People Note:
27 April 2015

There’s nothing so bracing as running into a really good idea on a Monday morning.

In today’s Times, an engineer at Berkeley, Lina Nilsson, writes,

Women seem to be drawn to engineering projects that attempt to achieve societal good. Curious to learn whether that was true at other universities, my colleagues and I contacted the dozens of universities that have programs aimed at reducing global poverty and inequality. What we found was consistent and remarkable.

The undergraduate-level international minor for engineers at the University of Michigan reports that 51 percent of its students are women. Those women are predominantly majoring in some of the oldest and most traditional engineering fields — industrial operations and mechanical and chemical engineering — where, arguably, gender stereotypes are most entrenched.

This makes a lot of sense. It is confirmed for me by my daughter’s experience. (More on that some other time.) What’s more, programs aimed at reducing global poverty and inequality are not rush jobs. As these undertakings mature, they will focus less on completing isolated projects here and there and more on accumulating a professional wisdom that doesn’t yet exist. Because the beneficiaries of this work are not entrepreneurs who want everything done by yesterday, but rather disadvantaged people who depend on professionals to get things right the first time, even if that means postponing execution until getting things right becomes a reasonably sure thing, the pace of these programs can slow down — slow down, that is, to accommodate working mothers, women who might take three to five or more years on semi-sabbatical consultancies, without suffering career regression, while their children are small and the first claim on their attention. In this way, a program to help the poor far away might also help educated women here at home. Let the boys work flat-out on their games and apps! Making the world a better place is very much a long-term job. Progress will reveal itself over generations, not quarters.

If I responded so quickly to Ms Nilsson’s piece, it was largely because I spent a fascinated weekend with a new book, Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, by Kate Bolick.

The title, especially as it is illustrated on the dust cover — a pretty, demurely smiling girl, with lustrous long hair, wearing a simple blue dress and black pumps that aren’t too high, one hand poised on a kneecap (showcasing nice legs), the other holding a fon-fon teacup-and-saucer, perched on a tufted Victorian sofa — is meant to cause a double-take. When we think of spinsters today, we think, unaware of the incongruity, of Whistler’s Mother and American Gothic. We think of plain, prim women with pursed lips, women who disapprove of fun on principle. Such women are rare today (at least I don’t see many in Manhattan), but the stereotype remains current, largely, I believe, because it comforts men, who draw strength and comfort from the myth that an unmarried woman must ipso facto be miserably lonely.

But Bolick’s book is not a complaint about men. Bolick likes men, loves them, even. Her long-term boyfriends have all been sweethearts, soulmates. They have been kind and supportive. What Bolick never quite articulates, blinded, perhaps, by fondness for these fellows, is that they all seem to be herding her, however unconsciously on their part, toward the top of a chute, from which she will be plunged into an apparatus that will denature her character, leaving her little more than a wife, housekeeper, and mother. The only way that she can survive this apparatus is to know who she is beforehand, and Kate Bolick, even at forty, does not quite know who she is. And no wonder.

The dust jacket copy calls Spinster a “slyly erudite” book, and it is certainly that. I’m not sure that I’ve got this lingo down, but I think it possible to say that Bolick maps her own story, the bildung of a contemporary woman, over the respective careers of five “awakeners,” women from the past who put writing ahead of coupling, at least when they were young and trying out their hard-won independence. The first of these awakeners, not in history but in Bolick’s life, was Maeve Brennan, The New Yorker‘s Long-Winded Lady. When I learned this from a book review, I ordered Spinster instanter.

The others were Neith Boyce (of whom I’d never heard), Edna Millay (Bolick drops the “St Vincent,” and I’m ready to go along with that), Edith Wharton, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. All of these women married, even Brennan, if briefly. Like Brennan, Wharton divorced her husband, once she made up her mind that he was unsatisfactory. The others had long marriages, with different degrees of the companionate and the open. They are not models for Bolick, but more in the line of object lessons, lessons so complex that Bolick is probably still puzzling them out, even with her book behind her.

In the fifteen years covered in Spinster — from college to now — Kate Bolick pursues a career in journalism, although she believes that she would prefer to be a poet. I hope that she writes a book about journalism someday, because I think she understands what it is.

What I think journalism is is illustrated by an anecdote that a friend shared with me at lunch the other day. She was watching Charlie Rose, and the unctuous host was interviewing Michael Lewis. At one point, Rose asked Lewis why he didn’t write the biography of one of the interesting characters whom he has encountered in his long encounter with men, math, and money. Lewis had to come up with several answers, because Rose wouldn’t let the question go; indeed, he was so insistent that my friend wondered if “he’s drinking again.” Among other things, Lewis said that he didn’t want to spend the time with any one person that writing a biography requires. He said that he was interested in stories more than in characters. All of which ought to be obvious to the reader of his very good books — each of which, I spluttered, beyond impatience with Charlie Rose, demonstrates that Michael Lewis is a journalist, not a historian. It came out of my mouth before I grasped how monumental this distinction is in my own mind.

Kate Bolick may be a journalist, but Spinster is not journalism, notwithstanding the well-served sketches of Bolick’s awakeners. It is saved from journalism by virtue of being a memoir, a long-haul examination of the self. (I suspect that the character with whom Michael Lewis would least like to spend a lot of time is his own.) From certain angles, Bolick’s inquiry might seem vapid and retarded, because her attempt to figure herself out doesn’t yield much in the way of positive wisdom, or things learned. The angles I have in mind are all masculine: no man could have written Spinster. A man’s version of this book would either be stuffed with peppy pointers, variations on the great theme of how to succeed, or it would be an existential cri de coeur, an excoriation of the meaninglessness of life — and no publisher would touch that. Kate Bolick is an optimist, but a cautious one: her book gave me the idea behind the phrase, up above, about the importance of getting things right the first time, even if this takes a while. Bolick is still working on it.

And the reason she is still working it, I conclude, is that there is no language yet that is capable of describing the life of a woman who is both fully-realized and fully-integrated. Spinster shows us that women have developed a language for describing a high degree of self-realization; but this realization is not yet quite complete, because self-realization, so far, requires a withdrawal from or rejection of integration — integration meaning marriage and motherhood, or, to put it more causally, the consequences of living in love with a man. Women who don’t want men and who don’t want children are not part of Bolick’s problem. That is what makes her book urgent. She wants to have it all, but she is determined to have herself. And so her final chapter is entitled, “Are Women People Yet?”

More anon.