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Sex & Relationships

What We Get Wrong When We Talk About Single Women

If you’re one of the growing contingent of single people in this country, and you’re hoping to feel empowered by this discourse, you might be disappointed.

Photo Credit: gmstockstudio/Shutterstock

It seems single women have been having a moment lately.

Apparently, there are more of us than ever before—and everyone wants to talk about it. If you Google “single women,” you’ll find headlines like “The Single American Woman,” Why Single Women Are More Powerful in America Than Ever Before,” and “The Radical Power of American Single Women.” Meanwhile, some very high-profile books—most notably Rebecca Traister’s All The Single Ladiesand Kate Bolick’s Spinster—have influenced the national conversation surrounding what it means to be a single woman in America today . . . and what this means, in turn, for our society writ large.

At first, this kind of coverage might seem encouraging, if not inspiring. Single women being talked about in the media alongside words such as “powerful”? What progress!

But if you’re one of the growing contingent of single people in this country, and you’re hoping to feel empowered by this discourse, you might be disappointed. Because as much as the conversation has moved forward, it remains, in many ways, stymied by a lack of any kind of nuance.

The Power Dynamics Of Choice

Instead of offering new insights or perspectives, much of the recent dialogue concerning singledom hinges on the enduringly problematic idea that women are only single when they aren’t chosen, vs. them choosing to not be in a relationship.

Consider the namesake of Traister’s buzzy book: the once-ubiquitous Beyonce song, “Single Ladies.” (You’re singing it in your head right now, aren’t you?) The song is widely perceived to be a celebration of singledom, and of choosing—even if only temporarily—independence over a man or partner.

But I would argue that this song actually celebrates passivesingledom—that is, I’m okay with you not choosing me—vs. activesingledom—that is, It’s okay that I’ve made the choice to not be in a relationship.Indeed, the lyrics are quite clear in their implication that the woman wouldbe with the man, if only he would make the choice to have her: “Your love is what I prefer”; ”Put me into your arms, say I’m the one you own.”

To its credit, Traister’s book does condemn the problematic notion suggested by its title (perhaps indicating that the title itself is ironic). In discussing the societal belief that single women must have been pushed into their circumstance because no one wanted them, Traister writes:

“Being on one’s own means shouldering one’s own burdens in a way that being coupled rarely demands. It means doing everything—making decisions, taking responsibility, paying bills, cleaning the refrigerator—without the benefits of formal partnership. But we’ve still got a lot of hardwired assumptions that the successful female life is measured not in professional achievements or friendships or even satisfying sexual relationships, but whether you’re legally coupled.

In turn, those assumptions are often undergirded by an unconscious conviction that, if a woman is NOT wed, it’s not because she’s made a set of active choices, but rather that she has not been selected—chosen, desired, wanted enough.”

There’s also the issue of how privilege plays into a woman’s ability to choose singledom in the first place, a factor that’s often overlooked. In her equally un-encouragingly (if cheekily) titled book Spinster, Kate Bolick makes it clear that singledom is her decision. But in exerting this autonomy, she seems to ignore the fact that she never had a shortage of men who were willing and interested in her.

With viable dating options more or less at the ready, it’s easier to choose to be perpetually independent. But what about those who lack the privilege of someone like Bolick, who is white, educated, has access to good jobs, has a family to rely on, is attractive by conventional measures, and can afford to live on her own?

 “When you have the option to be with [someone] who would help support you—for those women, it’s a real choice,” says Linda Gordon (no relation to the writer), Florence Kelley Professor of History at NYU. Others, though, may have this crucial choice stripped of them, forcing them to not have a partner when they’d like one, or to partner up when that’s not what they actually desire.

But there’s even more to it than this; in addition to misunderstanding the nuances of choice, our society also seems unable to address the different kindsof women who are single today.

Put A Ring On It?

The Beyonce song, and the Traister book title it inspired, also tap into the problematic idea that a single woman is defined by not being married.Indeed, this is an idea that many outlets have co-opted, from the Economist (“Single Women: Why Put a Ring On It?”) to the Huffington Post (“No need to put a ring on it, thank you very much”).

But conflating “single” with “unmarried” is a gross oversimplification. As Linda Gordon, Florence Kelley Professor of History at NYU, puts it, “The term ‘single’ is like a veil that hides more than it reveals. It would be much better if, when we talk about people, we try to be more specific.”

For example, she says, a single mother can be someone who was married, who was never married, or who is a widow. A person may be dating casually, but knowing they could end up in a relationship if the “right” person came along. And, as discussed before, someone may be single by choice (meaning they could be in a relationship, but have decided not to be, either temporarily or long term) or single not by choice (meaning they really want to find a partner, but for any number of reasons, it just isn’t happening).

Instead of acknowledging these various scenarios and circumstances, though, all these people end up with the same broad-stroke label: single.

Traister, for her part, does a commendable job representing the diversity of singlehood. As reviews have widely indicated, All The Single Ladiesis filled with stories about real women, from a significant range of backgrounds, races, ages, and socioeconomic statuses—women who are single by choice, single not by choice, unmarried but coupled, single mothers, unmarried mothers, etc.

This inclusivity signals crucial progress. But still, there’s yet another factor at play in our blunting of the “single” experience: the very question of what a partnership entails.

What’s Romance Got To Do With It?

At the heart of our conversation about singledom, there remains the touted ideal of romantic love. But what of those relationships that lack sexual or romantic undertones, but still bring immense value to a person’s life? If someone has many of these kinds of relationships, how “single” are they, really? 

Gordon stresses the importance of the female friendship, something discussed at length in Traister’s book, but hardly at all in Bolick’s. “Women have always been much more embedded in bonds with other women,” Gordon says. “There was this image of marriage in the middle of the 20th century that your spouse should be your best friend, central to your social life, but friendships might be what’s most stable in your life.”

Traister makes room for the fact that there’s a big difference between dating, being intentionally coupled, and love, and that only in rare circumstances do the last two come together, requiring that elusive combination of chemistry, wanting the same things, timing, and—perhaps most importantly—luck. Also, she presents front-and-center the primacy of other kinds of relationships, particularly female friendships.

Considering how high the divorce rate is, and that women continue to outlive men, it makes sense that women are relying on other women more and more. “And maybe, even without sex, it can be just as rewarding and secure as romantic relationships,” says Gordon.

“We still live in a world that is ultimately pretty sexist and prioritizes romantic partnerships, particularly heterosexual ones, and our laws are designed to prioritize romantic relationships as well,” says writer Ann Friedman. She and her best friend Aminatou Sow were interviewed by Traister for the book, which discusses their close friendship and how difficult it was for them to be apart from one another when Ann moved away from the city where they both lived.

“Women experience different statuses throughout life, and friendship can transcend those categories,” Ann says. “People say, ‘I married my best friend,’ but one person can’t meet all your needs—it’s a lot of pressure to put on one individual. It’s always been very important to me to prioritize friendships.”

While there’s no shortage of content on television or in fiction celebrating the primacy of female friendships, it often comes at the cost of emphasizing romantic or sexual relationships prominently. Women are often shown relating to one another about otherrelationships, whether they’re single or not, but especially when they are. Even in Traister’s book, the author recounts a close friendship with another woman, but what we mostly see is their analysis over that friend’s romantic life.

“It’s an indication of priorities—there is an expectation that if someone is in a relationship or they are married, their circumstances are different than yours,” says Ann. “It’s like, you’re trying to feel it out—are you like me, or not? What kind of place are you in?”

What we see constantly reflected back to us is this pervasive need to scrutinize and explore the status of our romantic relationships as a means of determining our level of happiness. All of this points to the hypothesis that our happiness goals will be met once we are in an established relationship. I’m guilty of this myself—when I haven’t talked to a friend in a while, one of the first topics of conversation is, without fail, what’s going on in our dating lives. The questions tend to be more along the lines of figuring out what happened during the last interaction and how that might have an effect on our next interaction, i.e., what did [romantic interest/conquest] say/do/think last, and how will you react accordingly?

Isn’t it ridiculous, when you think about it, to assume the totality of happiness can be limited to this reductive line of thinking?

As I personally work to change how I talk about singledom, I’ve come to recognize that I’m probably not going to feel empowered by any interpretation of being single—in media, literature, or otherwise—other than my own.

All women have been single at some, even if brief, point in their lives. And that there are more single women in America than ever before is great. As Traister reports, this is having a significant impact on our economy and politics, and it’s important to learn about these greater implications.

But many single women still tend to feel singled out.

“We’re constantly presented with what we don’t have,” says Kelsey*, a 34-year-old writer living in Los Angeles. “Social media, for obvious reasons, exacerbates this.”

“I see myself as a person,” says Julia*, a project manager from Boston in her late 20s. “But everyone else sees me as single.”

It’s concerning that this confrontation of what we don’t have inflames our sense of whether, and to what degree, we want what we don’t have. If everyone else has it, and society has been pushing us toward it all along, shouldn’t it be what we want, too?

So which came first, then? And does it even matter, now that we know that there are so many other combinations of happy, sustainable, enjoyable lives outside the traditional, heteronormative two-person household?

For those single ladies who know for sure that they don’t want to be married or have children, I’m somewhat envious. I’d imagine, and hope, that there’s comfort and relief in that knowing.

For the rest of us, I think it’s a series of maybes and what ifs; I’d get married if this/that, I’d move in with someone if/that, I’d have children if/that. I think most of us would like to fall in love, and I think many of us would like to have children, and there are too many variables at play.

Not to mention, we’re happy enough as it is, and we worry that we’ll never be as happy as we arenow, without those things. So we’re doing the best we can to make the best decisions we can to keep us as happy as we can be. And we are curious to see not where this all ends, but what happens along the way to wherever we do, or don’t, end up.

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