Susan B Anthony never married. The suffragist, abolitionist and civil rights campaigner foresaw in 1877 that “in women’s transition from the position of subject to sovereign, there must needs be an era of self-sustained, self-supported homes”, leading, “inevitably, to an epoch of single women”. Seven generations later, we may finally have arrived. With more and more women living alone or without a partner, the question once again is not how to have a better marriage but whether to have one at all.
Two recent books by American journalists have blown air on the dying coals of the long-sidelined debate over marriage, partnership, the sheer amount of work involved in the whole business and whether it’s worth it for women who value their personal autonomy over the vanishing amount of security offered by coupledom. Rebecca Traister’s bestselling All the Single Ladies draws attention to the growing power of uncoupled women in the US and the threat that this poses to the socio-economic status quo. Moira Weigel’s Labor of Love, meanwhile, focuses on how, for many women, what has been called love and phrased as destiny is in reality work – hard work, endless work, organisational and domestic and emotional work without boundary or reward – and far more optional than society would have us believe. “Single female life is not prescription,” Traister writes, “but its opposite: liberation.”
As women writers around the world open up, for the first time in generations, about the regrets that they have nursed in private over marriage and motherhood, the work involved in both is finally becoming visible. The crucial phrase here is “emotional labour”. This, Weigel reminds us, is not just cleaning, cooking and wiping snotty noses, but the organisation of households and relationships, the planning of marriage and fertility, the attention paid to birthdays and anniversaries and food allergies – all the work, in short, that goes into keeping human beings happy on an intimate level.
Someone has to do it but the burden has fallen on women to such an extent that it has been naturalised, made invisible by the assumption that women and girls are just built to take care of all this stuff – if not by God, then by nature. The idea that we might not be and that we might furthermore be fed up of doing so thanklessly and for free is profoundly threatening to the smooth running of society as we know it.
“The revolution,” Traister declares, “is in the expansion of options.” Not so long ago, marriage was often a woman’s only option if she wanted financial security, children who would be considered legitimate, social status and semi-regular sex. Our foremothers fought for the right to all of those things outside the confines of partnership and today the benefits of marriage and monogamy are increasingly outweighed by the costs.
Study after study has shown that it is now men, not women, who benefit most from marriage and long-term partnership. Men who marry are, on the whole, healthier and happier than single men. Married women, by contrast, are no better off than their single counterparts. Men who have divorced are twice as likely to want to get married again as women.
This might explain why it is women, not men, who must be steered and conditioned towards partnership from childhood. Little girls, not little boys, are taught to prepare for marriage, to imagine their future roles as wives and mothers, to fear being “left on the shelf”. “Bachelor” is a term of respect but “spinster” is a term of abuse and it is women, not men, to whom the propaganda of romance is directed.
Today, single women have more power and presence than ever before – but there is still a price to pay for choosing not to pair up. It’s not just about the stress of steering a life through un-navigated waters and unlearning decades of conditioning that lodges the notion that life without a partner is misery in the malleable parts of our hearts. It’s also about the money. Over half of Americans earning minimum wage or below are single women – and single mothers are five times as likely to live in poverty as married ones. This has been taken as proof that marriage is better for women – when it should be a sign that society must do more and better to support women’s choices as men have been supported for centuries.
If women reject marriage and partnership en masse, the economic and social functioning of modern society will be shaken to its core. It has already been shaken. Capitalism has managed to incorporate the mass entrance of women into the historically male workplace by depressing wages but the question of how households will be formed and children raised is still unsolved. Public anxiety over the low fertility rate among middle-class white women is matched only by the modern hysteria about working-class, black and migrant women having “too many” babies.
“Single women are taking up space in a world that was not built for them,” Traister concludes. “If we are to flourish, we must make room for free women, must adjust our economic and social systems, the ones that are built around the presumption that no woman really counts unless she is married.”
Once that is done, what about those who still choose marriage or partnership? They can couple up in the knowledge that their choices are made freely. When partnership ceases to be mandatory, it only becomes more special. I hope some of my friends carry on getting married, because I love weddings, although I doubt that I’ll ever have one. It’s just that I believe in dismantling the social and economic institutions of marriage and family. I believe in this not just as a feminist but as a romantic – because it’s the only chance we have of one day, at last, meeting and mating as equals.