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).