The Single Woman: From Spinster to Self-Partnered

The Single Woman: From Spinster to Self-Partnered


“Are we allowed to talk about the fact that you’re going to turn 30?” 

“This is really interesting. So I was like, why does everyone make such a fuss about turning 30, this is not a big deal. Bla bla bla. Cut to 29, and I’m like oh my god, I feel so stressed and anxious. And I realized it’s because there is suddenly this bloody influx of subliminal message around if you have not built a home, if you do not have a husband, if you do not have a baby, and you are turning 30, and you’re not in some incredibly secure stable place in your career and you’re still figuring things out, there’s still this incredible amount of anxiety.” 

–  Emma Watson in conversation with Paris Lees 1 


Historically, women have been subjected to tremendous social pressure to get married. In the earliest days of colonized America, marriage was a matter of survival, not only for women but for society. As members of the fragile colonies in British North America, women were valuable as objects of reproduction who bore the responsibility of continuing and expanding the population. Only when married was it acceptable for a couple to reproduce. Marriage was an inevitable factor of a woman’s greater purpose. At the time, childbearing often outweighed the importance of a mother’s safety or was at least so important that most women were willing to take the risk to bear as many children as they could in their lifetime. After 1700, most immigrants to Colonial America were unmarried indentured servants.2 Only servants were expected to stay unmarried. If not servants, unmarried women were generally not much more than a drain on society.3

With the nineteenth century came the “cult of domesticity,” otherwise known as the “cult of true womanhood” as famously proposed by Catharine Beecher amongst other intellectuals of the time.4 During the Victorian era, there was a widespread idea that while men pursued a life in the public sphere, a woman’s sphere of influence was in the home. “The cult of womanhood” revolved around the virtues a woman was to possess if she was going to make a good home-maker. If a woman had no husband or family, aside from having no economic provider outside the home, she had no sphere of influence, and therefore no legitimate way of asserting any form of control.5 

In each of the world wars, with men deployed overseas, American women took to work. By the 1950s, single women in the workforce had been a crucial component of US victory in both wars, but after the chaos of World War II, society was concerned with regaining domestic and economic stability. Traditional gender roles were reinforced within the “nuclear family,” and by the 1950s, the majority of American families were able to return to living off of a sole breadwinner.6 

The women’s rights movement would gain traction within the next two decades. The so-called “second wave” of feminism of the 1960s and ‘70s was rooted in the frustrations of college-educated mothers whose discontent pushed their daughters to seek an abrupt break with the tranquil models of life pictured in American popular culture. women before them.7

The third wave of feminism, made possible by the economic and professional power achieved by the women of the second wave, started in the mid-1990s. After the second phase of feminism, women grew up with the expectation of achievement and were aware of the barriers presented to them by sexism, racism, and classism.8 It is widely believed that the fourth wave of feminism, with a focus on sexual harassment, rape culture, and body shaming, started in 2012.9 Given the evolution of the feminist cause over the years, the idea that a woman shouldn’t work and should instead get married now feels outdated and irrelevant. Women outnumber men in college. Many of us work and are expected to make enough money to support ourselves. But still, few women feel comfortable being single by choice. 

In her 2016 book, Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, Kate Bolick recounts her life over more than two decades as a deliberately single woman, beginning with the death of her mother to cancer when Bolick was nineteen.10 In the midst of grief, Bolick was forced to consider her life in a serious light. Realizing that she didn’t want to die at the ripe age of forty-two (as her mother did) without knowing who she was outside of her relationships, she spent the next decades avoiding marriage (despite many steady boyfriends and a proposal). Bolick’s life project was to commit to exploring and understanding herself before turning to anyone else. “Back then,” she told me, “I was prioritizing my career and creative aspects of myself. I was just branded as a quirky alterna girl. That’s who I was. Now, that’s become what all girls are encouraged to be.” 11 

Kate Bolick made it to forty, being, for the most part, happily single.


“I never believed in the I’m happy single spiel. I was like, this is spiel, this is totally spiel… It took me a long time, but I’m very happy. I call it being self-partnered.”

-Emma Watson 12 


To say that a person can partner with the self is objectively silly. “I am personally not into the term self-partnered,” commented Bolick. “To me, partnering and marriage are real things. Making commitments to other people—that’s what that’s about.”13 The idea that one should commit to the self as one would to another person seems off. As a noun, single denotes something distinct from another, something uncombined, that can stand on its own. When we speak of a “single” thing, we do so in reference to an individual complete in itself. A partner functions as a part of a whole, but a single person or thing is supposed to be a whole in and of her/his self. That Watson could use the word self-partnered and not get laughed at on the spot is less a virtue of her star power and vision than a byproduct of a society accustomed to labels and increasingly infatuated with the self. 

It is arguably the rising cult of the self, spearheaded by the phenomenon of self-care, that has primed some of us to listen to, and even seriously contemplate the idea of self-partnership. Coined in the 1950s, self-care was originally intended to describe activities that would allow patients who otherwise had little autonomy to preserve their physical independence.14 At the time, mental health patients were encouraged to practice self-care by simply exercising or grooming themselves. By the 1960s, academics in the field of psychology began recommending self-care to workers in emotionally draining or high-risk careers. Firefighters, trauma therapists, and social workers alike were often encouraged to address their physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual needs by eating nutritious food, getting adequate sleep, enjoying nature, and engaging in spiritual pursuits.15

It wasn’t until the rise of the women’s movement and the civil rights movement in the 1970s that self-care morphed into a political act. Seeing that poverty was correlated with poor health, activists encouraged individuals and communities to be involved in their own “health promotion.” Medical providers were at the time hostile toward reproductive rights and doctors widely dismissed the female body as “inherently sick.”16 Under the premise of self-care, women’s liberation activists started opening their own clinics designed for female needs. The patriarchal medical system of the time also neglected people of color, who turned to self-care as a way to reclaim autonomy over their bodies. The Black Panthers began advertising self-care as an essential mechanism of resilience for all citizens confronting repeated systemic racism. In her 1988 book, A Burst of Light, activist Audre Lorde wrote a sentence that became a manifesto for self-care among Black women: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”17

The political push toward self-care coincided with the rise of the “wellness” trend, one that would eventually dissociate self-care from its activist purpose. While self-care was touted as a matter of survival, wellness was about improving a person’s quality of life, often ameliorating what was already okay. As fitness and wellness lifestyles entered public discourse and became commercialized in the 1980s and 1990s, self-care became a word used in reference to yoga and deep tissue massages. But the term self-care only truly made it the mainstream after the 2016 American election. With Donald Trump as president-elect, non-citizens who had established a life in the United States faced the threat of deportation, minority groups were afraid for their rights, women had to grapple with an alleged rapist coming into office. To cope, Lorde’s attitude about self-care as self-preservation was adopted by many, even those most protected in US society. Self-care became a form of escapism easily accessible to anyone who had the means to indulge in or purchase wellness. 

Regardless of its intention, self-care, as we know it today, feels inextricably linked with the act of pampering. To disengage from civic life, a lot of people turn to exercise, meditation, and any other product or service intended to bolster their health and well-being. The commodification of self-care under the umbrella of wellness capitalizes on blurring the lines between self-preservation and self-indulgence. Lorde’s vision of self-care has been gentrified and de-radicalized. But what if this growing infatuation with the self is, in its own way, an act of preservation? 

I suspect that our willingness to buy into wellness, self-care, and even self-partnering is linked to a faith crisis across a whole generation. Society has always offered people consistent ways to go about feeling whole. If not through marriage and family, then one could look to religion, public service, charity, and any other number of institutions for meaning in times of need. But we don’t know what to believe in anymore. Divorce rates skyrocketed amongst our parents. Religious figures around the country have been unmasked as pedophiles. The President has declared war on the media, and the people have engaged in a war of the president. The #MeToo movement showed us that atrocities happen behind closed doors even in the most aspirational of industries. The institutions we have traditionally looked to on our path to fulfillment have fallen before the eyes of millennials, who, left with nothing to believe in, are forced to find meaning within themselves. 

Being single can push us to search within ourselves. Not having a partner sounds more appealing than ever before as it becomes increasingly acceptable to invest time, money, and energy in cultivating the temple of the self. Relationships with other people are consuming. To choose to be on your own is to redirect your energy. If you are in partnership with yourself, you are constantly negotiating with yourself, relating to yourself in the ways that you would be with a partner were you to have one. Emma Watson’s conviction that happiness can be found in self-partnering says something not only about how we understand relationships and the single vs. partnered paradigm but about the newfound potential for fulfillment that we are starting to see within ourselves. 

“Your moment is allowing you to question relationships,” said Bolick. “Not as a result of personal family trauma, but because the cultural messaging that you’re getting is encouraging you. And that’s really cool.”18 There’s something promising about the term self-partnered in how seamlessly it fits into the lexicon of self-care. The word transforms the condition of being unmarried and uncoupled from a relationship status into a living, breathing, experience with the potential to grow and evolve. While ‘single’ feels like a static word, ‘self-partnered’ is an expansive one. It implies a lifelong quest that could be the most fulfilling of your life.

But self-partnered as a term raises some inevitable concerns. In presenting self-partnership as an alternative to singledom, Watson unconsciously perpetuates the idea that there is something wrong with being single. “Self-partnering is still operating under the umbrella of coupledom as what should be happening by describing itself in relation to coupledom,” said Bolick.19 It’s true. With self-partnership, there remains an undeniable contradiction inherent in the language. But I don’t know that the conflict is a problem as much as a manifestation of a complex reality. As much as society is beginning to stress individual independence as an aspirational condition, none of us want to be alone. We’re not going to get over the deep-seated fear of not finding love overnight. Self-partnered is a term that Watson threw out casually in an interview. It wasn’t meant to be a radical, political statement against societal norms. Instead, Watson offered up an addition to the insufficient vocabulary we have for making sense of our shifting views of what it means to be fulfilled. ‘Self-partnered’ both appeals to the very real part of us that still believes in a romantic ideal, while giving a voice to the part of us that knows better. It doesn’t suggest that we have to be alone, rather it softly reminds us that there is a value in being with ourselves. 

Being single and being alone are two very different things. “There’s no such thing as an individual that is not related to others,” said Bolick “we all need intimacy and we all need love.”20 Millenials have been dubbed the loneliest generation. Some believe it’s because of declining marriage rates amongst the generation, but that simply isn’t true. In work presented in the American Psychological Association’s 124th annual conference in 2016, social scientist Bella dePaula suggested that single people often have more fulfilling social lives and experience greater psychological growth than some married people. She also found that self-sufficient single people were less likely to experience negative emotions than any other studied demographic.21 Millennials are after all constantly criticized for being selfish and narcissistic, but what if they’re just the first generation to conceptualize themselves outside of notions of romantic love? In singledom, there is an abundance of space for collectivity, solidarity, and friendship. Placing too much value on romantic relationships detracts from our ability to relate meaningfully to other people. “What’s changing is that culture and society is more accepting of the different ways that people can find love, rather than it just being the princess and prince charming,” said Bolick of the moment.22 Embracing singledom has the potential to push us into healthier, more fulfilling modes of social interaction. 

In an ideal world, we wouldn’t even need a vocabulary to navigate relationship status. In her decades-long quest to put herself first, Kate Bolick was a self-partnering pioneer, only without the terminology. “Part of what I was trying to do [with Spinster] was say, let’s not have so many prescriptive and specific roles for women where they have to be one thing or another,” she told me.23 No matter how ridiculous the notion of a self-partnership could sound to the common listener, Watson’s invocation of the word was an act of empowerment. In the face of a society looking to define her, Watson retained her autonomy by prescribing a flawed, but forgiving label of her choice to herself. In doing so, she took control of the narrative. Through active self-partnering, a whole generation could be so lucky as to do the same.

  1. Lees, Paris. Emma Watson Talks Turning 30, Working With Meryl Streep, And Being Happily Single. Video. British Vogue, 2019.
  2. Moller, Herbert. “Sex Composition And Correlated Culture Patterns Of Colonial America”. The William And Mary Quarterly 2, no. 2 (1945). doi:10.2307/1923515.
  3. Bolick, Kate. Interview by Gabriela Serpa. In person. New York University, 2019.
  4. Sturges, Michael. “Catharine Beecher, Champion Of Women’s Education“. Connecticuthistory.Org, 2019.
  5. Elliot, Susan “The Single Woman In U.S. History: Digital Collections For The Classroom“. Dcc.Newberry. Org, 2019.
  6. Bolick, Kate. Interview by Gabriela Serpa. In person. New York University, 2019.
  7. Burkett, Elinor, and Laura Brunell. “Feminism”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., 2019.
  8. Burkett, Elinor, and Laura Brunell. “Feminism”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., 2019.
  9. Burkett, Elinor. “Women’s Rights Movement”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., 2019.
  10. Bolick, Kate. Spinster: Making A Life Of One’s Own. 1st ed. New York: Broadway Books, 2016.
  11. Bolick, Kate. Interview by Gabriela Serpa. In person. New York University, 2019.
  12. Lees, Paris. Emma Watson Talks Turning 30, Working With Meryl Streep, And Being Happily Single. Video. British Vogue, 2019.
  13. Bolick, Kate. Interview by Gabriela Serpa. In person. New York University, 2019.
  14. Harris, Aisha.”A History Of Self-Care“. Slate Magazine, 2017.
  15. Stamp, Nicole. “The Revolutionary Origins Of Self-Care“.
  16. Harris, Aisha.”A History Of Self-Care“. Slate Magazine, 2017.
  17. Lorde, Audre. A Burst Of Light. 1st ed. Ithaca: Firebrand Books, 1988.
  18. Bolick, Kate. Interview by Gabriela Serpa. In person. New York University, 2019.
  19. Bolick, Kate. Interview by Gabriela Serpa. In person. New York University, 2019.
  20. Bolick, Kate. Interview by Gabriela Serpa. In person. New York University, 2019.
  21. Benincasa, Sara. 2019. Psychologists Say Single People Are More Fulfilled. I’m Getting To Understand Why“. The Guardian.
  22. Bolick, Kate. Interview by Gabriela Serpa. In person. New York University, 2019.
  23. Bolick, Kate. Interview by Gabriela Serpa. In person. New York University, 2019.
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