For the Many, Not the Married

Despite the many gains made by feminist and LGBTQ activists, society - including the mainstream left - remains more invested in the couple and the nuclear family than in broader ideas of community.

In our culture the spinster has generally been understood as something of a tragic figure – an unmarried woman, past her prime, thwarted in her desire to find a life partner and have her own family. What could be worse? Perhaps there have been shifts in how mainstream society measures a woman’s success in term of her matrimonial status, but the term remains laden with baggage. In recent decades, tolerance of heteronormative couples without a formal marriage licence has grown, and financial incentives to marry have lessened - despite attempts by the Tory-DUP alliance to reinstate tax cuts for married couples, and the increasing difficulty of maintaining certain living standards (including supporting children) on a single person’s income. But the fiscal and ‘moral’ reasoning behind marriage has been replaced with more shadowy forces: the pressure to raise children (why?); the joy of sharing one’s home with a man (urgh); romantic ‘love’. The harsh truth is that our society, despite many leaps forward, still effectively promotes marriage, heteronormative monogamy and child-rearing as the ‘natural’ path. People who aren’t in relationships are judged against the standards of those who are, and are seen as lacking, or failing somehow – “they just haven’t met the right person yet” – as if to be in a couple is the ultimate sign of success. Women continue to have their reproductive freedom denied, and to be judged, stigmatised and punished for their reproductive realities, particularly when it involves not having children.

Spinsters For Corbyn is working for a socialist Labour Party that governs for the many, not the few, and believes that to this end we must seriously examine the way our society and relationships are organised. The mainstream left, despite the many gains made by feminist and LGBTQ activists over the years, remains over-invested in both the couple and the nuclear family as units of social organisation. These conservative, heteronormative assumptions are reproduced in rhetoric and policy, in which the conventional family is given far greater emphasis than broader, more open ideas of community.

Spinster as Killjoy

It is in this context that we choose to (re)claim the spinster as a figure of resistance. The spinster, unmarried and unmarriageable, has the freedom to stand outside of these norms and see them for what they are. She exists in a similar capacity to Sara Ahmed’s ‘feminist killjoy’. In her essay on the subject, Ahmed takes seriously this notion of the feminist as one who kills joy, arguing that this “makes sense if we place her in the context of feminist critiques of happiness, of how happiness is used to justify social norms as social goods”. She uses the image of a family seated round a dinner table to demonstrate the efforts we make in our society to preserve the status quo:

How hard we work to keep the occasion happy, to keep the surface of the table polished so that it can reflect back a good image of the family. So much you are not supposed to say, to do, to be, in order to preserve that image.

When the feminist disrupts this image by speaking out against the ways this unit oppresses her, she is unseated from the table – she is killing the supposed joy of those in the family, destroying their happiness. Her position becomes one of difficulty, ostracisation, conflict; but it is, as Ahmed argues, also one of possibility:

To be willing to cause unhappiness can also be how we immerse ourselves in collective struggle, as we work with and through others who share our points of alienation. Those who are unseated by the tables of happiness can find each other.

When we find each other, spaces are created in which we can consider other more freeing, radical forms of happiness and imagine ways of living our life based on fulfilment and joy, both individual and collective. (Spinsters for Corbyn are often unseated by the tables of happiness but when that happens, we usually decamp to a table in the nearest pub where the only thing that can unseat us is too many Jaegerbombs.)

Ahmed’s table motif struck us particularly in Spinsters for Corbyn as we held our AGM over oysters and champagne last Christmas Eve. At that time of year, the spectre of the idealised family Christmas dinner confronted us nearly everywhere we looked: on TV, in shops, on advertising hoardings, on social media. No matter that for many people no such scenario exists in their life, or that for others such situations are a source of huge pressure and anxiety. It’s commonly acknowledged by providers of mental health care and services that Christmas puts enormous strain on the wellbeing of large numbers of people, and that initiatives to combat loneliness proliferate at this time of year. All of this is widely recognised, yet there is little attempt to think in any meaningful sense about why this should be. Rather it is seen as some kind of unavoidable natural phenomenon, inevitable collateral damage along the path to the most wonderful time of the year.

Reject Domesticity: Smash the Family

Spinsters For Corbyn believes that it’s time for the left to ask serious questions about our unthinking reliance on the nuclear family paradigm - to face up to the ways in which it can alienate, isolate and restrict, and the burden it places on everybody, but particularly on women. We strive to create an inclusive socialist movement that works for everyone and that eradicates exclusionary patriarchal, heterosexist norms. This is not to undermine completely any idea of family – as bell hooks has pointed out, existing extended family and kinship networks offer ways of opening out our idea of family and thinking more broadly in terms of community. Rather, we wish to address how capitalism and patriarchy, in hooks’ words, “have worked overtime to undermine and destroy this larger unit of extended kin”, replacing it with a privatised nuclear family unit which has “helped increase alienation and made abuses of power more possible”1.

It is essential, then, to build into our critiques of capitalism a critique of this privatised family model. We need to think seriously about how we reorganise our society, and about the kind of healthcare, housing, and childcare systems that, as socialists, we demand. A society that promotes marriage and child-rearing as the ‘natural’ and desirable path for everybody can create extra financial and emotional burdens for those who do not live their lives in this way, either because they choose not to, or because they are not able to. Loneliness, anxiety and insecurity thrive in this climate, and Spinsters For Corbyn believes that there is nothing right or inevitable about this state of affairs.

We want an economy and a housing system that enables people to live their lives in free and fulfilling ways. Let’s imagine and argue for alternative, more collective forms of housing. Alongside our arguments for social housing, let’s work hard to replace the harmful idea that a home must be synonymous with private ownership and the traditional family unit.

We demand a health service that looks after people’s health and social care, rather than slowly allowing it to be foisted back onto women. We want a universal childcare system that will enable us to smash the lurid idea that only parents are responsible for their children’s health and well-being, ensuring an egalitarian state-run system which tends to the needs of children, parents and society.

More than this, we insist that it is possible to end the heteronormative narrative that dictates how people should live their lives and promotes marriage and child-rearing as the only alternative. Of course Labour must support families let down by a decade of austerity, returning state-sponsored security to every child’s life, but let’s also consider, discuss, and celebrate alternatives to the sexist bourgeois family unit.

Spinsterhood as Praxis

These issues require our urgent attention, but the left continues to display a depressing lack of analysis and reflection in the arena of personal relationships. The ‘centrist dad’ is lambasted by those on the left, with the word ‘dad’ in this pejorative context implying a kind of stodgy and complacent social conservatism aligning with their centrist politics. But straight men on the left frequently display a similarly unimaginative and uninsightful approach to the organisation of their own relationships. They unthinkingly participate in the marriage-and-kids model, claiming that that they want to “settle down” without any real reflection about why this is what they want, beyond the fact that everybody else they know is doing it. They put little thought into the work involved in this model, the implications of this work for women and wider society, and how this fits into their socialist politics more broadly. This absence of reflection in their behaviour leads to all sorts of problems: alienation, estrangement, infidelity, relationship breakdown, dishonesty, pain.

Society has a celebration of the traditional family to exclude or coerce us for every season of the year, and as we write this the shops are filling up with pink chocolate hearts. We are surely not the only ones taking a stand against this artificial ‘romance’, unquestioned and misunderstood, which hides a sinister enforcement of traditional and oppressive relationship structures onto the single and the ‘coupled’ alike. What causes so many socialists to ignore the fissures which mark family life from the cradle to the grave? Who would stumble unthinkingly into a celebration of the bonds which tied our mothers and grandmothers into difficult, laborious relationships, at best full of drudgery and unacknowledged emotional labour, at worst just public fronts disguising abuse, bigotry and male-dominated conformity? As old maids, working girls, single mums, bachelorettes, bluestockings, wicked aunties, ladettes, jeunes filles (mal-gardées and otherwise) go-ers, singletons, witches, bitches, un-marriageables, Bridget Joneses, on-the-shelfs, virgins, whores, maidens, and crones, but most of all as spinsters, we can no longer stand by and watch our socialist comrades ignore the elephant in the room.

To get involved with Spinsters For Corbyn, its cocktail nights or its national lottery syndicate, contact [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @Spinster4Corbyn.

  1. See hooks, bell, All About Love: New Visions (2000), p.130 


Spinsters for Corbyn (@Spinster4Corbyn)

Spinsters for Corbyn was formed as an informal collective of spinsters against marriage in order to promote a socialist Labour Party, destroy the nuclear family, and work for a bright new future in which boring theory bros learn to take a joke which doesn’t reference the Frankfurt School. We meet regularly for feminist solidarity, political discussion and karaoke.