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May 30, 2012

Love and the Single Girl

Modern love can be summed up in one quick status update: It's complicated. In the final edition of a three-part series, we explore life on the front lines of singledom. For more insight, read these essays on love and race and love and money.

girl in window

Photo Credit: Jo Metson Scott

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Putting themselves first and a wedding ring second, a new generation of women fights for their right to be left alone (literally!) - By Rebecca Traister

Call it the attack of the 50-foot single woman.

Recent months have seen an army of unmarried women taking over magazine racks (cover stories in The Atlantic and Boston), prime time (Girls, 2 Broke Girls, New Girl), and bookshelves (Eric Klinenberg's Going Solo documents the huge number of women — 17 million — now living on their own). For legions of women, living single isn't news, it's life. You know, eating, sleeping, working, cleaning the refrigerator — just doing it all while not being married to a man. But to others, waking up in the morning husband-free seems to be some kind of affront. In March, Rush Limbaugh, fresh off his tirade against unmarried law student Sandra Fluke, laid into a 35-year-old female journalist, asking, "What is it with all these young, single white women?"

Limbaugh isn't alone in his anxiety about maritally uncommitted broads. Comedian Steve Harvey has spent years urging successful black women to ratchet down their standards and just get married already, while Lori Gottlieb's 2010 book, Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough, conveyed the same message to all professional women. Meanwhile, television writer Tracy McMillan's viral blog post, "Why You're Not Married," now expanded into a book, makes Limbaugh sound downright chivalrous; her damning explanations for extended singlehood include "You're a Bitch," "You're a Slut," and "You're Selfish."

What exactly is so threatening about a woman without a ring on her finger? What's she done to you? It's not like a failure to marry by 30 is the end of the world.

Except that the world as we've known it for a very long time — one in which a woman's value was tied to her role as a wife — is ending, right in front of us.

A recent Pew Research Center study found that barely half of American adults are married, a historic low. More striking: Only 20 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds are hitched. It's now standard for a woman to spend years on her own, learning, working, earning, socializing, having sex, and, yes, having babies in the manner she — and she alone — sees fit. To be more precise: We are living through the invention of independent female adulthood.

Make no mistake, this is a seismic shift. After a long history during which living solo would get you labeled a pathetic spinster or, if you were lucky, a sexual iconoclast, being recognized as an independent person rather than as someone's daughter, wife, or mother is a new, shiny kind of liberty for women, one that has unlocked all sorts of doors. Just 50 years ago, most women needed their husband's signature to open a bank account. (Some perspective: That's within Madonna's lifetime.) Today, according to a study of the country's 150 biggest cities, young, unmarried, childless women rake in more dough than their male counterparts. And getting ahead early is helping women do what had long seemed impossible: keep up with men financially, even if they do marry. In her new book, The Richer Sex, Liza Mundy predicts that working wives may outearn their husbands in the next generation.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. By no means do women dominate men — nor has that ever been the goal. Just look at the overall pay gap between men and women (still 15 percent) or at the gender breakdown of Congress (only 17 percent female). And for women, marrying later or never is not without tolls — just ask a single mother struggling to feed her family. But women have made swift strides, largely by establishing themselves outside of marriage — which isn't always well received by a society built on assumptions about men being on top and in charge.

It sometimes seems that women can't win, even a little, without someone declaring their successes a threat to men — à la The Atlantic's buzzy cover story "The End of Men" — marriage, family, and society itself. That's not an exaggeration. Former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum has said, "We are seeing the fabric of this country fall apart, and it's ... because of single moms." That's certainly one (horrible) way to put it. The more honest take is that, as women follow more varied paths, we're all being forced to readjust our perceptions of what "normal" looks like when it comes to men, women, and families.

But here's a surprising truth that gets lost in all the fuss: Women staying single longer is good news for — of all things — marriage! The divorce rate is going down, especially for people who marry later in life. Why? Perhaps because women (and men) have more room to grow into their own lives before they try to fit into someone else's. Or maybe it's just because we all have a little more time to be choosy about whom we end up with for life.

Whatever the effect on "smug marrieds" and whatever blowback single women receive, their growing numbers offer a crucial lesson: There are many ways to live lives full of love and meaning. Our worth no longer hinges simply on whether we have found the right partner by a certain moment of our lives.

So don't be scared by the advancing army of single ladies. They're here to liberate us all.

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