bolick; I’ve also been inspired by the lives of writers who came before me. In high school, when I fell in love with Millay’s sonnets, I longed for her bohemian life in New York. More recently I’ve been drawn to the model of Mavis Gallant, who eschewed marriage and children for a writer’s life in Paris. (She died last year.)

Our desire for role models is not surprising: In Spinster, Bolick refers to a fascinating 1986 study by social psychologists Hazel Markus and Paula Nurius that stressed the value of the imagined future in determining identity. Of special importance are “possible selves”–ideas about who we want to be, or are afraid of becoming. Markus observes that women in particular “are very focused on their possible selves.” We all need awakeners.

Bolick’s Victorian awakeners resisted marriage at a time before women ran FORTUNE 500 companies or held seats on the Supreme Court. And yet the conventions they defied still exist; single women over a certain age continue to be stigmatized. In conversation with those late literary ladies, Bolick finally realizes that “the question I’d long posed to myself–whether to be married or single–is a false binary.” “You’ve never been married?” people ask me, with a look that vacillates between pity and surprise. “But you’re a catch!” others say, as if it’s never occurred to them that I don’t want to be caught.

In 15th century Europe, “spinsters” were girls (usually unmarried) who spun thread for a living, Bolick explains. It was only in colonial America that the term took on the negative connotation of “old maid.” Spinster may not be revelatory, but it is a pleasing, intelligent book. Bolick’s minibiographies of her five awakeners are captivating, and she is great company on the page–perhaps she will prove to be an awakener for a new generation. Will spinster find a new life too? “A wholesale reclamation of the word spinster is a tall order,” Bolick says. “My aim is more modest: to offer it up as shorthand for holding on to that in you which is independent and self-sufficient, whether you’re single or coupled.” It’s a message as appealing as Stanton’s “solitude of self.”

Holt is the author of the novel You Are One of Them

This appears in the May 11, 2015 issue of TIME.

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