Help me find some swinging bachelorettes
January 9, 2008 9:36 AM   Subscribe

Since I seem to be hurtling towards old maidhood, I’d like enjoy the ride as much as possible. It irritates me that single women are so often portrayed as sadsacks just marking time until they can get married, or as being eaten up with bitterness and neuroses because they never found a man. So, I’m looking for positive role models and inspiration. What examples of fabulous freewheeling women can you think of in fiction, movies and real life?

I’m looking for examples of completely non-pitiable women who spent most if not all of their adult lives living alone and who were so busy living and enjoying their lives that they forgot to notice that they forgot to get married. Kate Hepburn and Gloria Steinem would be examples of the kind of woman I’m looking for – they did both get married, but only for a couple of years each. The definining characteristic of these bachelorettes, of course, is not they eschew men completely, but that they are contented and even flourishing without any long-lasting relationship to one.
posted by orange swan to Media & Arts (54 answers total) 77 users marked this as a favorite
I love you, Orange Swan. Now go re-watch "Harold and Maude".
posted by hermitosis at 9:43 AM on January 9, 2008 [2 favorites]

Tenzin Palmo
posted by milarepa at 9:49 AM on January 9, 2008

Who was that feminist that said women need men like fish need bicycles? She's probably a real life example of what you're looking for.
posted by Plaarg at 9:53 AM on January 9, 2008

[That was Steinem, and she is.]
posted by availablelight at 9:54 AM on January 9, 2008

Great question!!

Historical figures:

Queen Elizabeth I

Emma Goldman, the anarchist, had a lover, but he was put in prison for many years, so she was single most of her active life.

Mother Jones the great US labor figure, was married early on, but lost her husband and children to a yellow fever epidemic and remained single for the greater portion of her life.

Are you ruling out lesbians? If not, how about:
Gertrude Stein
Greta Garbo

Jane Austen
Emily Bronte

Ophray Winfrey
Jodie Foster
posted by SallyHitMeOntheHead at 9:55 AM on January 9, 2008

Barbara Feldon, Agent 99 of Get Smart fame. She's on my list.
posted by infinitewindow at 9:55 AM on January 9, 2008

Oprah Winfrey's been with that Stedman fellow for years and years (although she did refuse to marry him)--does she still count? The OP specified "without any long-lasting relationship to one."
posted by Enroute at 9:57 AM on January 9, 2008

Wendy Wasserstein.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 10:00 AM on January 9, 2008

[That was Steinem, and she is.]
Actually Irina Dunn but from her Wikipedia page it sounds like she might count as an answer to this question too...
/insufferable pedantry

posted by game warden to the events rhino at 10:02 AM on January 9, 2008

Plaarg's is Irina Dunn. She did get married, but it didn't last. She's pretty non-pitiable.
posted by SoftRain at 10:02 AM on January 9, 2008

Auntie Mame
posted by greekphilosophy at 10:12 AM on January 9, 2008

I think this a good premise for a question, but I think you have it wrong about Hepburn. Her long-term affair with Spencer Tracy was a marriage in all but name, and she stopped working to care for him when he was ill. She also spent a lot of time single, but I think it would be mistake, and a disservice to how she talked about her life, to discount Tracy.
posted by OmieWise at 10:14 AM on January 9, 2008 [2 favorites]

Although she's been married (but divorced since 1980), the actress Angie Dickinson always struck me as the kind of women who is complete and content without a mate.
posted by cda at 10:24 AM on January 9, 2008

Isabella Bird (who eventually became Isabella Bird Bishop) was a 19th century adventurer and a feminist before we really had the words for it. Sent to the US from England because the spinster was in failing health (before that she'd lived in her sister's family's house and cared for their children), Bird quickly regained her health and became an adventurer, climbing the tallest peak in what is now Rocky Mountain National Park (and I've climbed that sucker. It was a difficult climb in lug-soled hiking boots and shorts, I can't even fathom what a corset and three layers of skirts would have done) and traveled alone all over the world.

Like I said, she eventually married, but she was brave and adventurous and didn't need any man (nor was she looking). Read A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains and see if you don't get hooked.
posted by arnicae at 10:41 AM on January 9, 2008 [3 favorites]

I think that old lady from Titanic who was Kate Winslet earlier in the movie was like that. At the end they show pictures of her flying airplanes and riding camels and stuff. Of course she had a daughter in that movie, so she may have been married at some time, but I don't think so. She almost married Billy Zane but she didn't and then Leo died and I bet that was hard to get over. But I don't pity her for that. So I say the old lady from Titanic.
posted by ND¢ at 10:48 AM on January 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

seconding agent99
posted by agent99 at 10:53 AM on January 9, 2008

Jodie Foster doesn't count. She's a lesbian and has been with her partner for years and years.
posted by youcancallmeal at 10:54 AM on January 9, 2008

I think maybe the old lady in Nobody's Fool by Richard Russo (my favorite book ever).
posted by sully75 at 10:57 AM on January 9, 2008

Amy Sedaris (at least, I think she's single?). I've got a girl-crush on her.
posted by medeine at 10:58 AM on January 9, 2008

Kate Hepburn

a mean, Puritanical cold-hearted lesbian who meekly got the shit beat out of her on a regular basis by her drunken, deeply closeted unloving bigoted boyfriend? I think you should

a) be less afraid of the word "spinster" that, like all stereotypes, doesn't really mean anything

b) re-evaluate your appreciation of Hepburn as role model -- unless you're an actress, obviously, because she was one hell of an actress.
posted by matteo at 11:02 AM on January 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Gertrude Bell was too busy being an archaeologist, suffragist, polyglot, writer, traveller, photographer, museum founder, and British liaison officer in the Middle East to ever marry. Janet Wallach's Desert Queen is a pretty good biography.
posted by moonlet at 11:04 AM on January 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Madeline Albright is very candid about her marriage and subsequent divorce in her autobiography; she is sure she would have not gotten as far as she did had she stayed married.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 11:09 AM on January 9, 2008 [2 favorites]

Well, there's Calamity Jane, who lived quite an adventurous life before getting married, although she's probably not the sort of person you'd want as a role model (among other things, she was quite the BS artist).
posted by Quietgal at 11:21 AM on January 9, 2008

Stevie Nicks and Sheryl Crow
posted by xena at 11:24 AM on January 9, 2008

Condoleezza Rice.
posted by mmascolino at 11:26 AM on January 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Miss Marple.
posted by The corpse in the library at 11:31 AM on January 9, 2008 [2 favorites]

Jane Goodall
posted by quoththeraven at 11:33 AM on January 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

A documentary titled Lovable was showing a couple times on TVOntario over the holidays. I only caught it in parts, stopping while flipping channels. The filmmaker, a man who was still single well into middle-age, interviewed a number of similarly single women. The man came off as quite pathetic, filming himself whining while staring into a mirror, smoking heavily, wondering why grown women couldn't appreciate his music collection, and getting nostalgic over his dear old mum. But many of the women were great. Although they were discussing the difficulty of establishing relationships now that they were no longer teenagers, many seemed to be fine with the prospect of remaining single for the remainder of their lives. They appeared to have full lives, with friends and interests. As a viewer, I was confident they'd do okay, whatever their future.

The man, not so much.
posted by TimTypeZed at 11:50 AM on January 9, 2008

Simone de Beauvoir
posted by LC at 12:11 PM on January 9, 2008

Hypatia of Alexandria was a mathematician and inventor who remained single all her life. She supposedly rebuffed a suitor by throwing menstrual rags at him.
posted by phrontist at 12:16 PM on January 9, 2008

Just on the off chance it will make you feel better, or less persecuted, I think it's hard in heterosexual culture for ANYONE to reach the top of their game and be universally liked and respected without getting married. Men too, to a large extent. Men can get away with it, for sure, especially if they're womanizing sex symbols (ironic), and it's admittedly much easier for men than women. But for example we'd never elect a male president who wasn't married. There's just something... "off" about an otherwise successful, smart, fantastic man with a super career and great smile who never shacked up. Just for perspective. The "proud christian tradition" is a bit of a millstone to all of us who haven't yet been anointed.

Also for perspective, pretty much all prominent lesbians have to break this same "useless without a man" mold you're talking about. There are tons of well respected, fabulous women out there who just happened to be lesbians. Not to question the heterosexuality of any single woman over a certain age... just saying that there are many relatively easy to find, shining examples of womanhood out there who never shacked up with a man.

And for even MORE perspective, having met you, you've got no business talking about being an old maid. You, yourself, are a fine example of a fabulous and flourishing woman who simply happens not to be shacked up with a man at present.

Personally I know lots of people, men and women, who are healthy and happy and haven't yet tied the knot with anyone. Our culture permits this more and more, and many folks are just focused on other things or pursuing other opportunities and not making it their mission to enter their 30 married.

Didn't Ani DiFranco get tons of grief from her fans for getting married to a man? Perhaps some felt this was some kind of "lesbian betrayal" but I think they were also just way too pleased with how she was doing as a solo operator and didn't want to see her follow a traditional path. So there's an anti-example to your stereotype: a successful woman who actually took a perception hit by getting married. As far as I'm concerned, she was doing great before and she's doing great now and she can do what she wants with her personal life and it doesn't matter a damn bit.
posted by scarabic at 12:38 PM on January 9, 2008 [2 favorites]

This is such a great question. Lillian Gish never married!
posted by ethel at 12:53 PM on January 9, 2008

I was married briefly and have vowed never to marry again, but take lovers and fling them into the ether when I am done. So I'm with you, sister.

How about Isadora Duncan? She was married less than a year for her entire life, and dude killed himself. She was crazy powerful and influential during her time.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 12:55 PM on January 9, 2008

i found this site, which you might find interesting: The Spinster Chronicles. (and a list of "famous spinsters.)

Also George Eliot and Charlotte Bronte.
posted by RedEmma at 1:18 PM on January 9, 2008

Jenny Fields from "The World According to Garp"
posted by Failure31 at 1:27 PM on January 9, 2008

Me? My mom? There are tons of women like this. I think you don't hear about people like this as much because

1. if they're freewheeling and awesome, people don't spend a lot of time saying "poor thing, she never did find a man to love her" when they talk about them so you just don't know they're single because it's not a big deal, and
2. they are busy BEING AWESOME and don't care what the fuck anyone thinks so they don't point out that part of their lives as worthy of attention

So, I think for starters, not that you were looking for advice, leave this sort of thing behind.

"It irritates me that single women are so often portrayed as sadsacks just marking time until they can get married, or as being eaten up with bitterness and neuroses because they never found a man"

There are many protrayals of women who are not like this at all and getting irritated at stupid people being stupid shortens your life. Same thing with that "old maidhood" talk. If you don't believe it, don't talk like that. I don't know you well enough to know if you're being ironic, but really, those stereotyypes are tired, even as humor.

So, back to your question. The fact that people are poking holes in a lot of the people that are listed doesn't really mean "OMG they don't exist, it's TRUE" but that people's relationships with other people are complicated and people are complicated and someone's public persona may not be all there is about them (esp re: Hepburns as two notable examples here). My list, which I'm sure includes some people with complicated relationships either lesbian or longtime partnerships or something.

- Angela Davis
- Susan B. Anthony
- Helen Keller
- Florence Nightingale
- Dorothy Day (married at one point)
- Elizabeth I
- Emma Goldman
- the Bronte sisters
- Oprah
- Greta Garbo

> we'd never elect a male president who wasn't married.

Not to be super nitpicky but James Buchanan wasn't married. I think what you say is absolutely true in the present day, however.
posted by jessamyn at 1:33 PM on January 9, 2008 [6 favorites]

I agree with Jessamyn -- people's lives and relationships are multifaceted, and there's nothing to be gained by trying to make one's choices and pick one's role models by essentially accepting the outmoded, sexist paradigm that women either "have a man" or "have no one," even if it's to "have no one...fabulously!"

That said, Maud Gonne was one hell of a dame.
posted by scody at 2:13 PM on January 9, 2008

Kate Hepburn

a mean, Puritanical cold-hearted lesbian who meekly got the shit beat out of her on a regular basis by her drunken, deeply closeted unloving bigoted boyfriend?

What the fuck? Seriously, Kate Hepburn wasn't a lesbian, she was in love with Spencer Tracy for many years, up until his death. And I've never heard any reports that he beat her up; he was well-respected by his peers and the two of them were close friends of Bogart and Lauren Bacall, the only ones that visited Bogie, in fact, in his final days (read Bacall's autobiography). Tracy was even originally asked to give the eulogy at Bogart's funeral.

In addition, Kate Hepburn was hardly Puritanical, having a few flings before she met Tracey and also causing him to moderate his more conservative views with her more liberal ones. She was, admittedly, strong-willed, obstinate as all get-out and probably hard to work with if you weren't a professional herself, but where you are getting the rest of your info is beyond me.
posted by misha at 2:14 PM on January 9, 2008

If you're interested in academic research, check the bibliography of the Scholars of Single Women Network. You'll have to winnow out the stuff on single mothers, the divorced, and the widowed, but there's plenty on "ever-single" women. The auto/biographical section is probably best for what you want. (The other sections are very interesting, though, for presenting info on historical and contemporary ordinary, ie illiterate or semi-literate, single women's lives in the aggregate. )
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 3:05 PM on January 9, 2008

There's always Ninon de l'Enclos.
posted by dilettante at 3:34 PM on January 9, 2008

Lady Hester Stanhope.
posted by Catch at 3:46 PM on January 9, 2008

Alexandra David-Néel, a "French explorer, anarchist, spiritualist, Buddhist and writer, most known for her visit to Lhasa, Tibet, in 1924, when it was forbidden to foreigners." Married, but spent most of her life thousands of miles from her husband, by choice.
posted by GrammarMoses at 4:25 PM on January 9, 2008

Diane Keaton
posted by whoaali at 5:25 PM on January 9, 2008

Anne Bonney, Mary Read.
posted by Pallas Athena at 6:01 PM on January 9, 2008

I was just reading Bookslut on W. Somerset Maugham and I loved this:
But really, what I love about Maugham's marriage books is the fact that the most lively characters are always spinsters and bachelors. Spinster is never a dirty word to Maugham; if anything it means a middle aged woman who speaks five languages, owns her own property, and has the perfect quip right before stepping on a train to Italy. She could have married, but lord, why bother with all of that?
posted by mkim at 6:20 PM on January 9, 2008 [4 favorites]

Also, seconding Diane Keaton. She seems just fine.
posted by mkim at 6:22 PM on January 9, 2008

but where you are getting the rest of your info is beyond me

er, books.

I'm touched when fans mistake the Hollywood persona for the actual human being behind it. but history is not Hollywood studio propaganda, or fan devotion. it's history, period.

check out the many well-documented biographies that have come out in the last few years (one, Scott Berg's, is even written by a close friend of Hepburn; another good one is "Kate" by Bill Mann, and another interesting bio by a writer from The Advocate about her gayness), where there is abundant evidence of what I wrote above.

she herself admitted Tracy beat her when drunk (and he was often drunk), and that he never told her he loved her. we know for a fact that, too bigoted to divorce his Catholic wife, he kept Hepburn as a concubine to be ashamed of for 25 years, never getting a divorce, always keeping separate homes. an atheist, she didn't go to his funeral to respect Tracy's wish to have a nice, old school, mistress-free Catholic funeral. this for the drunk, closeted (again, quite a lot of evidence, multiple witnesses of his secret gay affairs) asshole who beat her up and treated her as a whore, not as his life's partner.

all the evidence indicates that, beginning with the trauma of her brother's suicide, Hepburn led an extremely unhealthy, fucked-up emotional life. her willingness to take Tracy's cowardly beatings is just one symptom.

also, evidence of KH's many gay relationships is actually more solid than, say, her alleged fling with Howard Hughes (a publicity stunt, unlike what you may have seen in that awful Scorsese movie with DiCaprio). me? I think Tracy has been the greatest American actor of his era (Olivier thought that, too). Hepburn's work is still a wonder of style, vigor, and class. but the human beings behind those two incredible actors, historical evidence indicates, were pretty fucking scary. not my fault. go to the library and read up on that, if you care.

oh, there's an issue at stake bigger than Mr. Tracy's penchant for the cock here: of course, maybe the world would have been a little different if fifty years ago millions and millions of movie fans had been aware of the fact that stars as big as Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, Garbo, Dietrich, Barbara Stanwyck, Tony Perkins, Cary Grant, Tyrone Power, Monty Clift, Tallulah Bankhead, Cole Porter, Rock Hudson, and so many others were actually gay or bisexual. who knows, more than a few of those millions of fans would have thought, "shit, maybe gays aren't horrible depraved beings from outer space with three heads".
posted by matteo at 6:35 PM on January 9, 2008 [5 favorites]

Don't forget the late Texas Gov. Ann Richards, great speechmaker and super-cool lady (at least to Texas liberals); she was married, had kids, divorced and then began her trek up the political ladder.

Also, the late Molly Ivins, one of the best writers and satirists that Texas has ever turned out, and who never married but was beloved by many men as well as women.

Also, the late U.S. Rep. Barbara Jordan, D-Texas, who never married and who had some of the best lines at the Watergate hearings. And her voice convinced me that God is a robust, single black woman.
posted by Smalltown Girl at 6:38 PM on January 9, 2008

Oprah counts. Her primary relationship is with her work.
posted by Maias at 6:43 PM on January 9, 2008

Nthing Auntie Mame. Florence King.

Uh, Jessamyn...Charlotte Bronte did marry
posted by brujita at 11:05 PM on January 9, 2008

I was going to point you to the recent Barbara Pym thread but I see you've already been there. The related AskMe from last summer is relevant, too.

Oh, and chiming in to support matteo on the Kate Hepburn thing. OmieWise and misha are almost certainly wrong above; the recent scholarship about Hepburn has pretty much put the nail in the coffin of that "Tracy-Hepburn love affair for the ages" stuff. Anyone who doubts that she was a closeted bisexual and deeply troubled woman who helped hype the fairy-tale story of a romance with Tracy because she was obsessed with her public image should follow matteo's lead and check William Mann's Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn. An NYT notable book for 2006, it was praised for being a non-venomous, fairly clear-eyed look at how the life and the legend diverged:

Publishers Weekly, Starred Review

...Mann's careful research on the longstanding rumors about Hepburn's lesbianism suggests that the notoriously feisty and tomboyish actress lived her life as a man with little empathy for women's issues. This interpretation also shatters the legend of her romance with Spencer Tracy—instead, Mann establishes a pattern of relationships in which the sex-averse Hepburn played emotional caretaker to a series of alcoholic, closeted homosexuals...Yet the portrait is constructed so carefully that it never feels shocking. Mann also devotes significant attention to Hepburn's rocky relationships with Hollywood studios and with the press, revealing that the self-styled renegade wasn't above collaborating to shape her public image, and depicts her final decline into alcoholism and depression with sensitivity. Hepburn's siblings and contemporaries (now free to speak after her death) make major corrections to earlier Hepburn biographies, creating a picture of a complex woman rather than the icon she worked hard to become in the public's eye. This will surely be the definitive version of Hepburn's life for decades to come...

It's true Hepburn doesn't fit as a good answer to this question, but not for OmieWise's reason.
posted by mediareport at 11:41 PM on January 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Well color me educated. I guess, either way, Hepburn is probably the wrong model.
posted by OmieWise at 5:50 AM on January 10, 2008

Wow. I, too, have been educated.

I based my opinions on the books I had read, also, but I am going to pick up that Mann book. I think I may be missing the whole picture.

For instance, I felt that KH dressing as a man was closely tied to losing her brother to suicide, rather than simply a nod to lesbianism; I felt that in many ways she was almost asexual and that her relationship with Tracy was very close because of similarities in their work ethics and philosophies...

Anyway, as I said, I need to read Mann's book.

Thanks for the education, mediareport and matteo.

Back to great single women!
posted by misha at 9:01 AM on January 10, 2008

Great list-- but they are wrong about Gloria Steinem, who did marry. Someone corrected it below.
posted by Maias at 8:16 PM on January 10, 2008

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