All the Single Ladies
Watch Out for That Woman: The Political and Social Power of an Unmarried Nation
The contemporary wave of single women was building in the very same years that I was heading off to college, though I hadn’t realized it. The early 1990s was the period in which reverberations of the social and political revolutions of my mother’s generation were manifesting as swiftly changing marriage and reproductive patterns, which, in turn, would create a current of political possibility for independent women in America.
On October 11, 1991, a thirty-five-year-old law professor, Anita Faye Hill, appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee to testify about the sexual harassment she’d experienced while working for Clarence Thomas, a D.C. Circuit Judge nominated by President George H. W. Bush to fill the Supreme Court seat of the retiring civil rights hero, Thurgood Marshall. A native of rural Lone Tree, Oklahoma, Hill was the youngest of thirteen children raised by Baptist farmers; her grandfather and great-grandparents had been slaves in Arkansas. She was valedictorian of her high-school class and attended Yale Law School, worked for Thomas at both the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and taught contract law at the University of Oklahoma. She was not married.
As cameras recorded every second, broadcasting to a rapt and tense nation, Hill sat before the all-white, all-male Senate Judiciary Panel and told them in a careful, clear voice of the sexually crude ways in which Thomas had spoken to her during the years she worked for him; she detailed her former boss’s references to pornographic movie stars, penis size, and pubic hair in professional contexts. In turn, she was pilloried by the conservative press, spoken to with skepticism and insult by many on the committee, and portrayed by other witnesses as irrational, sexually loose, and perhaps a sufferer of erotomania,1 a rare psychological disorder that causes women to fantasize sexual relationships with powerful men.
Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson questioned Hill’s “proclivities” (a term that the conservative columnist William Safire suggested was “a code word for homosexuality”2). One pundit, David Brock, called Hill “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty.” Called in front of the committee after her testimony, John Doggett, a former classmate of Thomas’s and an acquaintance of Hill’s, described Hill as “somewhat unstable” and surmised that she had “fantasized about my being interested in her romantically.” He guessed, based on their brief social interactions, “that she was having a problem with being rejected by men she was attracted to;” at another point, Doggett noted that Hill “seemed to be lonely in this town.”
As Hill would later write of her experience, “Much was made in the press of the fact that I was single, though the relevance of my marital status to the question of sexual harassment was never articulated.”3
The relevance of her single status was how it distinguished her from established expectations of femininity. Hill had no husband to vouch for her virtue, no children to affirm her worth, as women’s worth had been historically understood. Her singleness, Hill felt at the time, allowed her detractors to place her “as far outside the norms of proper behavior as they could.” Members of the Judiciary, she wrote, “could not understand why I was not attached to certain institutions, notably marriage,” and were thus left to surmise that she was single “because I was unmarriageable or opposed to marriage, the fantasizing spinster or the man-hater.”
The lingering assumption—born of the same expectations that I had chafed at as a kid, reading novels—was that the natural state of adult womanhood involved being legally bound to a man. Perhaps especially in the comparatively new world of female professional achievement, in which a woman might be in a position, as an equivalently educated professional peer of a judicial nominee to the Supreme Court, to offer testimony that could imperil his career, marriage remained the familiar institution that might comfortably balance out this new kind of parity, and would offer the official male validation and abrogate her questioners’ ability to depict her as a spinster fantasist.
In raising questions about her marital status and her mental stability, Hill wrote, senators were “attempting to establish a relationship between marriage, values, and credibility” and prompt people to wonder “why I, a thirty-five-year-old Black woman, had chosen to pursue a career and to remain single—an irrelevant shift of focus that contributed to the conclusion that I was not to be believed.”
Indeed, Hill’s testimony was not believed by the members of the committee, at least not enough to make an impact on their decision. Clarence Thomas was confirmed to the Supreme Court days after her appearance before the Judiciary.
But Hill was not some contemporary Hester Prynne, doomed to a life in exile. Instead, her appearance had a lasting impact on the country and its power structures. The term sexual harassment entered the lexicon and the American consciousness, allowing women, married and single, to make sense of and lodge objections to workplace harassment; it offered us a view of how behavior long viewed as harmless was actually a form of discrimination and subjugation that hurt women as a class.
Just as long-lasting was the impact that the vision of Hill’s being grilled by a panel of white men had on America’s representative politics. In 1991, there had been only two women serving in the United States Senate, an embarrassing circumstance that the hearings put in stark national relief. A photograph published by the New York Times showed a group of Congress’s few female representatives, including Patricia Schroeder and Eleanor Holmes Norton, running up the Capitol steps to stop the proceedings to demand that Hill be allowed to testify.
The spectacle of Hill’s treatment by the committee spurred a reckoning with the nation’s monochromatic and male representative body. The year after her testimony, an unprecedented number of women ran for the Senate. Four of them won. One, Washington’s Patty Murray, has repeatedly explained that the Thomas hearings had helped spur her to political action; “I just kept looking at this committee, going ‘God, who’s saying what I would say if I was there,’ ” she’s said. “I mean, all men, not saying what I would say. I just felt so disoriented.”4 Another, Carole Moseley Braun of Illinois, became the first (and, so far, only) African-American woman elected to the Senate. They called 1992 “The Year of the Woman.”
Though Hill’s life and career were certainly upended by the attention (as well as by the death and rape threats) that came in the wake of her testimony, they were not cut short or ended. She was not permanently ostracized, professionally or personally. Today, she teaches law at Brandeis and lives in Boston with her partner of more than a decade.
Part of the reason that Hill was not wholly written off as a social aberration was because by the early 1990s, she wasn’t. A generation of women was, like Hill, living, working, and occupying public space on its own. The percentage of women between the ages of thirty-five and forty-four who were married had fallen from about 87 percent in 1960 and 1970 to 73 percent in 1990.5
“Women began, in the nineties, to embrace their own sexuality and sexual expression in a different way,” Hill told me in 2013. Hill may have looked little like the recent past, but she was very much the face of the future, surely part of what made her discomfiting enough to send senators into paroxysms. As Alan Simpson urged the committee, citing the many warnings he claimed to have received about Hill, “Watch out for this woman!”6
In the early 1990s, there were so many women to watch out for.
The Great Crossover
Less than a year after the Thomas hearings, Vice President Dan Quayle gave a campaign trail speech at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, during which he offered his theory on what was behind the Los Angeles race riots that had followed the verdict in the Rodney King trial. The “lawless social anarchy that we saw,” Quayle argued, “is directly related to the breakdown of the family structure.” To illustrate this point, Quayle took an unexpected turn, laying into a television character.
The eponymous heroine of CBS’s Murphy Brown, played by Candice Bergen, was about to give birth to a baby without being married—or romantically attached—to the child’s father. Quayle was concerned that in doing so, Murphy, who he noted “supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid professional woman,” was “mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice.”7 Quayle’s comments would land him, fictional Murphy Brown, and her fictional baby, Avery, on the front of the New York Times, making the character’s unmarried status far more emblematic than it would have been otherwise.
Of course, Quayle’s concern hadn’t really been about Murphy; he had been unspooling some classic conservative rhetoric about how welfare programs discourage marriage when he’d thrown his pop-culture curveball. Quayle’s anxiety over the possibility that new models of motherhood and womanhood, unhooked from marriage, might be taking hold across income brackets was palpable. A new reality was setting in: If women could live independently, many would do so, and as they did, men would become less central to economic security, social standing, sexual life, and, as it turned out, to parenthood.
Though Quayle surely didn’t realize it at the time, 1992 was at the heart of what researchers would later dub “the great crossover.”8 Not only were the early nineties the years during which the marriage age was rising; they were the point at which the marriage age was rising above the age of first birth.
It was the reversal of a very old cultural and religious norm, purportedly a bedrock of female identity and familial formation, though not always a reflection of real life, in which premarital sex and pregnant brides had always existed. However, officially, public codes of respectability had held that marriage was to precede childbearing. Now, that sequence was being scrambled, and amongst the many Americans panicking about it were the men who had long enjoyed relatively unchallenged control of politics.
Two years after Quayle’s speech, Pennsylvania senate candidate Rick Santorum gave a speech again emphasizing the link between unmarried motherhood and social chaos, claiming that “We are seeing the fabric of this country fall apart, and it’s falling apart because of single moms.” In 1994, Jeb Bush, son of former president George H. W. Bush, then running for governor in Florida, said that women on welfare “should be able to get their life together and find a husband” and, soon after, published a book in which he argued that the reason young women have babies outside of wedlock is because “there is no longer a stigma attached to this behavior,” suggesting that maybe the stigma should return.
In 1993, Bill Clinton appointed Joycelyn Elders, an outspoken advocate of humane drug laws and abortion rights, as Surgeon General of the United States. The following year, at a United Nations conference on AIDS, Elders caused a scandal by voicing her support of teaching masturbation as part of sex education. It was a perfectly sane message, especially in the context of the AIDS epidemic. But so freighted was Elders’s simple advocacy of independent sexual pleasure, achievable without a partner and with no chance of procreation, that the president who had appointed her asked her to resign.
It was a fraught period, Anita Hill told me in 2013, in which some Americans were “still trying to hold on to the idea that we lived in the 1950s, this Leave It to Beaver world.” This imagined white universe, in which sex was hetero and always procreative and women were wives and mothers who lived in middle-class comfort and embraced designated gender roles, had “never actually existed for most women,” Hill said, but was held up as an American ideal.
Now, even in pop culture, Leave It to Beaver had given way to the irreverent Roseanne, the sitcom about a working-class nuclear family in which the eponymous heroine joked of her (loving) marriage as “like a life sentence with no hope for parole.” More broadly, nuclear families were being joined on television by a flood of images of women unbound from marriages and families altogether. Beginning in 1993, Queen Latifah anchored a group of Brooklyn roommates on FOX’s Living Single; the next year, NBC answered with the white, Manhattan version: Friends. From 1994 to 1996, journalist Candace Bushnell penned a weekly newspaper column called “Sex and the City;” it would go on to become a book and a smash HBO series.
Terri McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale, a 1992 novel about four female friends, some recently jilted, juggling the personal and the professional, remained on the bestseller list for months, and would be made into a movie. Four years later, British writer Helen Fielding published Bridget Jones’s Diary, and was credited with kicking off a new publishing genre, “chick lit,” devoted to the stories of women, whom Bridget’s best friend would, in self-parody, describe as “a pioneer generation daring to refuse to compromise in love and relying on our own economic power.”
As the millennium dawned, it was impossible to watch out for all the women who were coming to change America.
If women slowed their rush to the altar in huge numbers starting in the 1990s, their ability to do so was built directly on political, economic, social, and sexual victories won by the previous generation, during what is commonly known as the Second Wave of the women’s movement. Several Second Wave feminists would remind me pointedly during my research for this book that my generation had far from invented contemporary habits of marital abstinence or delay; by many measures, theirs had.
And, to some degree, they’re right: Many women whose consciousness had been raised and opportunities expanded by feminism actively decided, for political and personal reasons, to postpone or forego marriage.
They didn’t do so in numbers large enough to create a demographic earthquake, to change the marrying behaviors of the masses, at least not right away. Because while its victories would transform the landscape in ways that would make it far more possible for my generation to delay marriage, the Second Wave was not built on opposition to marriage, but rather a desire to address its suffocating circumstances.
The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the Unites States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut-butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night, she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question “Is this all?”9
Is this all? Betty Friedan’s first paragraph sliced the mid-century American situation for middle-class white women to its quick: asserting that the ennui, anger, and unhappiness experienced by millions of American women was the product of the “millions of words” spilled by experts assuring women that “their role was to seek fulfillment as wives and mothers.” These sages had spent a decade and a half, Friedan reported, telling women “how to catch a man and keep him . . . that truly feminine women do not want careers, higher education, political rights—the independence and the opportunities that the old-fashioned feminists fought for.” Those women who’d been raised with the limited scope of female possibility offered by mid-twentieth century America, Friedan argued, believed that “All they had to do was devote their lives from earliest girlhood to finding a husband and bearing children.”
The Feminine Mystique would sell 1.4 million copies of its first paperback printing and, though its popularity was likely a symptom of the fact that Friedan’s ideas were already in circulation and gaining steam in other quarters, it would be widely credited as having kicked off the Second Wave.10 Early marriage and domestic confinement were so pervasive for middle-class white women in the middle of the twentieth century that the nation’s most mass, conscious move to emancipate women erupted directly in response to it.
Yet, funnily enough, as the legal scholar Rachel Moran argues, while the feminist movement of the 1970s was in part a “direct response to these conditions of early and pervasive marriage,” the ironic side effect was that single women had almost no place in the underpinnings of the movement.
As much as The Feminine Mystique was a cry against the limitations that early marriage and motherhood imposed on women, it did not assume (or even consider) that marriage itself was the problematic element, or that it might ever be optional for women. Friedan’s vision of female empowerment entailed the expansion of activity outside the domestic sphere, but it did not question the primacy of that sphere itself.
Friedan’s reflexive connections between male attention and female fulfillment—as well as the rather dim regard in which she held most single women—are evident throughout her book.11 “Strangely, a number of psychiatrists state that, in their experience, unmarried women patients were happier than married ones,” writes Friedan with obvious perplexity. Elsewhere, she cites Susan B. Anthony as the early feminist who most closely resembled the myth of the “embittered shrew,” conceding (generously, she must have thought) that while Anthony “felt betrayed when the other [suffragists] started to marry and have babies,” she did not end up some “bitter spinster with a cat.”
When Friedan, who would co-found and become the first president of the National Organization for Women in 1966, was asked about NOW’s mission in a television interview, she replied that the group’s message was about revising the “conditions that prevent women from easily combining marriage and motherhood and work.”12 The group’s mission statement amplified this intention, noting that NOW did “not accept the traditional assumption that a woman has to choose between marriage and motherhood, on the one hand, and a serious participation in industry or the professions on the other . . . We believe that a true partnership between the sexes demands a different concept of marriage, an equitable sharing of the responsibilities13 . . .” It was (and remains!) a revolutionary vision, but the organization was not the National Organization of Married Women, and yet there was no hint of recognition that not every woman’s life would (or should) include marriage and children, in that order.
This was only one way in which Friedan’s vision was blinkered.
In addition to her inability to conceive of middle-class white women who might not want the youthful unions into which they were being nudged, Friedan also didn’t consider the population of American women who were already altering marriage patterns, who had in recent years been marrying at declining rates and at later ages, who had been working outside the home for longer than that, supporting themselves and sometimes their children, both alongside, and independent of, husbands. Friedan did not include black women in her vision.
Black women, who experienced both gender and racial wage discrimination, who were less likely than their white peers to have college educations or economic power, and whose families and potential husbands were also less likely to have college educations or economic power, were also far less likely than white women to have the choice of not working outside their homes. They were therefore far less likely to experience the kind of domestic disenchantments from which Friedan’s readers suffered.
Black women had in fact already made some of the very points for which Friedan was being hailed. Philadelphia lawyer Sadie Alexander had argued in the 1930s that women yearned to “place themselves again among the producers of the world” by involving themselves in work “that resulted in the production of goods that have a price value.”14 Not only would this increase women’s status and security in the world, Alexander argued, in advance of Friedan, but “the satisfaction which comes to the woman in realizing that she is a producer makes for peace and happiness, the chief requisites in any home.”
Even worse was that at practically the same moment that Friedan was being credited with jump starting the women’s movement by advocating extramarital wage-earning that black women had been doing for generations, black women were being blamed for a different sort of social disruption. Two years after the publication of The Feminine Mystique, women whose experiences had foregrounded its philosophies were at the center of a national conversation about the devolution of the black family unit and the social and economic blight it was presumed to have precipitated.
In 1965, Assistant Secretary of Labor and future New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan released a report called “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” It was, in some ways, a thoughtful account of the systemic racial inequality that had plagued the nation since its founding, with Moynihan arguing that “the American Republic, which at birth was flawed by the institution of Negro slavery, and which throughout its history has been marred by the unequal treatment of Negro citizens” long had fallen short of “the full promise of the Declaration of Independence.” Moynihan rightly acknowledged the development of middle-class white suburbs and abandonment of poor cities to African-Americans as having created a class chasm between the races, noting that “because of this new housing pattern—most of which has been financially assisted by the Federal government—it is probable that the American school system has become more, rather than less segregated in the past two decades.”
Yet, despite these insights into the unequal histories and prospects of America’s black and white populations, Moynihan boiled his argument down to one, punishing point: that the root of black poverty lay with the breakdown of marital norms for which nonconforming women were responsible. The “deterioration of the Negro family,” Moynihan argued, was tied to the high number of dissolved marriages, illegitimate births and the fact that “almost one-fourth of Negro families are headed by women.”
There was some logic here: In economically unstable communities, raising children on single, low incomes is an inherently unstable proposition. But there was no consideration that those single incomes were a result as much as a cause, that reduced economic opportunity made marriage a less beneficial option for women, that women’s work outside the home was, rather than a detriment, key to keeping disadvantaged black communities and families afloat. Instead, Moynihan positioned female independence from men and dominance within the family at the center of a “tangle of pathology” that created “a matriarchal structure which, because it is out of line with the rest of American society,” and its patriarchal structure, “seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole.”
Comfort to the Singles
In the burgeoning feminist movement, the voices of figures more radical than Friedan began to get more notice for their arguments that women should not simply move toward the workforce, but away from marriage as the ratifying stamp of female worth.
In 1969, University of Chicago sociology professor Marlene Dixon wrote that “the institution of marriage is the chief vehicle for the perpetuation of the oppression of women . . . In a very real way the role of wife has been the genesis of women’s rebellion throughout history.” The next year, feminist Sheila Cronan wrote, “Since marriage constitutes slavery for women . . . Freedom for women cannot be won without the abolition of marriage.” Radical feminist writer Andrea Dworkin famously commented that “Marriage as an institution developed from rape as a practice.”
In 1970, the median age of first marriage for women remained under twenty-one, and 69.4 percent of Americans over the age of eighteen were married.15 This is remarkable, in part, because of other social and political upheavals already well underway: In 1960, the FDA had approved the birth control pill for contraceptive use, an early step toward (or symptom of) what would become the sexual revolution. And, in 1969, the Stonewall riots had kicked off a gay rights movement that would be driven explicitly by the fight for acceptance by women and men who had no desire to partner with members of the opposite sex.
The emergence of gay women as a political faction was not an altogether welcome development within the Second Wave. Friedan herself would famously refer to lesbians as a “lavender menace” and, in later years, would voice her loathing16 of women she called “man-hating” feminists, whose “down-with-men, down-with-marriage, down-with-childbearing rhetoric and actions” threatened to wrest control of feminism from “women who wanted equality but who also wanted to keep on loving their husbands and children.”17
In fact, for some time, the intersections of the gay rights and women’s rights movements seemed mostly to provide evidence both of the strength of homophobia amongst social progressives and gender iconoclasts, and of how inconceivable it remained even to many 1970s feminists that heterosexual women might live willingly single: The only way some feminists were able to absorb the notion of a woman who didn’t necessarily want to marry a man was to understand her as homosexual.
At least until Gloria came along.
In the early 70s, feminism got a new and powerful popularizer, a woman who would come to stand (insufficiently and often to her own dismay) for the diverse, cacophonous, flawed, and multifaceted movement whose sometimes spiky messages she was so capable of transmitting smoothly to the broader public.
Gloria Steinem had come to New York from her native Toledo, and began a successful career as a writer for print and television; she was mentioned alongside other “new journalism” stars like Tom Wolfe, and was a stylish darling of New York’s 1960s media scene, often photographed in the company of well-known men, many of whom she was dating.
Steinem was late to feminism. In 1962, she’d written a story about contraception that laid out the ways in which women were asked to choose between career and marriage; the next year she did an undercover exposé of Hugh Hefner’s sex-themed Playboy clubs. However, her political engagements were with the Democratic Party, the civil rights, and antiwar movements; they didn’t yet extend to the burgeoning women’s movement. In 1963, the year that the Feminine Mystique was published, Steinem had written The Beach Book, a guide to travel and tanning that featured a foil cover flap that readers might use to catch rays.
Even without a raised consciousness, Steinem’s life, by the late 1960s, served as a striking emblem of the era’s new possibilities for women: She was unmarried, widely traveled, professionally successful, and open about her sexual appetites. In a 1968 television interview, Canadian broadcaster Moses Znaimer asked thirty-four-year-old Steinem about her reputation as a “chick with a good sense of the vibrations;” he questioned how she’d gone undercover at Playboy, since he “thought you had to be stacked to be a bunny girl;” he asked if she cooked (she was ironing in the interview). He asked her if she ever wanted to marry.
“Eventually,” Steinem replied, “but it keeps receding two years into the comfortable distance.” Did she think about it a lot? Yes, she said. “You imagine what it would be like to be married to people you’re going out with . . . maybe it’s a lady’s thing . . . You think, ‘Let’s see, my name would be Gloria Burgermeister. . . . nah.’ ” In the interview’s final question, Znaimer asks Steinem what she wants to be “when you grow up.”
“Free,” Steinem replies, “and old . . . and a little mean.”18
A year later, Steinem wrote a piece called “After Black Power, Women’s Liberation,” in which she reported on the growing feminist movement. That same year, while covering an abortion speak-out in Greenwich Village, Steinem, who had had an abortion in Europe in her early twenties, experienced a conversion.
Within months, she was testifying in front of the Senate Judiciary on behalf of the Equal Rights Amendment; she co-founded, along with Shirley Chisholm, Bella Abzug, Myrlie Evers, Fanny Lou Hamer, and Friedan, the National Women’s Political Caucus. In 1971, she and Letty Cottin Pogrebin launched Ms. magazine, the title of which rejected the notion that marital status should be the identifying feature of a woman.
Steinem’s most powerful gift was her ability to synthesize radical sentiments into appealingly pithy, era-defining sound bites.
“We are becoming the men we wanted to marry,” she said, clarifying that an opposition to marriage need not be about the rejection of men or love, but rather about the filling out and equaling up of female life. “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” she was often credited with coining (actually, the phrase came from Australian educator Irina Dunn19). More sharply, Steinem argued that marriage rendered women “half people,” and once explained that she had not married, and would not marry, because, “I can’t mate in captivity.” It was a funny line, borne of deep dissatisfactions and anger over the way life had been until now.
Not everyone was charmed.
“I guess [she] gave some comfort to the singles,” Betty Friedan would later say of Steinem. “But really, Gloria was a phony. She always had a man. And I used to catch her hiding behind a Vogue magazine at Kenneth’s having her hair streaked.”20
Steinem herself made the same point to me in 2012, noting that she had been “somewhat protected” from certain kinds of man-hating caricature and denigration because “I always had a man in my life.” However, that was part of what made her so useful when it came to offering a more fetching vision of unmarried life than had previously been available. Steinem’s beauty, her independence, her unapologetic heterosexual appetites, and her steady stream of suitors could not easily be written off as froideur, as man-hating, as homosexuality. What was so disruptive about Steinem, and other women who were living like her, whether or not they had men on their arms, was that it seemed she just really enjoyed being free.
More young unmarried women were about to join her, thanks to two landmark cases decided in the early seventies.
The Supreme Court had made birth control legal for married couples in the 1965 case, Griswold v. Connecticut, basing its decision on the opinion that a ban violated the privacy of the marital bedroom’s “innermost sanctum.” But, for single women, the relevant decision came seven years later. In 1972’s Eisenstadt v. Baird, the Court struck down a law that prohibited the sale of contraception to unmarried persons, thus affirming “the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child.”
The decision affirmed both parties within a heterosexual union as individual entities with rights, a break from some long-standing principles of marital law, which had, in various forms over two centuries, meant that women forfeited many elements of their identities and their liberties upon marrying. “The marital couple is not an independent entity with a mind and heart of its own,” wrote Justice William Brennan in his decision, “but an association of two individuals each with a separate intellectual and emotional make-up.” It was like a legal equivalent of Ms. Magazine: the recognition that Americans’ rights should neither be circumscribed nor made more expansive based simply on whether they were wed. As the historian Nancy Cott writes, by “refusing to deny single persons the privacy that married couples were granted, [Eisenstadt] moved toward displacing marriage from the seat of official morality.”21
One year later, the court ruled in Roe v. Wade that abortion was legal. The decision affected married and single women equally. But, for the unmarried, legal abortion provided yet another tool to protect their ability to live outside of marriage.
By 1973, the idea of independent womanhood was worming its way into the national imagination persistently enough that Newsweek published a cover story that fulsomely asserted that “singlehood has emerged as an intensely ritualized—and newly respectable—style of American life. . . . It is finally becoming possible to be both single and whole.”22 And, in 1974, Congress passed the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, making it easier for women to secure credit cards, bank loans, and mortgages, and to buy their own homes.
While the women’s movement had not been explicitly driven by efforts to advocate for single women, what it had succeeded at doing, via its impact on politics, economics, and the law, was to create options besides or in advance of marriage. With every passing year in the 1970s, there were simply more ways to valorize female existence: more jobs to apply for, flings to have, money to earn.
As these new temptations clashed with the retro realities of marriages begun in a pre-feminist era, the divorce rate skyrocketed, hitting close to 50 percent through the late 1970s and 1980s. The divorce boom had a huge impact on never or not-yet married women. First, it created more single people, helping to slowly destigmatize the figure of the woman without a ring on her finger. It also forced a very public reckoning with marriage as an institution of variable quality. The realization that a bad marriage might be bad enough to cause a painful split provided ammunition to those women who preferred to abstain from marriage than to enter a flawed one.
What the women’s movement of the 1970s did, ultimately, was not to shrink marriage, or the desire for male companionship, as a reality for many women, but rather to enlarge the rest of the world to such an extent that marriage’s shadow became far less likely to blot out the sun of other possibilities. As legal scholar Rachel Moran writes, “One of the great ironies of second-wave feminism is that it ignored single women as a distinct constituency while creating the conditions that increasingly enabled women to forego marriage.”23
At the conclusion of the 1970s, the number of never-married persons was at its lowest24 ever (mostly because the calculation included the enormous swell of married, now divorcing, Baby Boomers), but the rate of women who were getting married was beginning to slow noticeably, and the median age of first marriage had inched up to twenty-two.
In 1981, Ronald Reagan cruised into the Oval Office on a wave of aspersions cast on women he depicted as relying on government assistance in place of husbands, or in his parlance, “welfare queens.” His ascension had come on the back of, and in tandem with, the rise of the New Right, an alliance of fiscal and social conservatives aligned around a commitment to religious righteousness and reversing the victories of twentieth-century social progressives. He struck the Equal Rights Amendment from the Republican Party’s platform, where it had remained since 1940; he supported the so-called Human Life Amendment, which would have banned almost all abortions, and defined life as beginning at fertilization.
It was morning in post-feminist America, and the backlash, against the women’s movement and the single women whose swelling numbers seemed to emblematize its success most uncomfortably, was in full force.
In 1985, a study conducted by male researchers from Harvard and Yale concluded that a never-married, university-educated forty-year-old woman had only a 2.6 percent chance of ever marrying. It spurred Newsweek to publish its infamous cover story “The Marriage Crunch,” in which it made the famously inaccurate claim that single women at age forty were more likely to be killed by terrorists than to marry. People published photos of unmarried celebrities under the headline “Are These Old Maids?”25 and warned that “most single women over thirty-five can forget about marriage.” The social and cultural resistance to the spurning of marriage was evident.
And yet, women kept right on not marrying. In 1990, the median age for first marriage for women jumped to nearly twenty-four, the highest it had been in the century in which it had been recorded.
The future had arrived. With it had come echoes of the past advances of unmarried women, this time threatening the status quo with the sexual and economic power won for them by previous generations. Rising to meet them would be new iterations of old political and cultural opposition, figures anxious to corral these Amazons back into the marital fold.
Abstention from or delay of marriage may have been a conscious choice for some women in the 1970s and 1980s, but it has now simply become a mass behavior. The most radical of feminist ideas—the disestablishment of marriage—has, terrifyingly for many conservatives, been so widely embraced as to have become habit, drained of its political intent, but ever more potent insofar as it has refashioned the course of average female life. The independence of women from marriage decried by Moynihan as a pathology at odds with the nation’s patriarchal order is now a norm.
By 2013, about half of first-time births were to unmarried women; for women under thirty, it was almost 60 percent.26 The same year, the National Center for Family and Marriage Research released a study that revealed the marriage rate to be the lowest it had been in over a century.27 “Marriage is no longer compulsory,” the co-director of the NCFMR said in a statement about the study. “It’s just one of an array of options.”
That array of options is pretty stunning compared to the narrow chute of hetero marriage and maternity into which most women were herded just a few decades ago. Millions of women now live with, but do not marry, long-term partners; others move in and out of sequential monogamous relationships; live sexually diverse lives; live outside of romantic or sexual relationships altogether, both with and without children; marry or enter civil unions with members of the same sex or combine some of these options.
The journey toward legal marriage for gays and lesbians may seem at odds with what looks like a flight from marriage by heterosexuals. But in fact, they are part of the same project: a dismantling of the institution as it once existed—as a rigidly patrolled means by which one sex could exert legal, economic, and sexual power over another—and a reimagining of it as a flexible union to be entered, ideally, on equal terms.
Taken together, these shifts, by many measures, embody the worst nightmare of social conservatives: a complete rethinking of who women are and who men are and, therefore, also of what family is and who holds dominion within it . . . and outside it. The expanded presence of women as independent entities means a redistribution of all kinds of power, including electoral power, that has, until recently, been wielded mostly by men.
Single Women Voters
In 2012, unmarried women made up a remarkable 23 percent of the electorate. Almost a quarter of votes were cast by women without husbands, up three points from just four years earlier. According to Page Gardner, founder of the Voter Participation Center, in the 2012 presidential election, unmarried women, who have a vested stake in their own economic and reproductive rights, drove turnout in practically every demographic, making up “almost 40 percent of the African-American population, close to 30 percent of the Latino population, and about a third of all young voters.”
Single women helped put Barack Obama back in the White House; they voted for him by 67 to 31 percent, while married women voted for Romney. In the 2013 Virginia race for governor, the Democratic candidate beat his Republican rival, carrying women by nine points, but single women by what the New York Times called28 “a staggering 42 percentage points.” Unmarried women’s political leanings are not, as has been surmised in some quarters, attributable solely to their racial diversity. According to polling firm Lake Research Partners, while white women as a whole voted for Romney over Obama, unmarried white women chose Obama over Romney by a margin of 49.4 percent to 38.9 percent.29 In 2013, columnist Jonathan Last wrote about a study of how women aged twenty-five to thirty voted in the 2000 election. “It turned out,” Last wrote in the Weekly Standard, “that the marriage rate for these women was a greater influence on vote choice than any other variable” measured.30
The connection between single female life and electoral engagement is no wonky secret. As one 2014 New York Times story began, “The decline of marriage over the last generation has helped create an emerging voting bloc of unmarried women that is profoundly reshaping the American electorate.”
Conservatives are so aware of this that antifeminist pundit Phyllis Schlafly claimed in 2012 that President Obama was working to keep women unmarried by giving away so many social services to them. “President Obama is simply trying to promote more dependency on government hand-outs because he knows that is his constituency,”31 Schlafly said. This is how scary single women are today, and how badly Republican politicians want to lash out at them: During the October 2012 presidential debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, when the candidates were asked about how they might stem the tide of gun violence, Romney replied that a major step in curbing “the culture of violence” in the United States was to “tell our kids that before they have babies, they ought to think about getting married to someone.” Apparently, anyone (of the opposite sex) will do.
As the second decade of the twenty-first century has worn on, politicians of all stripes, aware of the political power of the unmarried woman yet seemingly incapable of understanding female life outside of a marital context, have come to rely on a metaphor in which American women, no longer bound to men, are binding themselves to government. During the lead-up to the 2014 midterms, Fox News pundit Jesse Watters, referring to unmarried women as “Beyoncé Voters,” alleged that “they depend on government because they’re not depending on their husbands. They need things like contraception, health care, and they love to talk about equal pay.” Meanwhile, some young conservatives at the College Republican National Committee took a less scolding approach, cutting a series of television ads that imagined a single female voter trying on wedding dresses in the spirit of TLC’s reality show “Say Yes to the Dress,” except in the ads, the dress was actually a Republican gubernatorial candidate to whom this would-be-bride was pledging herself. Meanwhile, the liberal leaning Cosmopolitan Magazine launched a Get Out the Vote initiative that included a social-media–spread “Save the Date” notice for November 4, Election Day. It came with the unsubtle message, “You and the polls are getting hitched.”
Joel Kotkin, a professor of urban development, argued in The Daily Beast that the power of the single voter is destined to fade, since single people “by definition . . . have no heirs,”32 while their religious, conservative, counterparts will repopulate the nation with children who will replicate their parents’ politics, ensuring that “conservative, more familial-oriented values inevitably prevail.” Kotkin’s error, of course, is both in assuming that unmarried people do not reproduce—in fact, they are doing so in ever greater numbers—but also in failing to consider whence the gravitation away from married norms derived. A move toward independent life did not simply emerge from a clamshell: It was born of generations of dissatisfaction with the inequities of religious, conservative, social practice. Why should we believe that children born to social conservatives will not tread a similar path, away from conservative values, as the one walked by generations of traditionally raised citizens before them? The impulse toward liberation isn’t inoculated against by strict conservative backgrounds; it’s often inculcated by them.
What all the electoral hand-wringing reveals is the seriousness of anxieties about how, exactly, independent women might wield their unprecedented influence, if only they came out to vote in full numbers, which they too often fail to do.
Unmarried women are among the voters who are hardest to pull to the polls. In part because they are often poor, many of them overworked single mothers with multiple commitments, low-paying jobs that don’t permit them time to stand in line at the voting booth, or women for whom social policy has already failed so badly that they might not even see the point of voting. According to Page Gardner, in 2016, “For the first time in history, a majority of women voters are projected to be unmarried.” Yet going into the last presidential election season, nearly 40 percent of them had not registered to vote.33
And yet, even with only a relatively small percentage of them voting, these single American women have already shown that they have the power to change America, in ways that make many people extremely uncomfortable.
Co-eds, Sluts, and Marriage Cures
In 2012, a then-unmarried Georgetown law student, Sandra Fluke, testified about the insurance regulations being proposed for women buying birth control. Fluke’s argument barely touched on issues of sexual freedom; it was instead about money, wages, education, about the rights that women have to live multi-faceted lives—the kinds that are now more possible, since marriage has become decentralized as the defining experience of female adulthood—without being taxed extra to control their reproduction.
When he tore into Fluke’s testimony in a lengthy on-air rant, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh couldn’t seem to get past his spluttering fury at the fact that she was arguing for her rights to a product that would enable her to have unmonitored amounts of sex. Limbaugh turned promptly to eroticized denigration of the independent woman in a way that recalled the treatment of Anita Hill twenty years earlier. On his syndicated radio show, Limbaugh called Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute;” “so much sex,” “so much sex,” “so much sex,” he repeated, extending his condemnation to envelop Fluke’s generational cohort, the “co-eds” who hook up “with as many partners as they want . . . Whatever, no limits on this.” Limbaugh said “unlimited” repeatedly, conveying his unmistakable fury that women had successfully conspired to evade the restraints that marriage and custom used to provide.
Fluke, and the growing power of other independent women she seemed to represent, was an irritant to these conservatives. More than that, they feared, she might be contagious . . . positively pestilential.
A writer at The American Spectator called Fluke, whom he took care to refer to as Mizz, “the model Welfare Queen for the 21st Century;” and warned of “how many thousands of” her ilk “are graduating this year to enter government jobs or political campaigns. They will be spreading their ideas to all within hearing.”34
Less than a week after his Fluke attack, Limbaugh was tearing into a book on food politics written by another young woman when he paused to ask on air: “What is it with all these young, single, white women?”
Watch out for these women, these men were saying. They are everywhere.
And for those unmarried women who are not privileged white law students like Fluke, the ones over whom lawmakers can more easily exert punishing power, there is no end to the rhetorical and policy attempts to stuff them back inside a marital box and lock them there.
The idea that the decline in marriage—as opposed to broken social safety networks and economic policies that benefit the wealthy, the white, and the educated over the poor—is the source of inequality in our still fundamentally unequal world has lit a fire under Republicans in the early decades of the twenty-first century. As Florida Republican Marco Rubio has opined, “the greatest tool to lift children and families from poverty . . . isn’t a government spending program. It’s called marriage.”35 Rubio’s early competitors for the 2016 Republican nomination included Rick Santorum and Jeb Bush, politicians who have been campaigning on the denigration of single women since the Great Crossover of the mid-1990s.
In 2013, Mitt Romney’s tone on the subject of early marriage became almost mournful, as he reported to graduates of Southern Virginia University during a commencement address there that “[S]ome people could marry, but choose to take more time, they say, for themselves. Others plan to wait until they’re well into their thirties or forties before they think about getting married. They’re going to miss so much of living, I’m afraid.”36
This edged toward another arm of sociopolitical and economic anxiety about the growth in population of single women: the failure of these women to have enough babies.
“The root cause of most of our problems is our declining fertility rate,” wrote columnist Jonathan Last, perhaps not coincidentally the same man who has studied marital status as the biggest determining factor in partisan affiliation, in a Wall Street Journal column pegged to his 2012 book, What to Expect When No One’s Expecting.
The warning reverberated in many venues, and critics fretted that women’s increasing ability to devote portions of their adulthood to things other than marriage and motherhood is diminishing our national prospects. The New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat wrote a piece entitled, “More Babies, Please” in which he called “the retreat from child rearing” a “decadence” and “a spirit that privileges the present over the future” and “embraces the comforts and pleasures of modernity, while shrugging off the basic sacrifices that built our civilization in the first place.” Douthat was not specific about whose sacrifices had been so central to the steady repopulation of the nation, but Last himself was much more direct. Detailing the reasons for the falling number of babies, some of which he took care to call “clearly positive,” Last wrote of how “Women began attending college in equal (and then greater) numbers than men” and how “more important, women began branching out into careers beyond teaching and nursing.” Finally, he wrote, “the combination of the birth-control pill and the rise of cohabitation broke the iron triangle linking sex, marriage and childbearing.”37
Economist Nancy Folbre, responding to demographic Chicken Littles in the New York Times, wrote that she knew “of no historical evidence that either the productivity or the creativity of a society is determined by the age structure of its population.”38 But the anxiety may not have stemmed from historical evidence as much as it did from historical yearning: for a time before what Last described as “the iron triangle” linking women, marriage, and reproduction had been dismantled.
Whether those who worried were concerned about too many babies or too few babies, women living in poverty or women enjoying power, they all seemed to return to the same conclusion: Marriage must be reestablished as the norm, the marker and measure of female existence, against which all other categories of success are weighed.
The Story of Single Women Is the Story of the Country
The funny thing is that all these warnings, diagnoses, and panics—even the most fevered of them—aren’t wholly unwarranted. Single women are upending everything; their growing presence has an impact on how economic, political, and sexual power is distributed between the genders. The ability for women to live unmarried is having an impact on our electoral politics. The vast numbers of single women living in the United States are changing our definitions of family, and, in turn, will have an impact on our social policies.
The intensity of the resistance to these women is rooted in the (perhaps unconscious) comprehension that their expanded power signals a social and political rupture as profound as the invention of birth control, as the sexual revolution, as the abolition of slavery, as women’s suffrage and the feminist, civil rights, gay rights, and labor movements.
Crucially, single women played a huge part in all of those earlier ruptures. Though it may feel as though the growing numbers of unmarried women and the influence they wield have shaken the nation only in the past five decades, in fact, the story of single women’s nation-shaping power is threaded into the story of the nation itself.
Women, perhaps especially those who have lived untethered from the energy-sucking and identity-sapping institution of marriage in its older forms, have helped to drive social progress of this country since its founding.