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. More women are living alone or without a partner than ever before, and the question on the table 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 All The Single Ladies draws attention to the growing power of uncoupled women in the United States, and the threat this poses to the socioeconomic status quo. Moira Weigel’s Labor of Love, meanwhile, focuses on the fact that for many women, what has been called love and phrased as destiny is in fact work – hard work, endless work, organisational and domestic and emotional work without boundary and reward – and much more optional than society would have us believe. “Single female life is not prescription,” Traister writes, “but its opposite: liberation.”
These books could not have arrived on my doorstep at a better time. I had been struggling to find language for my growing anxiety over the fact that, at almost 30, I still have no desire to settle down and form a traditional family. I’ve been waiting, as open-mindedly as possible, for a sudden neo-Darwinian impulse to pair up and reproduce. And yet here I am, and it hasn’t happened. Despite no small amount of social pressure, I am happy as I am.
I am quite content with the fact that my work, my politics, my community and my books are just as important to me as anyone I happen to be dating. I love babies, but not enough to make the work, the pain, the worry and the lost opportunities involved worth it for me – not right now, and maybe not ever. I live in a commune, I date multiple people, and I’m focused on my career. I’d always assumed, because I’d always been told, that this was a phase I was going through. Reading these two books has helped me be honest about the fact that marriage and babies have always been way down my list of priorities, and they’re close to being nudged right off. There’s too much else I want to do. I’ve made the same choice that men my age have been able to make for centuries without being scolded by society, or even having to think about it too much – and in and of itself, that’s not radical. The possibility of millions of women making the same decision, en masse, however, is an entirely more threatening prospect.
As women writers around the world open up, for the first time in generations, about the regrets they have nursed in private over marriage and motherhood, the work involved in both is finally becoming visible. The key phrase here is “emotional labour”. Emotional labour, Weigel reminds us, is not just the cleaning and the cooking and the wiping of snotty noses, but the organisation of households and relationships, the planning of marriage and fertility, the attention paid to birthdays and anniversaries, the soothing of stress, the remembering of food allergies – all the work, in short, that goes into keeping human beings happy on an intimate level. Someone has to do it, and 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, with a great deal of pseudo-scientific handwaving over the specifics. 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.
It is more than possible for those who perform emotional and domestic labour to be alienated from the products of that labour, especially when so little recompense is on offer. Emotional and domestic labour is work, and women have been putting up with terrible working conditions for far too long. I knew that the discussion of emotional labour had gone mainstream when I saw it plastered across the front cover of a women’s glossy not generally known as a radical feminist recruiting tract. ”Who does the work in your relationship?” asks Psychologies, alongside a picture of Beyonce, who recently dropped an album demanding that her husband do better “or you’re gonna lose your wife” alongside coded threats to bring down the government. Bey has come a long way from “put a ring on it”, and so have the rest of us.
‘The revolution,” Traister declares, “is in the expansion of options, the lifting of the imperative that for centuries hustled nearly all (non-enslaved) women…down a single highway towards early heterosexual marriage and motherhood.” The reframing of marriage and partnership not just as work, but as optional work, raises real questions for women and girls thinking about “settling down”. Is it worth it? Is signing up for what might turn out, even if you’re lucky, to be a lifetime of domestic management too high a price to pay for limited reward? Do you actually want to spend years taking care of children and a partner when it’s hard enough taking care of yourself? Not so long ago, marriage was most women’s only option if they 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 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, were no better off than their single counterparts. Men who divorced are twice as likely to want to get married again, whereas women, who are more often wanted out of the whole business. This might explain why it is women, not men, who must be steered and conditioned towards partnership from childhood.
It is little girls, and not little boys, who 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. From Hollywood to reality television the the comment desks of broadsheets, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman, no matter what resources she may possess, must be in want of a man.
Or must she? I had always scorned Jane Austen, whose most famous aphorism I just bastardised, until I found myself on a train last year with nothing to read but Emma. I realised something I’d never considered as a literature student: that Austen’s famous novels of shrubbery romance in stately homes and claustrophobic marriage plotting make a lot more sense once you realise that all her protagonists are profoundly depressed and economically desperate. The reason that her middle-class heroines are so singularly fixated on marriage is that they have no meaningful alternatives: without a suitable mate, they face poverty, shame and social isolation. They are not romances. They are horror stories. I was hooked, and ploughed through the entire collection in three weeks.
Jane Austen’s books are still read and re-imagined as silly, frivolous stories for and about silly, frivolous women, but there are desperate stakes on the table. Austen, who never married herself, writes about women living in cages built by men, trying to survive as best they can, which is precisely what makes the stories so exciting and, to me at least, so frightening. Women’s real fears and concerns about marriage and cohabitation have always been dismissed in exactly the same way, as trivial issues unworthy of consideration in the public sphere. But there are vital, visceral matters of work and power at play – and that’s still true today, in a world where most women, thankfully, have a few more options than we did in the 1810s.
Today, single women have more power and presence than ever before – but there’s still a price to pay for choosing not to pair up. It’s not just about the stress of steering a life in unnavigated waters and unlearning decades of conditioning that lodges the notion that life without a partner 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, in fact, 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 traditionally 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 – the attempts by neoconservatives to bully, threaten and cajole wealthy white women back to the kitchen and nursery are as much about racist panic as they are about reinstituting a social order which only ever worked for men.
“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 marriage.” Traister is relaxed about the prospect of single women asking that the support a husband might once have provided be publicly available. “In looking to the government to support their ambitions, choices and independence through better policy,” she writes, “Single women are asserting themselves as citizens in ways that American men have for generations.” The same is true across the world – the liberation of women from mandatory domestic and emotional labour is a prospect of freedom that previous generations could only have imagined, and we owe it to them to take it seriously.
With all these options available, 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. Next week, one of my partners is getting married, and this week I went to his stag night as part of the groom’s party. I’m happy for him, and for his fiancee, whose permission I got before mentioning her in this piece. I love weddings. I love watching people I’m fond of build a future together, however they choose to organise it, and I also love getting dressed up and drunk on cheap champagne with their mad relatives. There’s not a lot I’d rather do than be a wedding-guest for a weekend – it’s just that I also happen to believe in dismantling the social and economic institutions of marriage and family.
I believe in all of that not despite my squishy, tender heart, but because of it. I’m a romantic. I think love needs to be freed from the confines of the traditional, monogamous, nuclear family – and so do women. I think wrapping up the most intimate, exhausting aspects of human labour in a saccharine slip of hearts and flowers, calling it love and expecting women to do it thanklessly and for free is a profoundly unromantic idea. In the real world, love is perhaps the one truly infinite, renewable resource we have – and it’s beyond time that we had more options. I want more options for myself, and I want them for all of us, not just as a feminist, but as a romantic, too – because it’s the only chance we have of one day, at last, meeting and mating as true equals.
The personal, however, remains political. Women refusing the traditional demands of love and marriage is not just a lifestyle issue, it’s a labour issue. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that, realising how terrible their working conditions are and have always been, women everywhere are simply going on strike, and it is a strike the like of which society has barely contemplated. It is distributed and dispersed, and the picket lines begin at the door of every household and the threshold of every human heart. Like any labour strike, it requires the raising of consciousness and a certain amount of solidarity between strikers, and it is not without costs. But this is how freedom is won.