All the Single Ladies

by Rebecca Traister

Clock Icon 26 minute read


Watch Out for That Woman: The Political and Social Power of an Unmarried Nation

The contemporary wave of single women was building in the very same years that I was heading off to college, though I hadn’t realized it. The early 1990s was the period in which reverberations of the social and political revolutions of my mother’s generation were manifesting as swiftly changing marriage and reproductive patterns, which, in turn, would create a current of political possibility for independent women in America.

On October 11, 1991, a thirty-five-year-old law professor, Anita Faye Hill, appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee to testify about the sexual harassment she’d experienced while working for Clarence Thomas, a D.C. Circuit Judge nominated by President George H. W. Bush to fill the Supreme Court seat of the retiring civil rights hero, Thurgood Marshall. A native of rural Lone Tree, Oklahoma, Hill was the youngest of thirteen children raised by Baptist farmers; her grandfather and great-grandparents had been slaves in Arkansas. She was valedictorian of her high-school class and attended Yale Law School, worked for Thomas at both the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and taught contract law at the University of Oklahoma. She was not married.

As cameras recorded every second, broadcasting to a rapt and tense nation, Hill sat before the all-white, all-male Senate Judiciary Panel and told them in a careful, clear voice of the sexually crude ways in which Thomas had spoken to her during the years she worked for him; she detailed her former boss’s references to pornographic movie stars, penis size, and pubic hair in professional contexts. In turn, she was pilloried by the conservative press, spoken to with skepticism and insult by many on the committee, and portrayed by other witnesses as irrational, sexually loose, and perhaps a sufferer of erotomania, a rare psychological disorder that causes women to fantasize sexual relationships with powerful men.

Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson questioned Hill’s “proclivities” (a term that the conservative columnist William Safire suggested was “a code word for homosexuality”). One pundit, David Brock, called Hill “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty.” Called in front of the committee after her testimony, John Doggett, a former classmate of Thomas’s and an acquaintance of Hill’s, described Hill as “somewhat unstable” and surmised that she had “fantasized about my being interested in her romantically.” He guessed, based on their brief social interactions, “that she was having a problem with being rejected by men she was attracted to;” at another point, Doggett noted that Hill “seemed to be lonely in this town.”

As Hill would later write of her experience, “Much was made in the press of the fact that I was single, though the relevance of my marital status to the question of sexual harassment was never articulated.”

The relevance of her single status was how it distinguished her from established expectations of femininity. Hill had no husband to vouch for her virtue, no children to affirm her worth, as women’s worth had been historically understood. Her singleness, Hill felt at the time, allowed her detractors to place her “as far outside the norms of proper behavior as they could.” Members of the Judiciary, she wrote, “could not understand why I was not attached to certain institutions, notably marriage,” and were thus left to surmise that she was single “because I was unmarriageable or opposed to marriage, the fantasizing spinster or the man-hater.”

The lingering assumption—born of the same expectations that I had chafed at as a kid, reading novels—was that the natural state of adult womanhood involved being legally bound to a man. Perhaps especially in the comparatively new world of female professional achievement, in which a woman might be in a position, as an equivalently educated professional peer of a judicial nominee to the Supreme Court, to offer testimony that could imperil his career, marriage remained the familiar institution that might comfortably balance out this new kind of parity, and would offer the official male validation and abrogate her questioners’ ability to depict her as a spinster fantasist.

In raising questions about her marital status and her mental stability, Hill wrote, senators were “attempting to establish a relationship between marriage, values, and credibility” and prompt people to wonder “why I, a thirty-five-year-old Black woman, had chosen to pursue a career and to remain single—an irrelevant shift of focus that contributed to the conclusion that I was not to be believed.”

Indeed, Hill’s testimony was not believed by the members of the committee, at least not enough to make an impact on their decision. Clarence Thomas was confirmed to the Supreme Court days after her appearance before the Judiciary.

But Hill was not some contemporary Hester Prynne, doomed to a life in exile. Instead, her appearance had a lasting impact on the country and its power structures. The term sexual harassment entered the lexicon and the American consciousness, allowing women, married and single, to make sense of and lodge objections to workplace harassment; it offered us a view of how behavior long viewed as harmless was actually a form of discrimination and subjugation that hurt women as a class.

Just as long-lasting was the impact that the vision of Hill’s being grilled by a panel of white men had on America’s representative politics. In 1991, there had been only two women serving in the United States Senate, an embarrassing circumstance that the hearings put in stark national relief. A photograph published by the New York Times showed a group of Congress’s few female representatives, including Patricia Schroeder and Eleanor Holmes Norton, running up the Capitol steps to stop the proceedings to demand that Hill be allowed to testify.

The spectacle of Hill’s treatment by the committee spurred a reckoning with the nation’s monochromatic and male representative body. The year after her testimony, an unprecedented number of women ran for the Senate. Four of them won. One, Washington’s Patty Murray, has repeatedly explained that the Thomas hearings had helped spur her to political action; “I just kept looking at this committee, going 'God, who’s saying what I would say if I was there,’?” she’s said. “I mean, all men, not saying what I would say. I just felt so disoriented.”4 Another, Carole Moseley Braun of Illinois, became the first (and, so far, only) African-American woman elected to the Senate. They called 1992 “The Year of the Woman.”

Though Hill’s life and career were certainly upended by the attention (as well as by the death and rape threats) that came in the wake of her testimony, they were not cut short or ended. She was not permanently ostracized, professionally or personally. Today, she teaches law at Brandeis and lives in Boston with her partner of more than a decade.

Part of the reason that Hill was not wholly written off as a social aberration was because by the early 1990s, she wasn’t. A generation of women was, like Hill, living, working, and occupying public space on its own. The percentage of women between the ages of thirty-five and forty-four who were married had fallen from about 87 percent in 1960 and 1970 to 73 percent in 1990.

“Women began, in the nineties, to embrace their own sexuality and sexual expression in a different way,” Hill told me in 2013. Hill may have looked little like the recent past, but she was very much the face of the future, surely part of what made her discomfiting enough to send senators into paroxysms. As Alan Simpson urged the committee, citing the many warnings he claimed to have received about Hill, “Watch out for this woman!”

In the early 1990s, there were so many women to watch out for.


The Great Crossover

Less than a year after the Thomas hearings, Vice President Dan Quayle gave a campaign trail speech at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, during which he offered his theory on what was behind the Los Angeles race riots that had followed the verdict in the Rodney King trial. The “lawless social anarchy that we saw,” Quayle argued, “is directly related to the breakdown of the family structure.” To illustrate this point, Quayle took an unexpected turn, laying into a television character.

The eponymous heroine of CBS’s Murphy Brown, played by Candice Bergen, was about to give birth to a baby without being married—or romantically attached—to the child’s father. Quayle was concerned that in doing so, Murphy, who he noted “supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid professional woman,” was “mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice.” Quayle’s comments would land him, fictional Murphy Brown, and her fictional baby, Avery, on the front of the New York Times, making the character’s unmarried status far more emblematic than it would have been otherwise.

Of course, Quayle’s concern hadn’t really been about Murphy; he had been unspooling some classic conservative rhetoric about how welfare programs discourage marriage when he’d thrown his pop-culture curveball. Quayle’s anxiety over the possibility that new models of motherhood and womanhood, unhooked from marriage, might be taking hold across income brackets was palpable. A new reality was setting in: If women could live independently, many would do so, and as they did, men would become less central to economic security, social standing, sexual life, and, as it turned out, to parenthood.

Though Quayle surely didn’t realize it at the time, 1992 was at the heart of what researchers would later dub “the great crossover.” Not only were the early nineties the years during which the marriage age was rising; they were the point at which the marriage age was rising above the age of first birth.

It was the reversal of a very old cultural and religious norm, purportedly a bedrock of female identity and familial formation, though not always a reflection of real life, in which premarital sex and pregnant brides had always existed. However, officially, public codes of respectability had held that marriage was to precede childbearing. Now, that sequence was being scrambled, and amongst the many Americans panicking about it were the men who had long enjoyed relatively unchallenged control of politics.

Two years after Quayle’s speech, Pennsylvania senate candidate Rick Santorum gave a speech again emphasizing the link between unmarried motherhood and social chaos, claiming that “We are seeing the fabric of this country fall apart, and it’s falling apart because of single moms.” In 1994, Jeb Bush, son of former president George H. W. Bush, then running for governor in Florida, said that women on welfare “should be able to get their life together and find a husband” and, soon after, published a book in which he argued that the reason young women have babies outside of wedlock is because “there is no longer a stigma attached to this behavior,” suggesting that maybe the stigma should return.

In 1993, Bill Clinton appointed Joycelyn Elders, an outspoken advocate of humane drug laws and abortion rights, as Surgeon General of the United States. The following year, at a United Nations conference on AIDS, Elders caused a scandal by voicing her support of teaching masturbation as part of sex education. It was a perfectly sane message, especially in the context of the AIDS epidemic. But so freighted was Elders’s simple advocacy of independent sexual pleasure, achievable without a partner and with no chance of procreation, that the president who had appointed her asked her to resign.

It was a fraught period, Anita Hill told me in 2013, in which some Americans were “still trying to hold on to the idea that we lived in the 1950s, this Leave It to Beaver world.” This imagined white universe, in which sex was hetero and always procreative and women were wives and mothers who lived in middle-class comfort and embraced designated gender roles, had “never actually existed for most women,” Hill said, but was held up as an American ideal.

Now, even in pop culture, Leave It to Beaver had given way to the irreverent Roseanne, the sitcom about a working-class nuclear family in which the eponymous heroine joked of her (loving) marriage as “like a life sentence with no hope for parole.” More broadly, nuclear families were being joined on television by a flood of images of women unbound from marriages and families altogether. Beginning in 1993, Queen Latifah anchored a group of Brooklyn roommates on FOX’s Living Single; the next year, NBC answered with the white, Manhattan version: Friends. From 1994 to 1996, journalist Candace Bushnell penned a weekly newspaper column called “Sex and the City;” it would go on to become a book and a smash HBO series.

Terri McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale, a 1992 novel about four female friends, some recently jilted, juggling the personal and the professional, remained on the bestseller list for months, and would be made into a movie. Four years later, British writer Helen Fielding published Bridget Jones’s Diary, and was credited with kicking off a new publishing genre, “chick lit,” devoted to the stories of women, whom Bridget’s best friend would, in self-parody, describe as “a pioneer generation daring to refuse to compromise in love and relying on our own economic power.”

As the millennium dawned, it was impossible to watch out for all the women who were coming to change America.


Strange Stirrings

If women slowed their rush to the altar in huge numbers starting in the 1990s, their ability to do so was built directly on political, economic, social, and sexual victories won by the previous generation, during what is commonly known as the Second Wave of the women’s movement. Several Second Wave feminists would remind me pointedly during my research for this book that my generation had far from invented contemporary habits of marital abstinence or delay; by many measures, theirs had.

And, to some degree, they’re right: Many women whose consciousness had been raised and opportunities expanded by feminism actively decided, for political and personal reasons, to postpone or forego marriage.

They didn’t do so in numbers large enough to create a demographic earthquake, to change the marrying behaviors of the masses, at least not right away. Because while its victories would transform the landscape in ways that would make it far more possible for my generation to delay marriage, the Second Wave was not built on opposition to marriage, but rather a desire to address its suffocating circumstances.

The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the Unites States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut-butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night, she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question “Is this all?”

Is this all? Betty Friedan’s first paragraph sliced the mid-century American situation for middle-class white women to its quick: asserting that the ennui, anger, and unhappiness experienced by millions of American women was the product of the “millions of words” spilled by experts assuring women that “their role was to seek fulfillment as wives and mothers.” These sages had spent a decade and a half, Friedan reported, telling women “how to catch a man and keep him . . . that truly feminine women do not want careers, higher education, political rights—the independence and the opportunities that the old-fashioned feminists fought for.” Those women who’d been raised with the limited scope of female possibility offered by mid-twentieth century America, Friedan argued, believed that “All they had to do was devote their lives from earliest girlhood to finding a husband and bearing children.”

The Feminine Mystique would sell 1.4 million copies of its first paperback printing and, though its popularity was likely a symptom of the fact that Friedan’s ideas were already in circulation and gaining steam in other quarters, it would be widely credited as having kicked off the Second Wave. Early marriage and domestic confinement were so pervasive for middle-class white women in the middle of the twentieth century that the nation’s most mass, conscious move to emancipate women erupted directly in response to it.

Yet, funnily enough, as the legal scholar Rachel Moran argues, while the feminist movement of the 1970s was in part a “direct response to these conditions of early and pervasive marriage,” the ironic side effect was that single women had almost no place in the underpinnings of the movement.

As much as The Feminine Mystique was a cry against the limitations that early marriage and motherhood imposed on women, it did not assume (or even consider) that marriage itself was the problematic element, or that it might ever be optional for women. Friedan’s vision of female empowerment entailed the expansion of activity outside the domestic sphere, but it did not question the primacy of that sphere itself.

Friedan’s reflexive connections between male attention and female fulfillment—as well as the rather dim regard in which she held most single women—are evident throughout her book. “Strangely, a number of psychiatrists state that, in their experience, unmarried women patients were happier than married ones,” writes Friedan with obvious perplexity. Elsewhere, she cites Susan B. Anthony as the early feminist who most closely resembled the myth of the “embittered shrew,” conceding (generously, she must have thought) that while Anthony “felt betrayed when the other [suffragists] started to marry and have babies,” she did not end up some “bitter spinster with a cat.”

When Friedan, who would co-found and become the first president of the National Organization for Women in 1966, was asked about NOW’s mission in a television interview, she replied that the group’s message was about revising the “conditions that prevent women from easily combining marriage and motherhood and work.” The group’s mission statement amplified this intention, noting that NOW did “not accept the traditional assumption that a woman has to choose between marriage and motherhood, on the one hand, and a serious participation in industry or the professions on the other . . . We believe that a true partnership between the sexes demands a different concept of marriage, an equitable sharing of the responsibilities . . .” It was (and remains!) a revolutionary vision, but the organization was not the National Organization of Married Women, and yet there was no hint of recognition that not every woman’s life would (or should) include marriage and children, in that order.

This was only one way in which Friedan’s vision was blinkered.

In addition to her inability to conceive of middle-class white women who might not want the youthful unions into which they were being nudged, Friedan also didn’t consider the population of American women who were already altering marriage patterns, who had in recent years been marrying at declining rates and at later ages, who had been working outside the home for longer than that, supporting themselves and sometimes their children, both alongside, and independent of, husbands. Friedan did not include black women in her vision.

Black women, who experienced both gender and racial wage discrimination, who were less likely than their white peers to have college educations or economic power, and whose families and potential husbands were also less likely to have college educations or economic power, were also far less likely than white women to have the choice of not working outside their homes. They were therefore far less likely to experience the kind of domestic disenchantments from which Friedan’s readers suffered.

Black women had in fact already made some of the very points for which Friedan was being hailed. Philadelphia lawyer Sadie Alexander had argued in the 1930s that women yearned to “place themselves again among the producers of the world” by involving themselves in work “that resulted in the production of goods that have a price value.” Not only would this increase women’s status and security in the world, Alexander argued, in advance of Friedan, but “the satisfaction which comes to the woman in realizing that she is a producer makes for peace and happiness, the chief requisites in any home.”

Even worse was that at practically the same moment that Friedan was being credited with jump starting the women’s movement by advocating extramarital wage-earning that black women had been doing for generations, black women were being blamed for a different sort of social disruption. Two years after the publication of The Feminine Mystique, women whose experiences had foregrounded its philosophies were at the center of a national conversation about the devolution of the black family unit and the social and economic blight it was presumed to have precipitated.

In 1965, Assistant Secretary of Labor and future New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan released a report called “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” It was, in some ways, a thoughtful account of the systemic racial inequality that had plagued the nation since its founding, with Moynihan arguing that “the American Republic, which at birth was flawed by the institution of Negro slavery, and which throughout its history has been marred by the unequal treatment of Negro citizens” long had fallen short of “the full promise of the Declaration of Independence.” Moynihan rightly acknowledged the development of middle-class white suburbs and abandonment of poor cities to African-Americans as having created a class chasm between the races, noting that “because of this new housing patternãmost of which has been financially assisted by the Federal government—it is probable that the American school system has become more, rather than less segregated in the past two decades.”

Yet, despite these insights into the unequal histories and prospects of America’s black and white populations, Moynihan boiled his argument down to one, punishing point: that the root of black poverty lay with the breakdown of marital norms for which nonconforming women were responsible. The “deterioration of the Negro family,” Moynihan argued, was tied to the high number of dissolved marriages, illegitimate births and the fact that “almost one-fourth of Negro families are headed by women.”

There was some logic here: In economically unstable communities, raising children on single, low incomes is an inherently unstable proposition. But there was no consideration that those single incomes were a result as much as a cause, that reduced economic opportunity made marriage a less beneficial option for women, that women’s work outside the home was, rather than a detriment, key to keeping disadvantaged black communities and families afloat. Instead, Moynihan positioned female independence from men and dominance within the family at the center of a “tangle of pathology” that created “a matriarchal structure which, because it is out of line with the rest of American society,” and its patriarchal structure, “seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole.”


Comfort to the Singles

In the burgeoning feminist movement, the voices of figures more radical than Friedan began to get more notice for their arguments that women should not simply move toward the workforce, but away from marriage as the ratifying stamp of female worth.

In 1969, University of Chicago sociology professor Marlene Dixon wrote that “the institution of marriage is the chief vehicle for the perpetuation of the oppression of women . . . In a very real way the role of wife has been the genesis of women’s rebellion throughout history.” The next year, feminist Sheila Cronan wrote, “Since marriage constitutes slavery for women . . . Freedom for women cannot be won without the abolition of marriage.” Radical feminist writer Andrea Dworkin famously commented that “Marriage as an institution developed from rape as a practice.”

In 1970, the median age of first marriage for women remained under twenty-one, and 69.4 percent of Americans over the age of eighteen were married. This is remarkable, in part, because of other social and political upheavals already well underway: In 1960, the FDA had approved the birth control pill for contraceptive use, an early step toward (or symptom of) what would become the sexual revolution. And, in 1969, the Stonewall riots had kicked off a gay rights movement that would be driven explicitly by the fight for acceptance by women and men who had no desire to partner with members of the opposite sex.

The emergence of gay women as a political faction was not an altogether welcome development within the Second Wave. Friedan herself would famously refer to lesbians as a “lavender menace” and, in later years, would voice her loathing of women she called “man-hating” feminists, whose “down-with-men, down-with-marriage, down-with-childbearing rhetoric and actions” threatened to wrest control of feminism from “women who wanted equality but who also wanted to keep on loving their husbands and children.”

In fact, for some time, the intersections of the gay rights and women’s rights movements seemed mostly to provide evidence both of the strength of homophobia amongst social progressives and gender iconoclasts, and of how inconceivable it remained even to many 1970s feminists that heterosexual women might live willingly single: The only way some feminists were able to absorb the notion of a woman who didn’t necessarily want to marry a man was to understand her as homosexual.

At least until Gloria came along.

In the early 70s, feminism got a new and powerful popularizer, a woman who would come to stand (insufficiently and often to her own dismay) for the diverse, cacophonous, flawed, and multifaceted movement whose sometimes spiky messages she was so capable of transmitting smoothly to the broader public.

Gloria Steinem had come to New York from her native Toledo, and began a successful career as a writer for print and television; she was mentioned alongside other “new journalism” stars like Tom Wolfe, and was a stylish darling of New York’s 1960s media scene, often photographed in the company of well-known men, many of whom she was dating.

Steinem was late to feminism. In 1962, she’d written a story about contraception that laid out the ways in which women were asked to choose between career and marriage; the next year she did an undercover expos_ of Hugh Hefner’s sex-themed Playboy clubs. However, her political engagements were with the Democratic Party, the civil rights, and antiwar movements; they didn’t yet extend to the burgeoning women’s movement. In 1963, the year that the Feminine Mystique was published, Steinem had written The Beach Book, a guide to travel and tanning that featured a foil cover flap that readers might use to catch rays.

Even without a raised consciousness, Steinem’s life, by the late 1960s, served as a striking emblem of the era’s new possibilities for women: She was unmarried, widely traveled, professionally successful, and open about her sexual appetites. In a 1968 television interview, Canadian broadcaster Moses Znaimer asked thirty-four-year-old Steinem about her reputation as a “chick with a good sense of the vibrations;” he questioned how she’d gone undercover at Playboy, since he “thought you had to be stacked to be a bunny girl;” he asked if she cooked (she was ironing in the interview). He asked her if she ever wanted to marry.

“Eventually,” Steinem replied, “but it keeps receding two years into the comfortable distance.” Did she think about it a lot? Yes, she said. “You imagine what it would be like to be married to people you’re going out with . . . maybe it’s a lady’s thing . . . You think, 'Let’s see, my name would be Gloria Burgermeister. . . . nah.’?” In the interview’s final question, Znaimer asks Steinem what she wants to be “when you grow up.”

“Free,” Steinem replies, “and old . . . and a little mean.”

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