State of the single woman

Unmarried gals may be the freest people around. But to fully enjoy their lives, they need to stop paying attention to society's instructions.

By Laura Miller
Published December 12, 2002 8:09PM (EST)

By any rational account, a middle-class American single woman with marketable skills is the most fortunate female in the history of humankind. She's certainly the most free. According to Betsy Israel's "Bachelor Girl: The Secret History of Single Women in the Twentieth Century," here's what today's single girl can get that she couldn't get 100 years ago (or at least not without a truckload of grief): a decent job, the pleasure of walking down the street by herself without being hassled by the cops, her own rental apartment, credit, effective contraception and, of course, the opportunity to vote. Today, if she wants children she can adopt or bear her own without marrying and without suffering under a crushing stigma. And if she's lucky enough not to want kids, then she has that much more time and money to live as she pleases -- without accounting to or cleaning up after anyone else -- an unimaginable liberty for well over 99 percent of women throughout human history, including most of those alive today.

But I repeat, that's by any rational account, and somehow when the notion of the single woman walks in the door, all common sense flies out the window. An assortment of recent books about or related to single women can't, despite their best efforts, shake a tone of defensiveness and melancholy.

Of course, single women haven't cornered the market on complaint -- not today, when bemoaning one's lot seems to be the favorite sport of middle-class American women. While doing publicity for "The Bitch in the House," an anthology of first-person essays by 26 women, editor Cathi Hanauer and various contributors seemed to be under the startling impression that mothers, especially working mothers, hesitate to publicly discuss their abundant frustration, exhaustion and rage. That will come as a surprise to anyone, mother or not, who's recently picked up a newspaper or surveyed a bookstore display table, where Allison Pearson's "I Don't Know How She Does It" currently reigns. You'd think that the very visible and very vocal unhappiness of contemporary married mothers would burnish the image of the single life a bit, but apparently not, at least not in the minds of many single women: "Believe me," says a woman Israel interviewed, "living in this culture, it is hard not to feel horribly about yourself when you are ... not following the feminine script."

Some of the slights experienced by the uncoupled may be imaginary, if not downright paranoid, it should be said: "Bachelor Girl" contains one woman's rant about everything from "that horrible Hope character bouncing around with a baby in a 40-room house" (on the TV show "thirtysomething") to stroller-wielding moms on urban sidewalks who, she assumes, are thinking, "I obviously have the right of way, and the culture supports that. You are just a woman who does not have children, is not married, and either you move or you will get run over." Never mind the fact that it's pretty hard to assess the marital and maternal status of a complete stranger while trying to maneuver a stroller in a crowd.

"It's hard to believe, but I like my life," another of Israel's subjects says sarcastically, also picturing battalions of sneering moms who "take a perverse pleasure in punishing non-mothers." But given how aggrieved mothers reportedly feel these days, and the fact that one of Hanauer's friends says, "Every woman I know is mad at her husband, just mad mad mad at everything," it's possible those stroller charioteers and "smug marrieds" are brimming with envy, not contempt.

Nevertheless, marriage confers status on a woman in a way no other social institution can, and many if not most single women do feel the absence of that status. In her book "Solitaire: The Intimate Lives of Single Women," Canadian writer Marian Botsford Fraser interviews enough different kinds of unmarried women to make the very idea of generalizing about them silly, and yet plenty of her sources complain of the "pressure" to marry. This pressure comes, they say, from the "culture," meaning not only from family, that immemorial font of bullying, but especially from the media.

This is the point at which I'm supposed to tsk-tsk over "messages" and "role models," to haul out "Ally McBeal," Bridget Jones and "Sex and the City," and ask with furrowed brow, "How are single women supposed to sort out all these contradictory images?" On top of the TV shows there are the articles in newsmagazines and glossies to deplore, the newspaper columns about new trends and panics, from the "Women over 35 are more likely to get killed by a terrorist than to marry" articles of the 1980s decried by Susan Faludi in "Backlash" to the attempt to stir up hysteria about late marriages and infertility tied to the publication last year of Sylvia Ann Hewlett's "Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children," all the objects of much furious commentary.

Israel's "Bachelor Girl" provides a reasonably lively account of the past 100 years of this sort of thing, with the occasional dash of hard facts by way of counterpoint. But while it doesn't hurt to be reminded of how far we've come since the days when Help Wanted classifieds were divided between jobs for men and women, this is largely familiar stuff and mostly in the realm of smoke and mirrors: mid-20th century doctors with dodgy-sounding credentials making sweeping pseudo-scientific pronouncements about what men and women want and need "by nature" (paging Steven Pinker!).

You can gasp in outrage at sexologists who announced that "frigid" women "refuse to be made happy; they resent the thought that the man has saved them, that they owe him everything" and Teddy Roosevelt preaching against the "race suicide" perpetrated by WASP women who declined to marry and reproduce in sufficient numbers to match the boom in dark-skinned immigrant populations. And it's always fun to revisit those oddball dames who managed, back when a wedding really was like a prison sentence, to escape the altar and to thrive, the pioneer nurses and suffragists who are always wittier than they look in their dour photos. (Mary Barton -- Clara's sister -- wrote of "having viewed from a safe distance the exquisite happiness of marriage.")

But finally, what this breed of cultural history offers up as its solution to the malaise of single women -- or of any woman who doesn't conform to some narrow and presumably obvious "standard," or for that matter the women who do and are still unhappy -- is that the images and articles need to be reformed. If we can only tweak the messages until they're just right, if we can all agree upon a single, righteous standard of successful womanhood that will be uniformly broadcast from all the outlets that previously emitted bad messages, contentment will come within our reach. We will at last know how to live.

Partly, this is the inevitable stupidity of demographic thinking, the persistent and foolish desire to generalize about a large and diverse population. Glossy magazine editors are particularly prone to this claptrap, to dredging up the same chestnut "insights" over and over again, each time more firmly patting their readers' comfortable prejudices into place. Israel, a former magazine editor and columnist herself, is good at nailing down the classic motifs of the "lifestyle" story, tracing, for example, the generic "interview with a single girl" article through its several permutations over the past seven decades. (The important thing is to close on an ominous note -- in one crude early example, the reporter's subject is literally followed out of the restaurant by a "slinking gray" ghost of her single life yet to come, a "phantom spinster," who has "horrible designs on the security of her later years.")

But while there's nothing wrong with dissecting nasty propaganda, it can only take you so far. Here's a question that doesn't get asked in any of these books: What sort of person decides how to live and what she wants from her 75 years on this planet on the basis of magazine articles and TV shows? How is "sorting out" your opinion on a comic fictional character like Ally McBeal at all related to the hard work of acquiring self-knowledge? What use are role models when the reality, dear reader, is that while I love being single you quite possibly loathe it?

The image that I'm receiving as a result of reading this stuff is of a nation of women hungrily awaiting directions on how to live but invariably dismayed at the results of following them -- and this seems like a bigger problem than the content of the directions themselves. It's remarkable how often the words "supposed to" and "expected to" crop up when women are describing their lives. "Wasn't cohabitational bliss the jackpot I was supposed to spend my 20s desperately pursuing?" one typical contributor to "The Bitch in the House" muses when cohabitation turns out to be less than blissful.

The French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote that liberty is a practice not a condition (meaning you're only free to the extent that you exercise your freedom), but the contemporary middle-class woman excels at reconceiving her liberties as bondage. Commentators on women's lives are apt to lead off with a categorically positive statement like "women have so many choices these days," only to suggest that the choosing has become burdensome. "Now we are expected to play another game," writes Fraser wearily of the burgeoning market for women's erotica in "Solitaire." Even the chance to seek more sexual pleasure gets interpreted as a chore.

Women are hypersensitive to these directives, perceiving them even when they're not really there. On the basis of a spirited denunciation in Elle magazine, I expected Barbara Dafoe Whitehead's new book, "Why There Are No Good Men Left: The Romantic Plight of the New Single Woman," to be an alarmist tract urging young women to marry as early as possible if they ever want to have a family. Instead, it is a well-intentioned enough (if lamentably titled) account of the social conditions that make it harder for those women who want to marry to find suitable husbands if they prefer to marry later in life. Whitehead doesn't insist that all women want to marry (though most do, and most will) or even that they ought to marry young. In fact, it argues that courtship customs need to be revamped to accommodate the fact that many women are not choosing to marry by 22 and that society could be a lot more helpful when they do decide to settle down.

Of course, Whitehead's book, like most books directed at single women, doesn't address those heterosexual women who don't want to marry, or those who aren't averse to marriage but aren't actively seeking it or -- and this is particularly murky territory -- those who assume they want to marry because everyone else does but unconsciously are more ambivalent. Such women are in the minority, although a confirmed bachelorette of my acquaintance thinks that third category is a lot bigger than anyone realizes. Those among them who need consistent and positive "messages" in order to conduct their lives are out of luck. To get the most out of being single, a woman has to develop a skill that is seemingly harder to come by these days than a good man: the ability to be happy even when other people are convinced you can't be.

That's trickier than it sounds. This year's Nobel Prize-winner for economics, Daniel Kahneman, is currently conducting a study on "well-being," observing 1,000 working women in Texas. He told the New York Times that his team not only asks the women how satisfied they are with their lives overall but is also keeping track of how good the women feel on a day-to-day basis (Kahneman calls this "cheerfulness"). "Divorced women, compared to married women, are less satisfied with their lives, which is not surprising," he said. "But they're actually more cheerful when you look at the average mood they're in in the course of the day." In other words, the divorced women feel better more often than the married women. That's as good a definition of happiness as any other, but when asked to evaluate their own lives, the divorced women are less likely to describe themselves as satisfied because they know they're not supposed to be. So therefore they can't be, right?

"I knew that on paper I was the luckiest woman alive," writes one of the contributors to "The Bitch in the House," a married mother who can't fathom why she's "unhappy, bored, anxious." I suspect that for single women, the situation will always be reversed; "on paper" we will never be happy, let alone as lucky as some of us feel. As Whitehead observes, "Society has an interest in the formation of lasting marital unions, especially when they include, or are likely to include, dependent children." Family, class, nation, race -- all of these are keen on self-preservation and therefore unlikely to ever celebrate a choice that doesn't further that goal. The media images and messages will always be dire. No matter what a single woman does with her life, most people will believe, secretly or not, that she can never be truly happy or, to use a word reeking with dubious assumptions, fulfilled.

On paper, it's a pathetic lot, but why live on paper? I recently ran into another single, childless woman at a party and we got to talking about the pleasures of the unmarried life, of the voluptuous delights of doing exactly as we pleased with our time, energy and concentration, of ministering to no one and staying out as late as we wanted. Neither of us has been vexed by a biological clock. We paused for a moment to contemplate our fate. "We beat the system, didn't we?" I said suddenly. She laughed. "You bet we did. And no one will ever know."

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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