You are here

Sociologist Review of Donna Ward's book on spinsterhood - She I dare not name

It's not an easy life described within the covers of Donna Ward's semi-autobiography, She I dare not name: A spinster’s meditations on life, Allen and Unwin, NSW, 2020. In a vocabulary measured with precision but rich with imagery, Ward evaluates her experiences as an unmarried woman who achieved this status without wanting it at all. The book is very honest in its descriptions of how this came about and the importance that it has in defining the course of Donna’s life. The term "spinster," is initially called up like some daemonic creature. It is something she almost dare not name! As we read on, we realise that spinsters are not gothic inventions, but human like their married counterparts, probably equally defined by hazard.

It seems to be a case of pot luck that brought Donna to the point of which she writes, in a book finished in her sixty-seventh year.

Donna describes early years rich in experience of nature and travel, warm relationships with larger-than-life parents, and the birth of a young sister in her early childhood. This was however an event notified by her father, only one day prior, with something like sexual shame.

“He said this as if he barely understood anything about it , as if it was something Camille and Mum had cooked up between themselves that very day , something so shameful he’d had to fly all the way home to sort it out, though I didn’t think he was doing a good job of it.”

Mostly, however, her account of her childhood reads almost like a comforting and exciting slide show with non-sequential images and vignettes, depicting mostly carefree recollections. One senses though, that Donna’s parents are involved with each other more than they are with Donna, and that their relationship with her has conditions attached. In primary school, Donna experiences a “desperate relationship with spelling and arithmetic,” to the extent that she is sent to a psychiatrist. No-one can determine whether she is “brilliant or dumb.” Her mother cannot hide her shame from Donna. By the time Donna is ten, though, she is a good student.

It's in adulthood that the going gets really tough. Donna also indicates that she has a very poor relationship with her sister. Where she might have expected to benefit socially in many ways, from an introduction into her parents' well-connected circle in WA mining world, instead, having chosen to do social-work, she is marked as an outsider.

Ward moves from Perth, Western Australia, to Melbourne, Victoria, as a young woman, and predictably has to make her own way in the big city. She shares houses but mostly lives alone. She goes to university and gains her degree. She lands her ‘dream job’ but loses it to a male in the ‘recession we had to have’, as it was termed by the then Federal Treasurer Paul Keating, in 1990.

This job-loss was probably a defining point in Donna’s personal development. Where professional status might have compensated an early lack of unconditional love and brought her earning capacity and social rank up to something recognisable to her former peers, her job-loss plunges her into indeterminate socio-economic status. In parallel with other isolated social and economic victims of economic rationalism, she must individually craft a new survival path. She achieves this with difficulty, an exotic traveller in the new age, finally emerging as a neo-classical philosopher on non-marriage.

Descriptions of her social encounters give the reader a sense of her tumbling around in a sea of strangers interspersed with special friends and lovers poetically anonymised for publication as archetypes or as characters in Ancient Greek tales. Our heroine or protagonist does her best with what she encounters. The life she grapples with is one that has no markers or guideposts and she feels herself to be at the mercy of the preferences of the males she becomes involved with, or the narrative they see for their lives, with respect to other female players. Then again, it was she who decided not to go through with marriage to a Japanese fiancé. In her chapter, ‘The Weight of a child’, we glimpse another of life’s cul-de-sacs as she briefly recollects terminating a pregnancy that resulted from rape.

“I could not have that child, the conception had been so rude. The way his father pushed me onto the couch, held me at the throat, tore my panties and took his revenge, took what I had denied him years before. […] In the autumn of 1977, when the jacarandas were yellowing and the plum trees sapping their leaves, I let that child go, lest I be tied to his father for the rest of my life. I believed another child would come along. (Ward, Donna. She I Dare Not Name: A spinster's meditations on life (pp. 248-249.)

No-one seems to be looking out for Donna, our heroine. She just has to take it on the chin. Is this a failing of her character or is it due to the milieu and time she finds herself in? We found her a very likeable character. In many ways we were reminded of our own photogenic childhoods with happy pictorial vignettes bathed in yellow light, freedom, and cosiness, along with similar struggles in adulthood.

This narrative raises the question: How does a young woman in a big city, away from her parents and her natal community, find love, or find that suitable person with whom to form a family? It is clear from Ward's writing that that her drive to ‘nest’, to be part of a couple (duo), and to have a child, is very strong. It seems both hormonal and social. She wants to be part of the world of couples, to alleviate loneliness, to find security, and to change her status. In the face of disappointment, she soldiers on courageously, but her essentially solitary situation – despite friends and jobs - makes her vulnerable to predatory or incompetent approaches.

She mentions serial recoveries from the emotional hurt of broken relationships. Is life really meant to be so hurtful and stressful? Many women and men would relate to the bruising nature of the relationship-seeking process in the 20th and 21st century urban social environment.

The author describes her experiences, starting in the 1970s until the present. Dating is one way we do this in the West. Both parties do a series of interviews over dinner and this process can go on for years. There are more casual opportunities in which to evaluate potential partners, such as clubs with shared activities, like tennis, bushwalking, or Meetups; churches, political groups, universities, and work. A friend of mine met her life-partner and husband through an ad in a ‘singles magazine’ in the 1980s. These days she might have found him via internet dating services.

The quest for a mate is not a level playing field between men and women if they want children, as the woman is almost invariably up against time constraints. These constraints become increasingly urgent as she moves from her twenties to her thirties. A woman has a brief period in her life from about age sixteen to twenty-five, when she is most sought after by men her own age as well as those considerably older. In terms of sexual attractiveness, she has the odds in her favour then, more than she will have at any time in the future.

If she misses this opportunity to light on the ideal partner, or at least a suitable one, she has her work cut out. It will dawn on her gradually, as she approaches thirty, that really there is not much time and there is a decreasing number of men to choose from.

The finishing post in this ‘race’ is usually considered to be forty, after which a woman will not necessarily expect to ever conceive. If she wants to and she does, it will be a bonus in any permanent partnership she manages to secure.

The woman is, as was Donna Ward, expected, under this pressure, to make a wise assessment of the men who cross her path, to get to know them better than superficially, and to try not to get hurt. Whether she will have descendants depends on how she negotiates this situation. Adding to the difficulty of the task, in her most propitious years, she is necessarily young and inexperienced.

How could our society better provide a benign environment for young marriageable people to meet in relative safety? Should mothers give guidelines to their daughters as to how to as to how to negotiate the situations they will face? Did most mothers also have to just find their way through the minefield? Did they think, "Well I had to do it, and my daughter now faces the same challenge!"

Do most of us leave this all-important decision to complete chance? The writers' parent’s generation, reaching adulthood in the 1940s, were more connected, and their parents more so. They did not often travel far or without introductions. They grew up in more predictable communities with pathways to identifiable milestones (rites of passage) and traditions, and relatives and connections, for negotiating these. At the same time, in the Anglosphere and Europe, in the 1950s and 60s, a burgeoning manufacturing industry meant plentiful jobs. An explosion in energy resources and transport allowed people to commute by car to work, from affordable housing in new estates on land once out of reach. That meant more people could move out of home, get a job, and get married. It was called the Baby Boom. Unfortunately, the explosion just kept magnifying and accelerating globally until mass transport and travel broke time-worn connections, dispersing people, at ever increasing speed to the four winds, far away from the familiar pathways, milestones and traditions.

Thus, our heroine dispersed like a dandelion seed and landed in Melbourne, apparently without any significant connections, in a city with diminishing social capital.

Did most women of her generation negotiate the getting hitched and having children part successfully - if not forever or until ‘death us do part’ - at least for long enough to have a child or two? Why did some, like our heroine miss out, or was the experience more common than we may think? Good luck finding statistics on how many women die without having children. As you can see from the graph, the unmarried proportion of the population has been steadily increasing since the 1970s oil-shock.

Maybe those who did not partner for long enough to have at least one child lacked the connections to find a suitable partner. This seems to be the case with Ms Ward. Many of her encounters with men seem accidental, lacking formal introduction or context, and so she lacks essential information. In assuming reciprocally honest interactions, she is fooled, more than once, by men who are thus easily able to conceal the fact that they are already partnered. Positive tit-for-tat, where good deeds and bad deeds are quickly reciprocated is only possible in viscous societies, where people stay close to where they originate from. Melbourne’s population is close to thirty-five per cent diaspora. Another way of saying this is that people can get away with breaking trust in an anonymous or constantly changing population, unless they belong to a stable enclave within it. Donna didn’t.

A major part of Ms Ward's serial emotional recoveries from serial romantic disappointments come from the blow to her self-esteem, because she mistakenly believes that there must be some flaw in herself, invisible to her, but which these men can see.

A more informed perspective might explain, however, that Ms Ward is a stranger trying to make her way in foreign territory, where her pedigree is unknown, where she has little or no personal status. She does not read the signs accurately or speak the local social language fluently. She is proceeding using signs she learned in West Australia for a small network there, which has probably gone extinct. She did not avail herself of that network when she was in West Australia because she had different values from her parents. This was because she came from a different generation at a time when values were changing rapidly. In her case, Aboriginal rights and Germaine Greer were (by her account) two contemporary changes that obviously influenced her and helped to separate her from her origins. The first affected her relationship with her mining father, and the second affected her relationship with men more generally.

Apparently, she did not want to be part of the money and status oriented, environmentally exploitative, mining crowd her parents belonged to. So, she migrated from West Australia to Sydney, then Melbourne. She acquired some social credentials and connections from universities there, but they were not enough to establish her as a local candidate for the kind of marriage she wanted. She found a good job, but the 2008 recession removed that job, so what were her prospects? We don't know. Having a house is certainly a plus, if you want to attract a mate, but, although she seems to have a house, we do not know how big her mortgage is. She would have needed to be careful not to marry someone with lesser prospects, for fear of being impoverished by divorce, and that would rule out a large and growing demographic.

Ms Ward seems to assume that marriage must have its basis in love. Most people want to marry up and for love, and most who marry say they did marry for love, but how many really do? Is the number of divorces an indication?

Since Ms Ward seemed to have limited opportunities, for one reason or another, perhaps she could have ranked her priorities differently. Reading closely, her real priorities might have been marital status, children, and companionship. Unfortunately, she seemed to put love up at the top. Love is a western ideal but, unless you are very lucky, that is a musical chair game that leaves many more standing than seated, and childless if they persist as the stakes go up. It might be better to look for respect and kindness. Love might come later, and, if it doesn't, affairs within marriage are the tried and true solution.

It is easier to understand the problem of partnership in the west, if you imagine that you are arranging a marriage for someone in 19th century England or in 20th century India, where your parents work out early where you are situated with regard to income expectations and earning, education, charm, and physical attributes. Although your parents might use marriage brokers, it is still likely that they will employ those brokers to find someone within their circle, or at least within a similar circle. When they find a candidate, each set of parents checks the other out for compatibility. After that they decide whether or not to let the children meet.

Given that parents do not generally perform this role as explicitly in contemporary Western society, many young women have to fend for themselves. Perhaps a way women (and men) could try to look after their own interests better could be by cultivating a perspective as if they were their own in loco parentis. Such a perspective would indicate a major change in the concept of marriage in Australia.


The modern equivalent of the marriage broker is probably e-harmony - people hand their relationship matching over to a computer algorithm. It seems to work sometimes, but maybe that has little to do with the algorithm per-se, but vetting by the individuals when they meet. But from what I can gather, a lot of people are not looking for marriage but hook-ups. And since sex is (apparently) so freely available, one traditional incentive to marry is greatly reduced.

Then there is the MGTOW movement - where a growing movement of men swear off long-term relationships with women, as the risks and cost is claimed to be to high. These are older men, who have been burnt, but also younger ones, and they have much sympathy it seems: