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Life and the Single Woman

by Professor E. Kay Trimberger


Women's History Month is a time to celebrate the achievements of women past and present but also to assess areas where women are still stigmatized and unequal. Single women is one such category.

The image of a ``single girl'' is an improvement over spinster. Cosmopolitan Editor, Helen Gurley Brown, began to popularize single life for young women in her 1962 bestseller ``Sex and the Single Girl.'' This book opened up new cultural acceptance for single career women and for sex outside of marriage. For Brown, ``the single woman, far from being a creature to be pitied and patronized, is emerging as the newest glamour girl of our times.'' But Brown did not reject marriage. Indeed, she admitted that it was her husband who suggested she write ``Sex and the Single Girl.'' She saw marriage as ``insurance for the worst year of a woman's life.''

The glamorous image of a young single woman -- especially for a woman in her 20s or early 30s with a good job -- survives to this day. The four heroines of the television show ``Sex and the City'' are direct descendents of Brown's philosophy. But there are many problems with the image of a single girl. A primary one being that the very word ``girl'' indicates immaturity and impermanence. Either the girl matures into marriage or she faces a void. We don't use the word anymore, but the image of ``spinster'' or ``old maid'' fills the empty space. It is the slip from single girl to spinster that creates so much anxiety for single women in their 30s.

Journalist Peggy Orenstein in her recent book, ``Flux,'' found that many single women in their 40s and 50s have satisfying lives but that single women in their 30s still believed that they would be miserable if they remain single past age 40. They looked horrified when Orenstein raised the possibility of their being permanently single. ``God forbid,'' said one woman. The vulnerabilities of single women in their 30s, and obsession with marriage, found in television's Ally McBeal and in the fictional singletons in Helen Fielding's best selling novel (and the subject of a film to be released in April), ``Bridget Jones's Diary,'' seem to speak to millions of women.

Single women in their 20s and early 30s tend to be more isolated than older single women and more likely to be lonely. Young women are still trying to separate from family and establish their identity. They often live in big cities, without close community ties. Friendships are fluid because of greater geographical mobility at this age. Many single women find casual sex difficult and fleeting relationships emotionally problematic.

Single women over 40 usually lead more satisfying lives. Autonomous and independent women are not necessarily alone. There is considerable evidence that many older women in this category live rich social lives, with more friends and stronger communities than married couples. Orenstein found that older, single women were some of the ``most conventionally feminine women I met ... identified strongly with the maternal.'' Rather than using their nurturing skills to the benefit of a family, they reached out to relatives, neighbors, friends and the larger community.

But what about sexuality and romance? What about a deep connection with one special person? We know that some women in long-term marriages have this, but many don't. Some married women find the decline of sex and romance a real problem, others don't. The same is true of single women. Some single women past 40 who are not in a coupled relationship love the autonomy of living alone. Others still long for someone with whom to be intimate and share daily life. Some single women continue to find sex and romance; others do not. Some of the latter don't miss it; others do.

We have millions of magazine articles, books and memoirs about the joys and problems of long-term marriage. We need a similar outpouring of material about long-term living outside a couple. What are the joys and pains of remaining single? Single could be more than an empty way station for those looking for a new relationship.

Single men do not face as rigid a biological time clock as single women and are not as stigmatized. But single men and women face many similar issues. Dialogue about living single could unite them, and gays and straights. Maybe single will never be an institution like marriage, but it could become a way of life with its own challenges and rewards -- different, but comparable, to those of living in a couple.

E. Kay Trimberger is Emeritus Professor of Women's and Gender Studies at Sonoma State University in California.  Professor Trimberger has a Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Chicago and has taught at SSU since 1975. She edited Intimate Warriors: Portraits of a Modern Marriage, 1899-2944 (The Feminist Press, 1989). Her current research (supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities and SSU research grants) is about the personal lives of women age 30-60, with the focus on comparing never-married and divorced women living outside marriage with married women. Professor Trimberger's teaching interests include Gender, Sexuality and Family, Contemporary Feminist Thought, Feminist Organizations and Changes in Marriage and Family.

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