[From Bella: This is Part 2 of E. Kay Trimberger’s two-part guest essay. Part 1 is here.]

Kate, Kay and the Single Ladies, Part 2: Experiments in Living Outside of a Nuclear Family Household

Guest post by E. Kay Trimberger

In our late 20s, Kate and I both lived in New York City, worked hard, and had few women friends. In my early 30s, however, I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, a place that had beckoned me since I was a teenager, when I’d learned about the Beats and seen San Francisco for the first time. Attracted by the proximity of urban culture and natural beauty, and by its reputation for unconventional life styles, I had always wanted to live there. The communal living experiments I found in the Bay Area in the 1970s differentiated my life from Kate’s.

Three years after completing my PhD, I gave up a tenure-track job in the City University of New York for a temporary lectureship at a state university an hour’s drive from San Francisco and then found a permanent position in another state institution the same distance away. Colleagues in the East criticized me for not searching for a more prestigious academic appointment, but I wanted to find a personal life that would anchor me. As a feminist, I now believed I could have satisfying work and a family life, but both the impact of the 1970s counterculture and my continuing fear of being swallowed by the nuclear family, led me to look for alternatives to living as a couple. I was lucky that academic jobs were still plentiful in the 1970s and housing was inexpensive. Thirty years later, Kate and other young women would not be so fortunate. I soon moved to Berkeley to join a group of academics some of whom taught at the famous university there, but more of whom commuted to teach in less prestigious colleges. Berkeley too attracted all kinds of left, feminist and counter cultural activists. I was soon ensconced in a community of leftist and feminist intellectuals, a community that I never had in New York.

Starting in 1973, I lived in two communal households. In 1977, at age 37, I entered a third, by buying a duplex with a couple. We all worked, and kept our finances and sex lives separate, but we owned the house as tenants in common, shared meals five nights a week, and made the house a center for community meetings and socializing. This household lasted eight years and during that time I adopted a biracial baby boy as a single mother. Although the house broke up in what was effectively a hostile divorce when my son was four, the network of friendships and community lasted and anchored me as a single parent. Alternatives to living either in a nuclear family or by oneself, however, faded from popular culture after 1990. Bella DePaulo’s forthcoming book, How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, may reinvigorate discussion about alternative living arrangements and how to be more successful at them than our earlier experiments.

At age forty I was a single mother, living communally, but I still had no vision of living the rest of my life outside a couple. Naively, it now seems to me, I thought that once I had achieved my goal of having a child, I could focus on finding a partner, not realizing how much emotional satisfaction I would find in being a mother and how much work it would be. In this situation, I found Neith Boyce. Kate found her too through a different route, but I think we were drawn to her for similar reasons.

I had always been attracted to the Greenwich Village of the early 20th century, because I saw it as a possible model for an intellectual bohemia in Berkeley. I discovered Neith through a memoir, Story of a Lover, written by her husband, Hutchins Hapgood. I then found that Neith had written an earlier novel, The Bond, about their relationship, and Neith and Hutchins had written a play together, Enemies. Neith also had published poems about their relationship, which produced four children. In Intimate Warriors (1991), I republished excerpts from their writings with my introduction and commentary.

In delving into their relationship, I was on a personal quest to see how Neith maintained her ability to work within a consuming marriage with children. Only at great personal struggle and cost, I discovered. With a modest inheritance, they could afford a little household help, and Hutchins did help with the children, but he was quite conventional. He called his autobiography, A Victorian in the Modern World. The negative example of Neith’s struggle, along with a satisfying personal and work life in my forties as a single mother and director of a woman’s studies program, dampened any lingering desire I had to couple.

Kate also discovered Neith through reading about Greenwich Village and then unearthed a column called “The Bachelor Girl,” which Neith wrote for Vogue Magazine in 1898 before she married. I didn’t know this part of Neith’s history. What she wrote there, and her struggle for autonomy within her marriage, made her a positive model for Kate. Indeed, all of the historical women Kate admires–in addition to Neith, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edith Wharton, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Maeve Brennan–were accomplished writers who married and coupled at various points in their lives. It seems to me that Kate’s main quest is trying to answer the question of whether she can invest in being in a couple and still maintain an autonomous self and a commitment to writing. She comes to no conclusion, but Kate seems to be heading toward the single life, looking for ways to make her life more communal.

At the end of her book, Kate, helps a single woman friend rent an apartment in her building in New York, where they share more of their lives. By her forties, Kate, too, has a network of friends, but not one rooted in the community and culture that I found in the 1970s and early 1980s. She begins to think about alternative living arrangements, but has to go to Amsterdam to find an attractive example.

Thinking about Kate and her generation, I’m overwhelmed by how much marriage, including elaborate weddings, dominates the popular media today. At least in my day, critiques of marriage meandered from the feminist press into the mass media. And we had the communal alternative. Recently, a friend who is ten years younger than I and a psychotherapist recalled that she always felt guilty in the women’s movement because she was in a couple. Even so, she and her future husband met while living in a communal household where they each kept their own rooms, a practice she maintained with both her first and second husbands.

After reading the mistitled Spinster, I felt sad that my generation of single women had not left a legacy that women like Kate could build on. She never mentions Gloria Steinem, the most famous single woman of second wave feminism. Kate doesn’t know or doesn’t address my 2005 book, The New Single Woman. For the book, I followed twenty long-term single women in their forties and fifties for ten years–-half were ever single and half divorced, half had children and half did not. I wanted to see what made a satisfying single life or not. What I found was that second wave feminism never developed an attractive vision of single life. Neither Steinem, nor the ordinary women I interviewed, identified as single; they were only delaying marriage.

What has been achieved since the 1970s is a greater fluidity between coupled and single life as women and men move in and out of these statuses throughout their lifetimes. We still need to fight the stigma attached to being single over forty, especially for women. But we are not spinsters, separated forever from our coupled peers. We need to recognize the many possible ways of structuring personal life, all of which can lead to happiness or not, so that we have real choices.

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

Single mom photo available from Shutterstock