Kate Bolick on Refusing to Settle (Part One)

“Recent years have seen an explosion of male joblessness and a steep decline in men’s life prospects that have disrupted the ‘romantic market’ in ways that narrow a marriage-minded woman’s options: increasingly, her choice is between deadbeats (whose numbers are rising) and playboys (whose power is growing). But this strange state of affairs also presents an opportunity: as the economy evolves, it’s time to embrace new ideas about romance and family — and to acknowledge the end of ‘traditional’ marriage as society’s highest ideal.”

In the cover story for the November issue of The Atlantic, which just came online, 39-year-old writer Kate Bolick explains why she hasn’t gotten married and why many of her friends haven’t either. It’s terrific. Read it, and then please come back, because we interviewed Kate about it over email.

EZ: I’ve been thinking about the story a lot since I finished reading it, mostly in three ways: What does it mean for us in general? (What comes after marriage?) What does it mean for you? (Are guys going to hit on you more or less? What will your hate mail look like?) And what does it mean for me? From the broad to the personal, which I think the story itself does beautifully. And while I was reading I kept wondering — if I were a guy, how would I be feeling right now? So that’s my first question: What do you think an unmarried man’s takeaway would be? Or, what might his experience be while reading?

KB: Edith, I am so glad that you like the piece. Thank you. It’s really your cohort I had in mind when I was writing it. I wanted to let younger women know that it’s completely normal and okay if they’re not married just yet — that this is where history has brought us. As for the male reaction: Honestly, I have no idea. What do you think? Imagining myself into a man’s head is beyond my abilities (maybe if I could do that I’d be a novelist?). It certainly was my intention to make it clear that not all women are obsessed with marriage and children, as in my experience men assume that of every single woman they meet. (In fact, I think these rigid assumptions we all have about one another — what men want; what women want — are a symptom of how confused we are about changing gender roles.) I’m sure I’ll get tons of hate mail about how I’m an uppity bitch, or funny looking, or whatever, and that’s why I’m single. I’ve received one (faux) marriage proposal already, from a friend who wants me to try to sell this as a book for the big bucks as he thinks it’ll be his only chance to marry rich.

EZ: Haha. Congratulations! But yes — I agree that one of the piece’s strengths was its ability to communicate well that all women aren’t obsessed with getting married. And that the current marriage model isn’t working/fitting for a lot of people. But for people who want to have kids and raise them with someone else, I wonder what the next alternative for love/sex/reproduction is. Because it seems like for women there’s currently two options: Option A, which is dating, marriage, kids (and divorce and remarriage, etc.), or Option B, which is every other nontraditional alternative, where it’s everyone for him/herself, trying to figure out what fits. Option A being pretty clear, and Option B being wide open.

I know you weren’t tasked with finding a new model or refining that Option B — KATE, fix everything! — so much as you were with explaining why you and lots of other single women haven’t wanted to marry anyone. But by the end of the piece, when you’re visiting Ellen in the all-women enclave (and hanging out with Denean), it seems like one more-solidified version of that Option B that you present is of some women having their most meaningful, lasting relationships with other women. Is that an accurate read?

Also, how were Ellen’s cigarettes?

KB: Where to start! Okay, firstly, I’m putting aside Option A/Option B for now, because that’s a whole conversation (and one I’d love to have).

As for The Woman Question: I definitely became intrigued by the fact that strong female networks are mighty things. But what drew me to Ellen and the all-female enclave in Amsterdam was precisely that it wasn’t an active, intentional community (or no more so than your standard New York co-op). It was like a non-commune: just 106 people who all happen to be female living in an apartment complex and only vaguely interacting with one another — yet taking a benign comfort in knowing that they’re not alone. That struck me as really, really nice, and really un-American. Ellen described how the day after she moved in she saw a procession of women carrying a coffin out of one of the houses and tossing rose petals; turns out one of the residents had died. It struck her, and me, as such a lovely way to go. Everyone always harps on getting married because they don’t want to die alone — but we all die alone! Yet few of us die in a shower of rose petals.

As a nonsmoker, all I can say is that Ellen looked so cool rolling those cigarettes. WHY do cigarettes make people look cool? I’ve been mooning over old photos of Joan Didion recently and envying what a fantastic prop a cigarette makes.

EZ: They really do. It must have something to do with the fire. A tiny fire wand. And the shower of rose petals!

I also loved the part in the piece about the early 20th-century NYC ladies who’ve “gone off-script with unconventional arrangements” (“Susan Glaspell, Neith Boyce, Edna St. Vincent Millay — they investigated the limits and possibilities of intimacy with a naive audacity, and a touching decorum, that I found familiar and comforting. I am not a bold person. To read their essays and poems was to perform a shy ideological striptease to the sweetly insistent warble of a gramophone”). (!) It made me want to read more by/about them. Can you recommend a starting point? And what were the arrangements?

KB: When I moved from Boston to NYC in 2000 my father gave me Christine Stansell’s American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century, which had just came out, as a going-away present. It’s a fantastic book, and it hugely influenced my relationship to the city. I’d only ever known about the black-turtlenecked, Beat-inflected Village of the 1960s; that there was a pre-Bohemia in the late 1800s and early 1900s blew my mind. The more I read about the period, the more enamored I became. As an extremely naive, inexperienced, and unworldly New Englander at large in Gotham, I found it shockingly and even transcendently easy to relate to the Victorian struggle toward modernity.

I particularly identified with a Boston-born journalist and novelist named Neith Boyce, who wrote a column for Vogue in 1898, when she was 26, called The Bachelor Girl, about her decision to never marry. Her voice was smart and sassy, but it wasn’t tinny and cheesy the way so many of our chick-lit heroines are — there was dignity to it. Turns out the whole time she was writing the column she was being ardently courted by the anarchist labor writer Hutchins Hapgood. She finally relented and agreed to marry him on the condition that they have an open marriage. (Disclaimer: In 2001 I wrote about it for Vogue, they ended up killing it, and the Observer generously ran a truncated version in 2003, but it’s not very good. I confess to it only out of morbid over-honesty.)

Boyce and her contemporary Susan Glaspell, a progressive playwright who wrote about gender and relationships and founded the Provincetown Players, fell into obscurity after they died, though not the passionate Edna St. Vincent Millay, of course, who can be thumbnailed by her poem “First Fig”: “My candle burns at both ends/It will not last the night/But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends — /It gives a lovely light!”

EZ: Neith! I just looked that name up, because it’s amazing, and see that it’s also the name of an Egyptian goddess. (Goddess of weaving, hunting, war, and death.) And going by that Observer piece, Neith actually seems like kind of a pain in the ass! I hope she was at least having fun.

Speaking of fun (smooth segue), are you having fun? And what was a particularly fun part of researching this story?

Also, if they made it into a movie, about a woman going around the world doing research for a story about not-marrying, do you think that at the end they’d have her meet some perfect guy on the plane or something? (… But then there could be a twist ending, where the perfect dude got up, and it turned out to all be like The Sixth Sense!)

KB: Or … What if the surprise ending is that I’M ACTUALLY MARRIED??!

It happens that I’m on an airplane right now (in-flight wifi is my version of heaven) flying back from week’s vacation in Tecate, Mexico — which was very, very fun, thank you.

Doing that story was the most fun I’ve ever had doing anything in my life, from start to finish. My brother’s joke is that the Atlantic called and said, “Kate, will you run a marathon — right now?” and I said, “You bet! Let me just pop out and buy some sneakers!” So I can’t even isolate one single aspect. Speaking of singles, however, and of smooth segues, I did find it really, really satisfying to take a good look at why I and so many of my friends are still unmarried, which is a topic we sit around talking about plenty, but that I’d never taken the time to put into a historical context.

Which brings me to a concern I’m having about our interview: Should I talk way up at the start about how mine is NOT a story saying there are no good men left? I’m terrified of people reading it that way — when in fact the reality, as I see it, is much more subtle and complex. Statistics are indeed showing that more men are struggling now than in the past, which is a result of vast economic forces, as well as social ones (Christina Hoff Sommers wrote very presciently about “The War Against Boys” in 2000). And this is serious, and needs to be paid attention to.

But the argument that there are fewer “marriageable” men than in the past relies on an archaic definition of “marriageable”: husbands who are higher-earning, better-educated, have more status, and are taller than their wives. (The “taller” thing keeps cropping up — just because it’s a very concrete and measurable thing.) The very good news for everyone is that women tend to be much more flexible in what they find attractive, so they’ll love and marry men in spite of any new so-called “failings.” And who knows — perhaps even prefer them? I for one have never been drawn to the “traditional” catch — the captain of the lacrosse team, etc. — but I know I’m weird like that.

A darker aspect is that this new power balance/imbalance means men are having to grapple with feelings of inferiority that they’re not quite accustomed to, and this can be hard on couples, particularly in a world that almost presumes women will have inferiority complexes. Too, the studies around how men behave when they have the demographic upper hand is sobering — less committal, more promiscuous, etc. — but women have to keep in mind that female attitudes abet that dynamic. There was a great little piece in TheRoot.com a year or two ago about how if women want to find their Obama they need to start changing what they look for, as once upon a time Obama was just a scrawny guy with big ears and too-short pants, but Michelle knew how to see right through that. Same goes for this whole “neo-concubine” thing that I describe Susan Walsh talking about; for that big man on campus to be bedding seven women in rotation, he’s got seven willing playmates, all of whom, I’m willing to bet, are ignoring huge swaths of the male population for his meager crumbs.

Laptop battery is dying! Must sign off.

EZ: If you want to, by all means! I think that was sort of what I was getting at with my first question, although I don’t think people will read it as “there are no good men left,” when the tone is so warm. But if there’s a takeaway sentence you do have in mind, I’d be curious to know what it is! (Or is the whole concept of a takeaway sentence too simplistic for this?)

(But the Steinem quote about becoming the men we wanted to marry I also find really interesting. No particular question there, just — yeah. Uncharted waters.)

Next: Part Two.