This Week, Let's Recognize the Women Who Are On Their Own

11/24/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This week (September 20-26) is Unmarried and Single Americans Week, which recognizes the vast growth in the population of 100 million Americans who are not married. Roughly 51 million of them are women. New data from the Census out this week show that more women than ever are unmarried. In fact, today, nearly half of all adult women are unmarried.

Most unmarried women do not lead the glitzy, glamorous lives like those portrayed on Sex in the City. Instead, think about Edie Falco in Nurse Jackie or, if you have a longer memory, Brett Butler in Grace Under Fire. Too many unmarried women are struggling to support themselves in the worst economy in a quarter century - and about 10 million are single moms with young children at home. For all that has been reported - rightly - about how working men are suffering in this recession, "women on their own" have been hit harder than anyone.

Last month, the unemployment rate for unmarried women was 11.9 percent, compared to 9.7 percent for the entire workforce. The problem isn't only high unemployment - it's low pay. Women are still paid only 77 cents for every dollar that men receive, and women on their own earn only 57 cents for every dollar in married men's paychecks.

Unmarried women are much less likely than married people to have health insurance, to be homeowners, to have a union card, or even to own cars so they can drive to work. Of all American adults who live in poverty, unmarried women count for almost half. Last year, 21 out of every 1,000 single mothers filed for bankruptcy.

The old assumptions about how women advance through life no longer apply. It used to be women married young, were supported by their husbands, raised children, and retired on their husbands' pensions. Several decades ago, married women entered the workplace in large numbers, contributing to family income, having their own careers, balancing work and family.

Today, while the vast majority of young women are expected to marry at some point, the truth is, much of their lives will be spent on their own. Marriage is transitory: people may enter or leave it, almost at any time. Many women now spend their first decade or more out of school (high school or college) as a single woman. Women who do marry do not have the luxury of assuming that they are set for life. If a woman's marriage ends for any reason, she will need to be prepared to support herself and any children she has.

The phenomenally rapid changes in marriage and in societal expectations mean we as a society must change our way of thinking about how women can succeed on their own. Are women expected and encouraged to take some of the lowest-paying jobs available - maids, retail salespeople, waitresses? In fact, these are some of the top jobs for women in the current economy. Do training programs for construction workers, carpenters, and other skilled laborers, reach out to or even accept young women? Unfortunately, they often do not. Are women encouraged to study math, science, or computer technology so they can be ready to enter the knowledge economy? While there are positive developments on this front, too often, the answer is "No."

And what about our politics? Are women encouraged to vote? Are politicians responsive to the needs of unmarried women? Research shows that unmarried women often feel marginalized and politically powerless because they believe the government does not pay attention to them. Perhaps that is why unmarried women are less likely to register and vote than their married counterparts. In 2004, fifteen million unmarried women were not registered to vote and nearly 20 million unmarried women did not cast ballots on Election Day.

However, we're seeing signs of hope. In the 2008 presidential election, over 2.6 million more unmarried women voted than just four years ago and about 7 million more since 2000. Indeed, unmarried women came closer to voting in proportion to their presence in the population -casting 23.2 percent of all votes. And when unmarried women vote, they are more likely than married women to support progressive causes like reforming health care, protecting the environment, creating Green Jobs, investing in education, raising the minimum wage, and restoring the right to organize unions.

So, this week, let's recognize that America can and must do a better job to ensure that everyone - especially the woman on her own, who faces so many challenges in life and at work - has the opportunity to live a good, dignified, comfortable life. We must end gender segregation in jobs, we must ensure women can make a living wage, and we must ensure that working women can take care of their families. And while it may sound cliche, unmarried women can help make that happen by registering and getting out to vote.