When We Talk About Single Ladies, Let's Not Forget The Working Class

There's been a lot of ink spilt over the issue of female singleness recently — but who are we really talking about when we talk about single ladies? And who's getting left out of the equation?

Writing for In These Times, Sady Doyle makes a persuasive case that the kind of single ladies mainstream media outlets (and, on occasion, Jezebel) typically freak out about are the rich kind — or at least, the comfortably middle-class. Doyle notes that Kate Bolick, whose Atlantic cover story on single women received so much play late last year, "posits that in vitro fertilization (which costs between $10,000 and $20,000) is always an option for would-be single mothers, as she explains that she 'flew around the world to research this article,' staying in a 'rambling Cape Cod summer house' and a 'handsome mid-century apartment in Chelsea,' while her single female friends traveled through Italy or attended meditation retreats." But, she explains, "80 percent of women living below the poverty line are unmarried" — where's their trend piece?

Not quite at Boston Magazine, where Janelle Nanos's new article "Single by Choice" encompasses singletons male and female, but largely focuses on those who are comfortably off. This may be in part because those who can make it financially on their own are more likely to see themselves as having made a choice to stay single — and indeed, the happy single folks Nanos profiles will be inspiring to anyone who's sick of the narrative that you must be partnered to be fulfilled. There's 74-year-old Trish Hogan, who teaches poetry classes, enjoys hiking and biking, owns her own condo, and says that as a single person, over time "you find that life is just so interesting." And Terri Trespicio, a radio host who enjoys the support of friends and family, and says, "My life is going to be what I make of it, regardless of whether I meet someone or not." These are people who, as Trespicio says, feel "in control" — not at the mercy of economic forces that disadvantage single people.

But Nanos does devote some time to these forces. She points out that the US tax code, as well as many health insurance and 401(k) policies, give short shrift to singles. She also notes that employers tend to view single employees more negatively than their married counterparts, and to be less understanding of their need for personal time. And she discusses efforts — like those of the Alternatives to Marriage Project — to get the government to stop favoring married people and/or extend marriage-like benefits to people who don't want to marry.

Nanos doesn't really go into how these changes would help the truly cash-strapped — and in general, articles about singlehood seem to have trouble really examining the concerns of women who are just scraping by. This is partly because of good old-fashioned classism, but it's also partly because people have difficulty seeing the social stigma that unmarried middle- and upper-class women face as related to the economic difficulties of their unmarried working-class counterparts. But, of course, they are related. Misogyny works by devaluing women as people and as workers, which gives rise to the wage gap, the creation of underpaid pink-collar ghettos (which Doyle mentions), and the pressure for women to change anything and everything about themselves in order to land an all-important man. For middle-class women for whom pay inequality doesn't mean the difference between food and hunger, it may be the pressure that's the most difficult to deal with. Single women lower on the economic ladder may be more concerned about the fact that they have no access to the larger paychecks men (and male-dominated jobs) still claim.

Historically, feminism hasn't done a terrific job of uniting these two concerns, but both are valid and both are intimately related to the issue of marriage. As long as women are second-class citizens, being single is going to be a less viable choice for a woman than it is for a man. That's true across the economic spectrum, although its consequences may be more dire for those with less money. It's this wider perspective that's largely missing from the single-ladies debate. It's absolutely fine for wealthy women to be upset about their dating prospects or society's persistent spinster stigma — but any real discussion of the problems of single people in America needs to consider those for whom these problems are a matter of life or death.

Single By Choice [Boston]
What To Do About The Nanny? [In These Times]

Image via Ivancovlad/Shutterstock.com