(Image from The Spinsterhood)
Katie Haegle is the mind behind The Lala Theory and the White Blackbirds zines, voices of women who aren’t married and don’t want to be. So taken was I with her project when I found it at Bitch, that I interviewed myself on this blog. Then I thought about how awesome it would be if I could actually have a conversation with her. So I did, and it proved deeply moving, provoking and restorative.
This conversation marks the transition to another part of the Marriage Project, in which we hear from women who don’t want to get married. I’ll be still be posting interviews from married ladies, though, to keep things exciting.
Me: The question of whether we have unmarried role models is so important and powerful. (One of the questions Haegle asked her interviewees was if they had any unmarried role models.) For some reason, I kept reading it as “unmarried female role models,” even though you didn’t specify gender. I have often looked to women I knew who weren’t married as being role models, women I could build a community with based on similar values and world view, and I would inevitably feel let down when they’d end up getting married, adding to my feeling that marriage is inevitable, it just happens to you, you don’t really have a choice, women can only resist the social pressure for so long.
K: I subliminally placed the word “female” in that sentence, so you weren’t imagining things. No but honestly, female role models is what I was thinking of when I asked the question, and everyone I interviewed seemed to interpret it that way. If anyone had interpreted it as a male or other-gendered role model and answered accordingly it would have been just one more educational surprise for me to get out of this exercise.
I know just what you mean about marriage seeming depressingly inevitable. I have felt the same way, that societal life is like this big machine waiting to crunch you up in its gears. I felt this more when I was younger and just starting out on an adult life and always looking to older people for some kind of guidance and inspiration, and so many of them had what looked to me like identical lives. You could almost get the impression that a lot of women eventually just give up, give in to it. But you know what? It happens to men too. Men have traditionally needed a wife in order to make any kind of professional success for themselves, and there is a huge stigma against single men of a certain age. It’s still acceptable to talk about a single middle-aged man as though he is a weirdo for not having a traditional married life. This is no good. These ideas only serve the status quo and they hurt us all as individuals. Fear of being ostracized or made fun of has driven a lot of people into marriages that weren’t right for them or that they weren’t ready for. What’s good about that?
Having people whose choices I admire to look up to has always been important to me. If not as a hero or role model then just an EXAMPLE, proof there are different ways to do things. That’s the reason I did these zines in the way that I did them. As I have worked to sort out my own feelings I have reached out to people who could give me some inspiration, and the dialogues those interviews sparked — like this one with you! — have been really helpful to me.
me: Has this project changed your feelings about marriage for yourself?
K: These women gave such a surprising variety of responses that it helped open up my mind in a number of ways. One of the women I interviewed for the first zine is queer and Catholic and longed to be able to marry in the church, but knew that it “would never grant [her] that,” so she chose to remain unmarried rather than have a marriage that was anything other than the one she wanted. That was very poignant. One woman considers herself an anarchist and said that the institution of marriage conflicts with her ideals pretty directly. A couple of the women were straight but don’t want to marry as long as any other Americans, i.e. gay folks, aren’t able to. One woman didn’t want to marry the boyfriend who had fathered her baby, even though he kept asking and seemed to think she’d come around eventually. Still another woman had been married, found it lacking, and vowed (no pun intended) never to do it again. Stupidly I hadn’t expected such a wide variety of ideas and experiences, and hearing all of them helped bolster my confidence and my own sense of outsiderness in a positive way.
As I worked on my introductory essay for the second edition of the zine I realized I’d come to a conclusion about the subject, finally, and it was one of those irritatingly obvious and simple things: Marriage might be right for some people and not right for others. I now realize that there can be different kinds of marriages too, which the zine didn’t really have room to explore because the framework was simply Will you or won’t you? There’s an invisibility problem with marriage in that way. Legally all married people look the same, which unfortunately obscures the fact that people are living all kinds of different lives within their marriages (and probably always have).
I think part of the reason I was thrashing around with the marriage question for myself — which is what prompted me to do the zine in the first place — was that I was feeling cornered.
As a hetero lady in her late 20s I had all this societal pressure on me to do something that I wasn’t ready to do, and that I suspected I might not want to do at all, ever. Suddenly I was being told that I had to think about this thing I didn’t want to think about — and make a decision about it SOON because TIME WAS RUNNING OUT — and it was a big unwanted intrusion, an eye in the sky constantly judging me. It was very painful. I’d be surprised if there were many straight women my age whose socioeconomic backgrounds resemble mine even a little who haven’t been made to feel the same way. But I toughed it out and eventually something shifted, either in people’s expectations of me as I got a little older or within myself, or both. I don’t have to get married, now or ever. But neither do I have to be married to the idea of never getting married, if you will. In railing against societal pressures I went too far in the other direction for my own comfort, pressuring myself to commit to remaining unmarried forever, as if that were the only respectable response. But actually, it isn’t, and I don’t have to have the whole rest of my life figured out one way or the other or know how I’ll feel in some imagined future. These are complicated, thorny issues, and it’s difficult for all of us, women in particular, to cut through the crap and know what we want when a lot of what we have to do daily is simply answer back to the lies and insults we’re told about ourselves. In any case I don’t need to be angry AT MARRIAGE, but at the idea that I’m worth less as an unmarried woman than I would be as a married one.
In my struggle I think I was trying to purely intellectualize this thing that, yes, is partly ideas and politics but is also about personal circumstance, need, and feelings (fear, desire, happiness, loneliness). I have tended, over the years, to be on my own much more often than I’ve been with a partner, and I think my aloneness, coupled with this intense social pressure to be permanently partnered in a way that freaked me out, had led me to think that I either had to be totally alone for the rest of my life or totally legally partnered up for the rest of my life. But now I have a boyfriend-partner who I would like to stay with for a long time AND I am not married, nor making any plans to get married, and that feels right, to me and him. I’m less interested now in the black-and-white choice — get married or don’t — than I am in the idea of different kinds of relationships and how to conduct them, whatever their legal and social status. It sounds hokey but you’ve really got to put in the time to get to know yourself, then act accordingly. It takes guts but you can do it. I have never felt any real internal, personal drive to find a guy and marry him, and I still don’t, even though I have found a guy I love to be with. That alone doesn’t mean I won’t ever get married, and it doesn’t have to mean that. I intend to continue to honor my own feelings by doing what is right for me at any given time. And you should too, and if you want to get married and the stupid state has decided you’re allowed to you should go for it. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking there’s only one way to be a feminist, a woman, or a person. It’s not true.
So yes, eventually I aged out of the amazing marry-before-30 race. Once I had some space around it I came to realize that part of my strong reaction to the pressure to marry was actually a reaction to the pressure to participate in the consumerist mess that is the contemporary American wedding. Now that I am still angry about. I think a lot of people are buying into this idea that you deserve to have a big expensive special day that is all about you, or that you can express your personality through the things you buy to decorate yourself and your cake and some rented room at a country club. That you can and should behave in a demanding, selfish way toward your family and friends, and possibly go into debt spending money you don’t have. I don’t really enjoy going to weddings and I’ve never wanted one for myself, partly for smaller, more personal reasons (like I don’t like having a roomful of people looking at me and I’m kind of stingy). But more seriously I object to the language and structure that is STILL USED in wedding ceremonies. Some people have done away with the “honor and obey” language but they still wear the virginal white dress and do the ceremony (and I realize at this point it is really only ceremonial) of the father giving away ownership of the bride to the husband. I truly have a hard time believing that this is the direction the culture has gone in. It is such bullshit to me. You can dress up that woman-as-property stuff in a million white roses, I’m not falling for it.
On a lighter note, I’m reminded of a story about my parents, two people who wanted to get married but did not like weddings; they went to a justice of the peace instead. My mother did submit to letting her mother plan a little lunch celebration for them though, to which they invited my dad’s friend Bickley. There are a million Bickley stories and they’re all funny. Bickley had been the witness at the service and now he had to go to this lunch too, it was too much. He showed up with a paperback stuffed in his back pocket and my dad said, “Jeez, Bick, what are you gonna do, sit here and read at my wedding?” And he was like, “Ah, I’m sorry. I was afraid I’d get bored.”
me: What do you think about the reclamation of these terms “spinster” and “Boston marriage”?
K: Boston marriage was a new one to me! When I read it in Hannah’s (smart, lovely) interview I had to look it up online, and in doing so I found a wonderful essay by good old Pagan Kennedy published in Ms Magazine. She talks about a Boston Marriage as a committed friendship between two women who love and support each other and live together like family — a romance, even, though in her case not a sexual one. I think it’s traditionally been understood to be code for a lesbian relationship, though.
The word spinster just seems like kind of a hoot, though I know there are still some nasty folks out there, both men and women, who use that word to try to insult or scare women. Come to think of it, it’s not totally silly. I have heard older men refer in an unpleasant way to an “old maid” teacher or neighbor they knew growing up and it really made me wince, so I guess these terms still have some bite. A woman named Raequel responded to the open call I posted to an online zine forum for interviewees for the first edition of the zine; I was excited to see that she lives close to me and we have since become friends. She’s a writer and zinester too, and very funny, and after the interview project she took to referring to us as spinsterific. At around the time of the new year she starting planning monthly brunches for all her single-lady friends and declared the next year The Year of the Spinster. I haven’t adopted the term for myself, but I enjoy it when she says it.
A couple of years ago I went to this thrift store with a different friend of mine, and she found this beautiful book from 1909 called The Spinster Book. It’s lavender and the cover is embossed in goldleaf with a picture of a hand mirror, with the title and author (Myrtle Reed) inside it. The top of my head nearly came off I was so excited to see this thing, but I tried to play it cool since I wasn’t the one who found it. I said, “But you found it, you should keep it if you want it,” and my friend — this is how I remember it anyway — physically recoiled from the book and said something like, “Oh no, I don’t want that in my house.” So great was her fear of remaining single and TURNING INTO a spinster that she couldn’t risk bringing the word into her home.
So, I bought it. Its language is pretty and a bit dense by today’s standards but over time I picked through it, and found that it consisted largely of “wisdom” about men and women and love, and it has a pretty negative take on women who don’t marry.
Why was I surprised? Yet I was. I honestly expected it to be about the pleasures of being a single lady. It’s really interesting to look at, though. My copy was originally a gift from one woman to another — there’s a note in blurry fountain pen, dated June 10 1910, that reads “A few more reasons.” I find this intriguingly ambiguous, and I like to think that she meant reasons to stay unmarried. After all, the final chapter is called “The Consolations of Spinsterhood.”
me: Some folks reflected on the idea of being normal in terms of not wanting to be married-behaving contrary to how little girls should act, wanting to play work as opposed to playing wedding, and feeling that abnormality throughout their lives.
K: Yes, and I could relate to those feelings personally. I never played house or with baby dolls. I never dreamed about a wedding for myself, didn’t play it out with my Barbies or any of that. My sister and I played office, restaurant, grocery store, and non-profit (it was a research institute on whales). I had two possible scenarios for myself as a grown-up: I’d either live in a big house where I wrote novels and had a different pet in every room (hee), or I’d live in an apartment in New York City and write for a newspaper. I never pictured myself as a wife or a mom, I was always on my own in these dreams, and as a kid and as an adult I have been made to feel the pain of being different, wrong, or unacceptable in lots of ways, both big and small. But these days I live a life that is kind of an amalgam of my two old fantasies and I’m proud to be the kind of adult I would have admired as a nine-year-old. Trust your own desires, I say!
I found it interesting that one of the common responses to the first edition of White Blackbirds was that people would like to have seen older women represented in the zine. I wanted to hear from some older people too, and I was really pleased when a couple of women in the 50-60 range participated in the second edition. Their perspectives and experiences were different from the younger women’s; they’d come of age in a different cultural milieu. But I could feel that the reason people wanted to hear from older women is because they believed that some or all of the 20- and 30-somethings who said they didn’t want to get married would change their minds or “come around” when they got older. This frustrated me. We do change as we get older, but I think this attitude comes from sexism as much as anything else. And you know, now that I think about it, isn’t it also a depressing attitude to have toward marriage? Like, if you think it’s normal for young women to not want to do get married, are you admitting that you think marriage is something inherently unappealing but inevitable? Doesn’t that seem grim to you? It doesn’t have to be that way.