Guest post by E. Kay Trimberger
[Bella’s intro: Many writings about single life have been inspired by Kate Bolick’s Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own. In this two-part guest post, E. Kay Trimberger offers an important perspective I have not seen anywhere else – a cultural and historical analysis, told through the lens of personal experiences, of someone born more than three decades before Bolick, and even a few years before Bolick’s mother. Cultural sensibilities around marriage and single life were strikingly different during Trimberger’s early and middle adult years, and perhaps not in the ways you might presume. I’m so grateful to Kay for sharing her observations with us. Here is Part 1.]
Kate, Kay and the Single Ladies, Part 1: Different Experiences of Single Life Across the Generations
Guest post by E. Kay Trimberger
Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own is a memoir by Kate Bolick, an editor and writer in her early forties, in dialogue with five women writers from the early 20th century, women she called awakeners. I opened the book with anticipation because of the topic and because I had read several favorable reviews (such as this one in the New York Times and this one here at Psych Central). Spinster would speak to two parts of my life–as an ever-single woman who had written about singles and also about one of Bolick’s awakeners, Neith Boyce, a Greenwich Village writer, playwright and journalist before WW I.
My intuition was right. I loved the eloquently written Spinster. As expected, I found some similarities in Kate’s and my lives and interests, but I was more impressed by our differences as two single women from distinct generations. A few years older than Kate’s mother and thirty-two years older than Kate, I faced different obstacles in my struggle from the late 1950s through the 1970s to come to terms with my singleness. These impediments were in many aspects more difficult than Kate’s in the 1980s and 1990s, but in other ways it was easier for me. Second wave feminism provided me with a critique of marriage and the counterculture of the time advocated communal living as an alternative to the nuclear family.
Both Kate and I grew up in largely white, middle class, small cities in the East. Her father was a lawyer, mine a professor. The big difference lay in our mothers’ lives. Despite a college degree, my mother had three children and was a full-time housewife and mother. Kate’s mother had two children and worked as a teacher, journalist and writer. As a teenager, I rebelled against the idea that I would replicate my mother’s life. Like almost all the single professional women I know from my generation, I identified with my father. I wanted to be a professor like him, even though no woman professor taught me as an undergraduate and only one during graduate school. Kate identified with her working mother, although her mother’s early death from cancer when Kate was only 23 cut short her modeling. Both of us inherited some of our mother’s domesticity, but Kate never had the recurring nightmare that I experienced in my twenties: I would end up in the suburbs (always the suburbs) married with a husband, children and a house I loved, but miserable because I did not have the work I wanted.
When I started college in 1958, the cultural norm was that a woman with a professional occupation would remain single and childless. Probably because of this cultural dictate, none of my women friends from high school, only a few college friends, and a handful of women in graduate school, were as committed as I was to having a career. Explicit messages reinforced the cultural dictate. In my senior year of college, my boyfriend broke up with me because he said that I would not be satisfied with graduate school in the city where he was going to medical school and because, as a career woman, I would be a lousy mother. The same year, an admission’s officer from the University of Chicago, where I had applied for graduate school, called and said the school was thinking of offering me a fellowship. “Do you have any plans to get married” he asked abruptly? I truthfully replied, “No.” I received the fellowship. By the 1990s, because of the gains of the second wave women’s movement, neither Kate nor any other young woman would receive such overt threats.
Kate and I also had some personal differences. In high school, college and as a young adult, Kate was more extroverted, more social and more popular than I was. She almost always had a boyfriend, which I did only part of the time. But we were similar too. Kate was as committed to becoming a writer and journalist as I was to becoming a professor, and both of us loved to read and liked solitude.
The distinct social norms of our eras, however, shaped our different struggles as single women. By her day it was assumed that a woman could combine a career, marriage and motherhood, but how one was to accomplish this, psychologically and personally, was less clear. The five women awakeners with whom Kate identifies all were married for some part of their lives and all grappled with the issue of how to combine work and a fulfilling life. Kate too struggled to create an autonomous self often losing herself in love relationships.
I thought I had to remain single to achieve my work goal, but I liked sex and intimacy, so from my mid twenties to mid thirties, I had a series of secret relationships with older married men, an experience that was far from unique in my generation. When several of these relationships started to get too serious, I moved away, making it impossible to continue. As I became involved in the women’s movement, I found such relationships morally repugnant and came to realize that the man’s marital status reinforced the inequalities of gender and age. In retrospect, I see that relationships with married men cut off any opportunity to try to simultaneously cohabit and maintain my commitment to work, which by my late thirties was the new feminist ideal. Kate’s many involvements with single men, most of them her age, was a much healthier alternative and allowed for more personal growth. In her twenties and thirties, Kate in loving coupledom fought to create and hold onto an ideal of autonomy and her commitment as a writer.
About the author: E. Kay Trimberger is a retired sociologist and women’s studies professor still living solo in Berkeley. She is working on a memoir about adoption tentatively titled Creole Son: An Adoptive Mother’s Story of Nature and Nurture. You can reach her through www.ekaytrimberger.com
[Part 2 of this essay is coming soon. Here it is.]
Generations photo available from Shutterstock