The single woman is a force in society—and a ghost in our culture

More women live alone than ever before, a seismic, society-changing shift. So why is this experience so culturally invisible?

© Copyright 2008 Corbis Corporation

This week’s cover of New York magazine is clearly designed to provoke. On it, a near life-sized photograph of the left hand of a young, white woman, her manicured ring finger raised in an “up yours” gesture of defiance. No DeBeers diamond worth two months of a fiancé’s salary adorns it; instead, tiny type spells out a newer single-female status marker: “Single women are now the most potent political force in America,” it reads. The accompanying story, excerpted from the upcoming book All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation by Rebecca Traister, explores the latest superpower (and validator) of single women: their role as electoral king- (or queen-) makers. Single women’s support paved the way for Obama’s win in 2008, writes Traister, a staff writer at the magazine; married women voted for Romney. The fact unmarried women, young and old, tend to vote progressively—for federally mandated maternity leave, reproductive rights and equal-pay protections—is a determining factor in the U.S. presidential primaries, Traister notes, with Millennial female support currently buttressing Bernie Sanders.

The voting clout of unmarried women is only one theme of All the Single Ladies, a wide-ranging examination of singledom that has garnered predictable media buzz ahead of its March 1 publication. Publisher Simon & Schuster has deemed it “provocative” and “groundbreaking,” which it will be for anyone who has managed to miss the microscopic examination unmarried women have been subject to in recent years in magazines, books and academe. Traister brings insight, perspective and a boatload of statistics to the topic, yet the very existence of All The Single Ladies in 2016, along with the spate of similar books and articles, serves as a reminder of how a group so diverse in age, race, income and proclivities (shopping for shoes at Holt Renfrew or lining up at food banks to feed their children) can still be packaged as a special interest group sharing a collective consciousness and voting habits. (To say single double X marks the spot is simplistic: race and ethnicity are a better predictor of candidate preference in U.S. elections than gender gap, for instance.)

And yet women delaying or altogether forgoing marriage over the past half-century do represent seismic economic and social shifts occasioned by women’s mass entry to the workplace and access to birth control. They’re also canaries in a coalmine of long-range effects to come. As Traister points out, their emergence demands a massive rethink of social policies around work, end-of-life care, euthanasia, and definition of family, to name just a few issues. Yet that rethink seems nowhere in sight, and narratives of single female life seem positively stuck.

Candice Bergen as Murphy Brown. Image dated 1990. (CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)

Candice Bergen as Murphy Brown. Image dated 1990. (CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)v

As long ago as 1973, Newsweek claimed “singlehood has emerged as an intensely ritualized—and respectable—style of American life.” More than 40 years later we still don’t know what to make of unmarried women—and arguably know less today than two generations ago. In fact, we’ve seen a backslide in their cultural depiction. It was a generation ago, in the early 1990s, Traister reminds us, that the popular TV show Murphy Brown portrayed a post-40-year-old, affluent, divorced woman who—eventually—raised a child alone. The fictional character was such a social outlier that an inflamed U.S. vice-president Dan Quayle blamed her for the “family breakdown” that gave rise to the Los Angeles riots. But Murphy Brown was then but one of a multitude of depictions of female singlehood. The sitcom Julia broke a race barrier in the ’60s in showing a young African-American widow raising a son alone. In the ’70s, One Day at a Time portrayed a divorced mother raising daughters. The ’80s brought The Golden Girls, a sitcom about older women sharing a house.

In the ensuing years, mainstream portrayals of unmarried women became less nuanced, younger and more neurotic—see Ally McBeal and Bridget Jones—even as the demographic’s economic clout was celebrated and cultivated. The landmark 2000 study “The Single Female Consumer,” produced by the U.K. arm of advertising giant Young & Rubicam, claimed that professional, educated single women living alone were “new yuppies,” the biggest consumer group in the world. In response, we saw the pathetic Cathy of the cartoon replaced by airbrushed Sex and the City affluence.

But over the past five or six years, single women living alone (Mary Tyler Moore on The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the ’70s and even Liz Lemon of 30 Rock) have been replaced by Millennial “girls” on Broad City, 2 Broke Girls, New Girl and the HBO show Girls, which began its fifth season last week with one lead character walking down the aisle. And let’s not forget the revolving “Bachelorettes,” women less desperate to exit singledom than to become famous. Should we be surprised Beyoncé’s 2007 hit Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It) has emerged as the anthem of single-woman autonomy, a song whose message is to ditch that guy who won’t commit and make him jealous? Or that How to Be Single, released last month, was marketed as a “feminist anti-rom-com? Meanwhile, no similiar books or movies plumb the angst-ridden or else triumphant escapades of single men—or should that be “boys”?

A still from the show Girls. (HBO Canada)

A still from the show Girls. (HBO Canada)

The unmarried have always been with us, says historian Elizabeth Abbott. “Members of 18th- and 19th-century bourgeoisie societies couldn’t marry until they achieved a certain financial bracket,” she said, which meant as many as 25 per cent didn’t marry. The difference today, says the author of A History of Marriage, is that it’s now easy to be single: “You don’t need a strong hands to cut a tree down for kindling.”

In fact, single women’s thriving agency and activism as early as the 19th century was the topic of Betsy Israel’s underappreciated 2002 book Bachelor Girl: The Secret History of Single Women in the Twentieth Century; it charts the role of unmarried women in mobilizing the labour movement, abolitionism, and suffrage. Traister cites the book repeatedly in All the Single Ladies, as she ties together seemingly disparate threads accounting for the rise of single females, from the support given single women by city life (“Girlhattan”), to the intimacy offered by female friendships (the male “soulmate” is being replaced by platonic friendship in the vein of Christina and Meredith friendship of Grey’s Anatomy) to how “hook-up culture” is employed by women to avoid relationships that might divert focus from education.

But the rumblings of this modern iteration of female singlehood date all the way back to 1960: Three years before the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, New York Mirror magazine ran “Who needs a man around the house?” in praise of female self-sufficiency. Forty years later, Time felt compelled to repeat the message on its August 2000 cover, with the Sex and the City actors under the headline “Who needs a husband?” (As it turned out, they all did.)

Six years later, psychologist Bella DePaulo coined “singlism” to describe stigmatizing, negative stereotyping and discrimination facing singles, in her incisive 2006 book Singled Out: How Singles are Stereotyped, Stigmatized and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. She blamed, in part, the rise of “matrimania,” the unprecedented glorification of coupling, the idea that happiness only comes by finding and keeping one primary partner, the “soulmate.” Even though unmarried women are the norm, such thinking has become internalized; Traister cites a 2011 University of Missouri study that found middle-class, never-married women experienced a “heightened sense of deviant visibility within their families and communities.” Its title: “I’m a loser, I’m not married, look at me.”

Yet Singled Out’s subtitle also, intentionally or not, laid the pathway to a single-mania, an equally distorted elevation of single life as “the new happily ever after”—liberating and relentlessly fabulous: paragliding in Bora Bora, saving the boreal forest. If being in a couple narrows one’s life —providing less time keeping in touch with friends and extended family or being involved in community, as Laura Kipnis argued in her 2003 book Against Love, being single seems to suddenly demand a constant state of self-actualization that, to some singles at least, must sound rather exhausting.

What we’re not seeing or hearing are the kinds of textured accounts of single life that reflect most people’s experience, which lies somewhere between the two extremes—a range afforded to married couples via a plethora of cultural offerings, from Lauren Groff’s novel Fates and Furies to movies such as Amour. Singles, on the other hand, are caricatures: poor, sad Jennifer Aniston (until her recent marriage), dangerous Monica Lewinsky or the unhinged, bunny-boiling careerist played by Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction.

It’s not an academic point. The non-affluent reality of female single life largely absent in media and Hollywood depictions raises serious societal questions. Single women comprise almost 50 per cent of people in the U.S. earning minimum wage or less, Traister writes, with more than half of single women with children under six living below the poverty line. The situation is echoed in Canada, according to StatsCan: Working-age single people earn a median income of $31,000 —one-third of the income of a two-parent family with children under 18. The gap grows with time; at retirement age, singles face a median $30,000 savings deficit, compared to a $172,000 savings surplus for couples.

The 2011 National Household Survey revealed that while more Canadians live alone than in households with four people or more, politicians still speak of family in Justin-and-Sophie imagery: two parents and children. Despite their demographic might, singles remain a shadow population misunderstood and ignored by policy-makers and the culture writ large, a point made by Eric Klinenberg’s 2013 book Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone.

In this publicity image released by Music World Entertainment/Columbia Records, Beyonce Knowles is shown during the filming of her music video "Single Ladies (Put A Ring on It)." (AP Photo/Music World Entertainment/Columbia Records, Peter Lindberg)

In this publicity image released by Music World Entertainment/Columbia Records, Beyonce Knowles is shown during the filming of her music video “Single Ladies (Put A Ring on It).” (AP Photo/Music World Entertainment/Columbia Records, Peter Lindberg)

All the Single Ladies attempts to offer a nuanced take. The fact that Traister, a well-known feminist commentator, embarked on the book—part memoir, part journalism based on numerous interviews—after deciding to marry six years ago at age 35 might seem like a soldier reflecting on warfare from safe home shores. But she views the normalization of single life as “radical” in terms of female identity more broadly, in that it extends the “expansion of options, the lifting of the imperative that for centuries hustled all (non-slaved) women . . . down a single highway toward early heterosexual marriage and motherhood.” Yet All the Single Ladies—like many books of its ilk—is animated by convention: the belief that most of its readers will marry or want children. Singleness is a transitional state. The book even identifies yet another social achievement of single women: thanks to their ability to live full lives, they raise the bar for all women not to settle. “I ended up happily married because I lived at a time I could be happily single,” Traister writes. But single experience before age 25 or 35 is not the same as being single at 50 or 70. Aging and loneliness, two cultural stigmas, confront single women with particular brute force, as the Irish writer Nuala O’Faolain boldly revealed in her brave, extraordinary 1996 memoir Are You Somebody? The Accidental Diary of a Dublin Woman.

We can expect more of the same now that the “romantic market” has been upended by male joblessness and a steep decline in men’s prospects, which in turn narrow even a marriage-minded woman’s options. Journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it plainly: “Despite what we have heard, women tend to be human beings and if they are less likely to marry today, it is probably that they have decided that marriage doesn’t advance their interests as much as it once did.” Abbott agrees: “In my experience, men are more dependent on having a woman around.” The majority of people in the U.S. still have been married at one point, she says. “That likely won’t be the case in 40 years.” Women weren’t happy in the ’50s, Abbott says. “We know now that the Leave it to Beaver wife likely had a gin bottle in the laundry and was screwing the gardener. People stayed together because people needed each other; there may have been the ecstatic marriage, but it was rare.”

Single life has yet to have its Feminine Mystique, and given its vast variations likely never will. In the meantime, providing assurance to singles has led to a modern “spinster” market, which can perpetuate stereotypes, witnessed in the attention thrust on Kate Bolick’s Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own published last fall. The book, based on a 2011 Atlantic article in which the gorgeous 39-year-old author asked, “Can I spend my life alone and still be happy?” and posed for photos in a bridesmaid’s dress sipping champagne, summoned a bidding war ending in a “high six-figure” deal. Bolick makes it clear she isn’t a single-by-default old crone: “I couldn’t walk down the street without winding up on a date,” she wrote. Yet she had to time-travel to the 19th century for her role models, who included Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edith Wharton, and Neith Boyce, who wrote Vogue’s “The Bachelor Girl” column.

The dearth of iconic real-world unmarried women is evident in All the Single Ladies, which begins with one of the few: the story of attorney Anita Hill, whose single status was used to discredit her brave testimony in the 1991 hearings alleging that her former boss, Judge Clarence Thomas, sexually harassed her; being single “distinguished [Hill] from established expectations of femininity,” Traister writes. In a revealing full-circle, All the Single Ladies ends with a reassuring quote from Hill, today in a relationship: “You can have a good life and be single,” she says. That this needs to be said 30 years later is telling—and deserving of a defiantly thrust naked ring finger.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.