Put a ring on it.

Throughout American history, unmarried women have gotten the short-end of the stick. “Spinsters,” “old maids,” and both widows and “grass widows”[1] had to depend on the sympathy and support of their extended families. All the while they had to endure their socially-deprecated dependent status with more or less good grace.[2]

Not all accepted this situation. There was no useful metaphor to explain their attitude before the invention of the bicycle.[3] Nevertheless, Louisa May Alcott claimed that “liberty is a better husband than love to many of us” (1868) and Susan B. Anthony gleefully foresaw a future “epoch of single women.”

Now a majority of American women are either pre-married or post-married: single, divorced, or widowed. Many of them are likely to stay that way. (Certainly if I have anything to say about it.) As such, they are a potential “interest group” of enormous political power. While people are fitfully in a dither about the “nanny state,” the next thing may well be a “hubby state.”[4] Single women may campaign for government provision of all those benefits that once came with marriage: emancipation from parental control, higher income, the time to nurture children or go on vacation without sacrificing a career, subsidized housing, window treatments, older-model cars, and the advantage conferred on married people by the federal tax code.

Through this monumental electoral bloc, however, run many fissures. Those fissures trace the lines of age,[5] attitudes toward parenthood, attitudes toward the desirability of marriage, attitudes toward sex, level of education, race, and social class.

For example, compare the average length of life for women in the top ten percent of incomes and women in the bottom ten percent. Women born in 1920 had a 4.7 year difference. Women born in 1950 had a 13 year difference.[6] Most likely the difference results from behavior. Upper income people are less likely to smoke; less likely to eat an unhealthy diet; and more likely to exercise.

For example, in 2013, 50.4 percent of all women aged 15 to 64 were unmarried.[7] Under this umbrella, however, there were clear differences. African-American women were much more likely (71.4 percent) to be unmarried than were Hispanic women (53.8 percent) or Caucasian women (48.8 percent). The differences reflect different life chances and experiences. For some, at least, “independence” is a polite euphemism for the lack of good choices.

Finally, “independence” may be a transitory function of the ideology accompanying women’s empowerment. It has been argued that the hope of “having it all” has led women to have unrealistic expectations of men.[8] Men, long experienced with life’s supposed options, learned to “settle.” Now it’s women’s turn. This doesn’t apply to my own marriage. Just lucky.

[1] A grass widow was a woman whose husband had bolted for parts unknown. In the age before divorce, this led to distant bigamy (on the man’s part) and a different form of marital captivity (on the woman’s part).

[2] Generally, Jane Austen’s characters found the means to escape this woeful fate.

[3] Worse still, Susan B. Anthony labeled the bicycle “the freedom machine.” So, “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a ‘freedom machine’”?

[4] Rebecca Traister, All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016).

[5] Witness the recent furor aroused by the imperious injunctions from Madeline Albright and Gloria Steinem to young women to support the almost equally-aged Hillary Clinton.

[6] “Noted,” The Week, 26 February 2016.

[7] http://www.census.gov/hhes/families/data/cps2013A.html

[8] Lori Gottlieb, Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough (2011).

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5 thoughts on “Put a ring on it.

  1. No, although I often have that effect on people apparently. Besides, you might jump from your current job to be head of the Federal Window-treatment Commission. Nice office overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue.Get to answer questions from Senators: “Now Commissioner Howard, with so many people out of work in the chintz industry in my home state of Kentucky, how can you justify approving the use of foreign products like “Venetian” blinds?” Howard: “Well, Senator McConnell,…”

    • I know women in this day and age are supposed to find big career accomplishments like that more appealing and fulfilling than love, marriage, and children, but I just don’t. (Warning: tangential blog!) When I’m 80 my invigorating debate with Senator McConnell isn’t going to keep me company nor are my career accomplishments going to remember me when I’m gone. In the end the people you love and who love you are the only thing that really matters. Of course that love doesn’t necessarily have to come from a conventional relationship or a conventional family, but that just happens to be what I want. I’m more interested in living in a world where these things are prioritized over career accomplishments by men as equally as women. Rather than a world where women feel they’ve failed if they haven’t given as much priority to their careers as men have traditionally done. In my opinion men have been missing out by doing that, whether they’ve done it out of inclination or because they have been forced to by societal and economic pressures. I’ve never thought this was an eviable position. I come from a family where mom stayed home and dad was always working. I wanted to grow up to be like my mom, the person who gave and received the majority of the affection and was and is fulfilled by the love of her children. Why would I want to grow up to be like that guy who missed out on so much because his career was more interesting than his home?
      I watch a lot of TV. A common problem playing out between couples in most dramas today is that neither one feels like they should have to sacrifice their career for the other or for their children. Particularly, why should a woman have to sacrifice or compromise her career in anyway to make a relationship work or to look after their children rather than a man? My question is how is that a sacrifice? If you are lucky enough to have those things and are also lucky enough to afford to step back from your career to do it (a middle class luxury problem, at best, these days) then why the hell wouldn’t you want to? Why don’t both of you want to do it? Why aren’t you arguing about which one of you gets to have the privilege of doing that?
      Because you don’t get paid more or get awards, accolades, and promotions for being a wonderful parent or a wonderful couple or a wonderful friend or family member, etc. And money makes the world go round.
      Don’t get me wrong, as you pointed out, women were forced into a role of dependency and subservience for millenia regardless of what they wanted and that was and is horrible. I am extremely lucky to have grown up in a time and society where I have never personally felt oppressed because of my sex (though I understand that many of my contemporaries have). I just think a lot of women still choose to stay in the role of nurturer, whether it be in a marriage or various kinds of relationships and various kinds of families or through their choice of career (why didn’t I think of that!?), because they are smart enough to realize that it is by far the most important and fulfilling role. It’s time society or at least the very shallow medium of television catches on that this is a role of privilege and hard work. The kind of work that yields the most lasting rewards. We should all be so lucky.
      I could go on about how we live in a society that places unfair and unnatural value on the state of being “independent” and that we are social beings designed to rely upon each other… but I won’t.

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