Why am I one of those American women who doesn’t live with a spouse? Clearly because I’m an abortion-having, Playboy-posing, drug-using, cat-loving, clinically depressed, lonely divorcee.
Much has been made of a recent New York Times article reporting that now a majority (51%) of women live alone.
According to the Times, women are now living with their cats and lovin’ it!
But the Times has a way of putting a positive spin on such things as divorce, abortion, drug use, depression, and loneliness.
Mary Grabar writes an article where she plays the part of the Lonely Single Lady, complete with cat and desperate man-hunting. If that’s what conservative married ladies need to feel better about their lives, go for it. I think marriage can be a great thing — and that’s why I’m not racing full speed ahead into it. Marriage for the virtue of being married doesn’t sound all that great. Marriage because you love someone and have made a thought-out, informed decision to spend the rest of your life with them sounds like something I could go for.
The Times article about how 51% of women are living without spouses is what’s predictably making conservatives flip out. And it’s funny to see them scramble for reasons why women aren’t getting married*: Abortion! Drugs! Cats!
Feminists and other human rights activists aren’t applauding these statistics because we hate marriage. Quite the opposite: Many of us applaud them because they demonstrate that women and men have greater flexibility in their life choices, and they’re making decisions that work for them. They aren’t socially or economically compelled to get married. Marriage can be a choice, not a coerced decision or a social necessity. You would think that would bring warmth to the heart of anyone who values marriage as an institution, and anyone who likes to see men and women able to find happiness and exercise greater autonomy.
Naturally, social conservatives are not these people. “Autonomy” and “happiness” don’t really factor in to their whole world view, at least when we’re talking about women. I’ve rarely heard a social conservative make a compelling case for marriage that has anything to do with the people involved in that marriage. Rather, their arguments revolve around how good marriage is for children or for society. Their conception of marriage, with the husband as the head of the household and the wife a willing vessel, isn’t about making life better for the people involved — it’s about maintaining a “traditional” social order which serves to primarily benefit men. The idea that women and men can opt out of the institution which props up this social order is understandably terrifying.
What warms my little feminist heart, aside from the fact that lots of women are statistically opting out of patriarchal marriage, is that a lot of married women and men are opting out as well — they just aren’t visible in these statistics. Is there such a thing as a perfectly egalitarian marriage (or any perfectly egalitarian relationship)? Probably not. But a whole lot of us are trying, and plenty of people are bringing that mentality into marriage. That’s one reason, aside from the basic equal rights issue, why I think marriage equality is such an important feminist issue: It throws a wrench in the idea that marriage is inherently a union of unequals, and that gender has anything at all to do with the ability of two people to form a state-sanctioned permanent union.
Feminist marriage politics have also greatly benefited women who don’t consider themselves feminists, including conservative women. Some of them may complain about certain progressive issues, but I’d be willing to bet that the majority of Bush-voting married ladies are pretty grateful that they were able to choose their husbands, and that they themselves were chosen. I’d be willing to bet that those with the happiest marriages consider themselves happy in part because they are choosing to be married, not because they’re socially coerced into entering and maintaining a relationship that they resent.
So if Mary Grabar wants to look at women like me and cluck her tongue over what lonely cat-loving sluts we are, she can go for it. Are there certainly women within that 51% who desperately want to get married and feel empty because they’re single? Absolutely. But I don’t know any of them, except in internet land. I’m not married, and I’m not particularly attached to the idea of getting married (although I haven’t ruled it out, either — just haven’t put all that much thought into it), but I’m not single because I’m lonely and sit at home talking to Sparky the Cat, wishing that some Romeo would come and put an expensive ring on my finger. I’m 23, in law school, living in Manhattan with a room mate I adore, spending time with friends I love, writing, studying, dating, going out, reading. I’ve made my choices (and have been extremely lucky to be in a position to make the choices that I have). Other women have made the choices that work for them. My best friend in the whole wide world, who I’ve been attached to at the hip since we were 12, is married to a Marine who’s currently doing his second tour in Iraq. He’s a wonderful man. My mom was the witness of their marriage certificate signing. She has made incredibly different choices than I have, but both of our choices have been influenced by the fact that we are autonomous human beings who have chosen the best paths for our own lives. She would never have married someone who she didn’t feel would be her equal (I doubt it will surprise anyone when I say that my best friend is one tough broad). I would have never had the ability to delay or totally forgo marriage if being married was a social or economic requirement for a woman in my position. And you know, she is damn happy. So am I. We’ve made very different choices. But we’re both part of the 51% — I’m unmarried, and she’s married but living alone because her husband has been in Iraq since October and isn’t coming back for a few more months.
My mom is another single woman. She got divorced pretty soon after her 50th birthday. At the time, she believed that the divorce was the most devastating possible event in her life, and she was miserable. Five years later, she’s certainly not pleased that her marriage ended, but she’s gone back to school for her MBA, reconnected with many of her girlfriends, been promoted at work, traveled to Europe for the first time in her life (and then went back), climbed Machu Picchu, and finally taken the time to take stock of what she wants out of life — not what her husband and her kids and everyone else she put before her wanted from her. She dates occasionally, but is in no hurry to get married again. She’s part of the 51% too.
Point being, that 51% is a diverse group who have made all kinds of different choices. Many of us are happy. Undoubtedly, some of us aren’t.
You know, kind of like all other people.
The conservative knee-jerk reaction to pinning these statistics on demanding women, or pathetic cat ladies, or women with “problems” (drug abuse, abortion, depression) doesn’t speak to the realities of women’s lives. Marriage isn’t a magical spell which cures addiction, precludes abortion, and turns a depressed woman into a happy one. It’s pathetic, really, to see the lengths to which some of them will go to demonize unmarried women in order to prop up an ideal which, for most of the people involved, isn’t ideal at all.
But again, if the idea that all single women are pathetic cat-lovers** who aspire to be either Playboy Bunnies or doting wives but are failing miserably is what helps Mary climb into her marital bed every night, more power to her. We’ll all still be here in the morning. And we’ll be as human and diverse as the married women.
*This would mean that men aren’t getting married too, right? That doesn’t seem to be a huge problem.
**Why is it always so satisfying to bring up the cats?
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