Saturday, March 22, 2008

Women Who May Never Marry (Part One)

When I opened Women Who May Never Marry (by Leanna Wolfe, 1993), I felt much like I did when I discovered Kinsey's "X". We're shown such a limited range of colors: Single (and miserable) or married (and content), zero though six on the Kinsey scale, and so on. But when other possibilities bust open, it's like being transported to the paint section of Home Depot, full of colors you're never heard of (Moonbeam! Curry!). Suddenly, your old white walls are glaringly obvious, now that you've seen all your other options.

In this spirit, I think that everyone, male and female alike, should check out Women Who. It's certainly incomplete, and boasts the worst cover art I've ever seen. But, despite its weaknesses, I think the book is very valuable. As Wolfe tells us at least 10 times, she is a social anthropologist. As such, she discusses trends in marriage and singlehood from veritable pre-history, up into the 90's, and into the future. She gives examples as diverse as spinster suffragettes and unmarried Mayan women living in extended families. And don't think women have all the fun-- there's a long chapter on unmarried men, and much discussion of societal forces in general.

There's also about a page and a half under the heading "Women Who Don't Have Sex". Yes, I know what we're all thinking here. But, these women are either scared of AIDS, living "lonely and often sexless" lives, or "have been damaged by sex" (125). Wolfe must have heard of asexuality in some respect, as she uses the word in a discussion of polyamorous relationships (173). She might have needed to go out of her way to find asexual women to talk to, but I wished she had, as we seem extremely relevant to the topic.

[Above: Susan B. Anthony. Spinster, Badass.]

My favorite little part of the book so far is the section on Victorian-era spinsters. Louisa May Alcott is quoted as saying:

"Spinsters are a very useful, happy, independent race, never more so than now, when all progressions are open to them and honor, fame, or fortune are bravely won by any gifted members of the sisterhood" (20).

I did a double-take as I read this-- I'd never expected to see "spinster" and "happy" in the same sentence. But apparently, spinsters in Alcott's day could achieve much more than married women were able to. If you were a woman devoted to a cause, it could behoove you to remain single. Susan B. Anthony, one of the premier spinsters mentioned, had this to say about womens' suffrage, although it could just as well apply to being an uncompromisingly unmarried woman today:

"Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputation and social standing, never can bring about a reform. Those who are really in earnest must be willing to be anything or nothing in the world's estimation, and publicly and privately, in season and out, avow their sympathy with despised and persecuted ideas and their advocates, and bear the consequences."
(Found on

Next time, Women Who teaches you "how to be happy". Fo reals. Apparently, it's that easy.

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