The Politics of the “Single By Choice” Movement

February 15, 2012

This is the first of a two-part article on the political and economic forces surrounding marriage trends. Part Two may be found here.

Kate Bolick has ridden her Atlantic November cover article All the Single Ladies all the way to fame and fortune. It’s the most read article in the magazine’s history, was optioned as a TV show in development by Sony, and recently generated a book deal in the high six figures for Bolick. The book is titled Among the Suitors: Single Women I Have Loved. The announcement says It develops a sly blend of autobiography and literary portraiture to question the conventional marriage trajectory.

I congratulate Kate on her incredible success. She has clearly struck a nerve, and emancipated single women of a certain age are rushing to join the conversation and celebrate their single status. This is a marked reversal of the spinster lit trend of the last few years, where unhappily single women in their late 30s published memoirs attempting to come to terms with where they went wrong, and reaffirming their vow to continue their search for a life partner. 

Ironically, the feminist media that champions Kate’s choice glossed over Kate’s opening in the Atlantic piece:

The decision to end a stable relationship for abstract rather than concrete reasons (“something was missing”), I see now, is in keeping with a post-Boomer ideology that values emotional fulfillment above all else. And the elevation of independence over coupling (“I wasn’t ready to settle down”) is a second-wave feminist idea I’d acquired from my mother, who had embraced it, in part, I suspect, to correct for her own choices.

…I was her first and only recruit, marching off to third grade in tiny green or blue T-shirts declaring: A WOMAN WITHOUT A MAN IS LIKE A FISH WITHOUT A BICYCLE, or: A WOMAN’S PLACE IS IN THE HOUSE—AND THE SENATE.

…What my mother could envision was a future in which I made my own choices. I don’t think either of us could have predicted what happens when you multiply that sense of agency by an entire generation.

Though feminism has brought us here, to a declining marriage rate and a female population more independent and educated than their male would-be partners, Kate Bolick and other women in her shoes are wise to focus on finding their bliss in life without a man. We’re facing at least a generation where a third of college-educated women will not marry college-educated men. This, among other factors, will continue to apply significant pressure to the declining marriage rate. It makes good sense for women to make the best life they can with or without a man, as many will not have the opportunity to marry.

Still, that’s different than championing singlehood over couplehood, which is where the momentum is now. Boston Magazine’s January issue featured an article by Janelle Nanos, Single By Choice, interviewing women (and one man) who prefer to remain single and do not want to be victimized by “singlism,” the social stigmas that unmarried people face. The term singlism was coined by Bella DePaulo, a psych professor at UCSB who is considered “the arbiter of the unmarried agenda.” And that’s the critical point here – there is an agenda that sees much more at stake than personal happiness and fulfillment.

Terri Tespicio, a writer who was interviewed for the article, said:

The idea that I would marry someone I loved has never crossed my mind. At 38, I feel more powerful and sexier and in control than I have ever felt…My life is a best-kept secret, and I wouldn’t trade it. As a single person, the world is my oyster. I’m just sorry that people who are married don’t have that freedom.

Even stronger proof of a political agenda may be found in a statement from Lisa Berkman, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health who states:

Single people who have strong social ties often have fewer health risks than those “greedy” married couples who isolate themselves.

There will be a great deal more shaming of married people in the next 20 years, as women engage in whatever cognitive dissonance (or hamsterwheeling) is necessary to find an escape from singlism and more importantly, a nagging sense of personal disappointment. The Single By Choice movement is described this way:

They come in all shapes and sizes. They’re young men, who are the fastest growing percentage of those living on their own. They’re well-educated women, who are refusing to “marry down” to their less credentialed prospects. They’re gays and lesbians watching their friends in same-sex couples ensconse themselves behind white picket fences.  Some have taken up their own distinguishing monikers, calling themselves quirkyalones, singulars, onelies or spinsterellas.

In truth, the population most affected by these trends, and they account for nearly all of those who identify with the movement, are never-married women in their 30s and 40s. It remains to be seen whether 20-something women will get on board before they know whether they will have the opportunity to marry. When Kate Bolick asked the young women at our dinner together whether her single status at the age of 39 freaked them out, they all nodded, awkwardly but truthfully. Each one of them also stated that they planned to prioritize having a family over pursuing a career. I suspect that the up and coming generation of women views these celebrations of singleness as a cautionary tale, and they’re anxious to make sure they won’t be calling themselves onelies  or quirkyalones if they can help it.

While I am a supporter of marriage as the bedrock of civilization, I support the right of any individual to choose to remain single, and to find their happiness in life where they will. But let’s not kid ourselves. The Single By Choice movement is political, not personal.