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Bella DePaulo

Bella DePaulo

Posted: September 12, 2010 02:53 AM

Second-wave feminism forgot the single woman. That's the argument made by Rachel Moran in an important law review paper. I doubt that the single women of the first wave would have anticipated that future.

Do you know about "bachelor girls" or the women who thought of their lives as "single blessedness"? They, along with Susan B. Anthony, were among the faces of single womanhood from the mid-1800s through the beginning of the next century. "Bachelor girls" were the young adults who were not marrying so young; instead they were enjoying life in the city first. The phrase "single blessedness" was not used ironically. Single women who pursued spiritual growth and moral action were seen as serving a higher calling than marriage (as Lee Virginia Chambers-Schiller described in Liberty, A Better Husband.) Susan B. Anthony was, of course, one of the most famous single women who worked for women's right to vote, but the suffrage movement was powered by many other single women as well.

The late 1800s through the early 1900s was a time when the age at which Americans first married was rising, and the number of men and women who stayed single was growing, too. Women formed intense friendships with each other. Those bonds helped to sustain the activism of the first-wave feminists. Their goals were primarily political. When they succeeded in getting the vote in 1920, women of all marital statuses were empowered.

It was a different world, interpersonally and ideologically, when second-wave feminism started making its mark in the early 1960s. The age at which Americans first married was near an all-time low, as was the percentage of people who stayed single. The most revered relationship was the conjugal one. Freud seemed to have a dirty hand in persuading Americans that singlehood was not blessed but pathological.

Single women did not contribute to the ideological vision that would motivate second-wave feminism the way they did during the first wave. There were relatively few of them in the nation, and they were not well-represented among the liberal feminists of the 60s.

Second-wave liberal feminists set their sights on improving women's access to education, jobs, and benefits, as well as reproductive rights, and their accomplishments improved the lives of women across the marital status spectrum. Their focus, though, was on married women. Motivated by what Betty Friedan called "the problem that had no name," activists envisioned a society in which women would not be trapped at home from a very young adult age, raising lots of children and feeling bored and depressed. Instead, they would be able to "have it all" -- marriage, family, and a career.

Rereading Rachel Moran's article reminded me, sadly, that Betty Friedan was not standing up for the single woman. She insisted on crediting mostly only married women for the success of the first-wave feminists, and bemoaned the "strangely unquestioned perversion of history that [held that] the passion and fire of the feminist movement came from man-hating, embittered, sex-starved spinsters" (from p. 82 of The Feminine Mystique).

Obviously, Susan B. Anthony did not fit that story line. Friedan could have lauded Anthony for choosing a life of activism. Instead, she said that because of "fortune or bitter experience," Anthony had "turned away from marriage."

The 1966 charter of NOW flaunted the same focus on married women. As Moran noted, the statements of goals included (continue reading here).

An important focus of first-wave feminism was political independence; in the second wave, economic independence was among the significant goals. Now, argues Moran, it is time to set our sights on emotional independence. (Read what she means by that in this brief post.)

Starting next month, Rachel Moran will be the dean of the School of Law at UCLA. She will be the first Latina to serve as dean of a leading American law school. In addition to her work on single women, Moran has written about the law as it applies to education, race, civil rights, and interracial intimacy. Disclosure: Rachel and I, together with Kay Trimberger, wrote "Make room for singles in teaching and research" for the Chronicle of Higher Education.