One of the jokes dear to my second wave feminist heart is the one where a group of women walk into a restaurant and the maître de asks: “Are you ladies alone?” Rifling through my notes of yore I came across the perfect answer to the question: “No, we’re together.” [i] Almost two decades into the 21st century, the patriarchal, if not heterosexist underpinnings of the maître de’s rhetorical question are still with us. Despite the statistical rise in unmarried women among adults in the U.S. (by 2009 they outnumbered married ones) stereotypes and prejudices still persist. In her book Singled Out, How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After, Bella DePaulo, writes that despite this dramatic rise in numbers, stereotypical thinking still persists: to be single is to be without family, unloved, unwanted, and “alone” no matter how much company you keep.
This isn’t the first time single women have been of popular and demographic interest. M. Carey Thomas, Bryn Mawr’s first president, penned an essay entitled: “Our Failures Only Marry” (although some contend that it initially read “Only Our Failures Marry”.) In the last decades of the 19th century, the “new woman” (generally the professionally trained and educated one), unmarried and independent, enjoyed a modicum of respect and status in the culture at large. However, there were concerns that women who willingly choose professions over marriage (and thereby childbearing/rearing) endangered the future of our nation by depriving it of the intelligent offspring of their class. Accordingly, any cultural ease with unmarried women was short lived. By the waning days of first-wave feminism, positive images of the permanently (i.e., over the age of 21) “unmarried woman” had all but disappeared and the single woman (although now able to vote, wear short dresses and/or pants and do the Charleston like her married counterparts) was still considered the anomaly, more pitied than praised.
Even with the advent of second wave feminism, stereotypes persisted. After having lost three wedding rings within the first decade of my marriage, my husband and I decided that it better suited our finances if I went ring-less. I reveal this intimate detail because when I first began teaching in the late sixties and seventies, students assumed I was unmarried. This presented particular problems when teaching family and gender courses. Any critique I offered was met with a certain amount of incredulity. After all, how could I, an unmarried woman, probably divorced and embittered, be fair to the institution of marriage? Matina Horner’s (psychologist and former President of Radcliff College) dissertation brought into being a series of studies dubbed “fear of success.” In this series, subjects were asked to write stories in response to a projective cue which read as follows: “After first –term finals Anne finds herself at the top of her medical school class.” In general, the responses indicated a rather bleak future for Anne: she most likely would end up a bitter old spinster, unmarried, unhappy, and “alone” for the rest of her life.
But while DePaulo bemoans the prejudices and stereotypes still attached to singledom, Rebecca Traister suggests a more positive result of this demographic trend in her book: All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation. [ii] Single ladies keep better rhetorical company in Traister’s book: empowered, independent, and living anything but lonely lives. In fact, staying single over an important part of one’s life cycle may be just the ticket for a happy life (although this works best for women with resources) and, if not single forever, certainly over a longer stretch of the life-course. Although Traister is ironically aware that she is writing of unmarried women just as she enters the state of matrimony, she suggests that her happy marriage is, in part, a byproduct of her long, productive, and happy life as a single woman.
Today’s “ladies alone” signals something more than just a demographic development toward later marriage and childbearing. Traister argues that this newly emerging trend heralds a “social and political rupture” as profound as any of the groups associated with advances in human rights and as liberating as any movement, suffrage or sexual. A truly independent nation depends upon women in control of their own lives and decision-making; women who successfully break with conventional stereotypes and prejudices.
[i] Lorraine York, Rethinking Women’s Collaborative Writing, U of Toronto Press, 2002.
[ii] Rebecca Traister, All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, Simon and Schuster, 2016.