Several 2006 election themes were beyond dispute: Americans are troubled by the war in Iraq, and they think the country is headed in the wrong direction. Soon after the midterm polling places had closed, more than 2000 voters participated in the Democracy Corps Post-Election survey. Forty-one percent said that the Iraq War was one of the two most important considerations in deciding how to vote. Fifty-nine percent said that the country was on the wrong track.
One group of voters was even more united in their opinions than were voters in general. Fifty-two percent of them (compared to 41% overall) put the Iraq War at the top of their list of issues, and 70% of them (compared to 59% overall) said that the country was on the wrong track. These voters may well represent the vanguard of public opinion on some of the most profound issues of our time.
Who are they? Single women, including those who are divorced, widowed, and have always been single.
On the basis of their policy preferences alone, single women are worthy of serious attention. The New York Times teed up the national conversation with its recent front-page headline, "51% of Women Are Now Living Without Spouse."
Most major networks picked up the story immediately, but played it as puff. On the CBS Evening News, Katie Couric tossed the segment to "the very married Kelly Wallace." You knew the Sex and the City clip was coming even before the picture of the beaming bride was replaced by the more sober-faced Carrie Bradshaw.
Wallace then proceeded to conduct the predictable person-on-the-street interviews, ending with the single woman who said, "I want to get married so I can have kids, make my Mom happy, my Dad, too." This woman, Wallace intoned, would "rather not belong to the new majority."
To suggest on the evening news that the growing ranks of singles are comprised of women who wish they were anything but - well, it smacks of 21st century backlash. The myth that people who are single are interested in just one thing - getting coupled - is just one of the pervasive misunderstandings about people who are single that I describe in SINGLED OUT: How Singles are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. (Too bad David Brooks had not already penned his "Elusive Altar" op-ed before I wrote my book. That way, I could have added to my list of myths his pronouncement that singles are "trapped in a no man's land between solitude and marriage" and often "slide into parenthood." Don't try to picture that last part.)
Another myth is that single people are alone and "don't have anyone." That one comes packaged with the fear that as the number of single people increases, our sense of community will decrease; we will become a land of isolates, all bowling alone.
In fact, though, just the opposite may be true. In two national surveys, Americans were asked how often they help, support, and get together with siblings, parents, friends, and neighbors. People who had always been single were the ones holding their communities together. They tended to the important people in their lives more often than the currently married or previously married people did.
The myths about single people have largely gone unrecognized and unchallenged. Perhaps as a consequence, we have workplace policies in which the only employees eligible to add an adult to their health care plan at a discounted rate are those who are married (or, sometimes, have a domestic partner). If single people "don't have anyone," then they have no use for the benefits that come with the married worker's package. Same for Social Security. The benefits accrued by married workers go to their surviving spouse. Those earned by single workers go back into the system.
Beliefs and practices that stigmatize people who are single have a long history. But a new day is dawning. Statements made to and about single people that can be misconstrued as pejorative - even if the intention was anything but - have suddenly become politically risky. Just ask Barbara Boxer.
Getting it right about people who are single is a task with a great big payoff, especially for the left. Single women are predominantly progressive in their values and in their votes. But they do not yet vote in the same numbers as do married women. It is time for the party of the future to roll out the red carpet for women who are single. Just don't expect them all to stride down the runway in Manolo Blahniks.