The Loneliness of the Spinster

This piece was originally published in The Chronicle of Higher Education in November of 2016, but has since been deleted as part of the closure of The Chronicle’s community website. And so, I’m publishing it here instead!


Two years ago, I sat across the table from a fellow “emerging scholar” who was extolling the virtues of my status as single and childless. Where she had to imagine job relocation in terms of schools, houses, and career options for her partner, I had the freedom to move wherever I received an offer.

She wasn’t entirely right, and we talked about how other factors — such as being queer (I am) or a person of color (I am not) — also restrict freedom of movement. But she wasn’t entirely wrong, either, and I was cognizant of that as I pondered career moves that might take me to another province, country, or continent. I’ve never had to deal with what is dehumanizingly called “the two body problem,” and that benefitted me in a number of ways, including a relocation budget that only had to cover one spinster and her cat.

I’m betting you just recoiled instinctively when I called myself a spinster. But I used the word intentionally and happily, much like I use the words “fat” and “queer.” I particularly have in mind Briallen Hopper’s splendid 2015 article in the Los Angeles Review of Books,On Spinsters,” in which she defines spinsters as “often weird, difficult, dissonant, queer — like an unnerving dream, or a pungent dose of smelling salts.” 

Hopper differentiates the spinster from “single ladies, debutantes, divorcées, and wives” by focusing on her own relationships — “powerful forms of female love, friendship, commitment, and community, like the Boston marriage, the matriarchal family, or the settlement house.” The spinster, for Hopper, is defined not by lack (unmarried, childless), but by a difference that both threatens, and is in turn threatened by, the dominant reproductive norms. In her failure to define herself through marriage and childbearing, the spinster becomes invisible at best, and outright vilified at worst.

It would be all too easy for me to bear the proud mantle of the workaholic who gave up love to devote herself to a life of the mind. But like Hopper, I “cling to the term spinster.” Why? Because, as she writes, “it serves as a challenge to the way our society still conflates coupledom with love, maturity, and citizenship, while seeing unmarried people as — to quote Justice Kennedy — ‘condemned to loneliness.’”

And so it was with great trepidation that I took to Twitter in the second month of my new job to declare, unequivocally: I am lonely. 

Physically, painfully lonely. In all my years of training and professionalization — with all of the tacit exchanges of knowledge that make academia survivable, especially for women, queers, and people of color — no one had warned me about the loneliness.

Certainly, as a spinster on the job market, I enjoyed a level of mobility that my partnered and/or parenting colleagues did not. As a spinster in a tenure-track position, I am also evidence of the “baby penalty” at work. As an essay last February in U.S. News & World Report noted: “Men with young children are more than three times as likely as women with young children to secure tenure-track positions after completing their Ph.D.s,” while “women without children are about three times more likely than women with children to secure tenure-track faculty positions.” And, as The Atlantic succinctly put it, “Being Married Helps Professors Get Ahead, but Only If They’re Male.”

But what makes state-sanctioned relationships — spouses, dependents — a detriment for a woman on the job market is the same thing that makes them a privilege: Everyone, including the university, assumes that they are coming with you. “Our jobs, our capitalist patriarchy” (to borrow Aimée Morrison’s perfect phrasing) acknowledge these relationships and, for the most part, assume that they will detract from a woman’s professional productivity. 

The flipside is the spinster who, from the perspective of the university, is about as productive as a woman can get because the rest of her (my) life is a void, a question mark.

As a spinster, however, my life is characterized, not by the absence of relationships, but by the absence of the two relationships that the state and its institutions recognize. Relocating for a job thus means not negotiating the relocation of other people (a difficulty which I have no intention of underplaying), but rather coming face-to-face with the reality that those “powerful forms of female love, friendship, commitment, and community” that structure my life don’t — for better or for worse — count.

It was both heartening and distressing to watch my short series of tweets, a sort of wail into the void, resonate with the experiences of so many others, whether coupled or not. Many women wrote to me of their desire to have their friendships validated, and by extension to have the richness of their emotional lives recognized. They spoke of how reduced they felt, being seen as only partners or mothers. I also feel reduced, because auntie and friend don’t even make the list. 

But we are all reduced when we are seen as professionals only, desperately cordoning off our intimate lives lest they be perceived as a weakness. As the baby penalty proves, that fear is not paranoid.

The spinster is, in one incarnation, the model academic self — married to her job. But the spinster can also be a threatening figure because she reminds us that there are many ways to be a family, many ways to be a community. The spinster as I envision her builds community wherever she goes, inside and outside the university. She is a collaborator, a teacher, a nurturer of the affective economies that undergird the functioning of the university, no matter how much we would like to disavow them. 

And she never stops reminding us that all of our loves, and all of our lives, are powerful and important, whether the university can see them or not. 

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