The Power of Single Women

New York Magazine’s article on the political clout of unmarried women is making the rounds in my circles, and rightly so. Its argument is that the leftward surge that we’re seeing now in American politics is the result of a large number of politically-engaged, well-educated women who are delaying marriage because of the lack of support and infrastructure. We get dinged all through our lives for the same things that propel men forward: marriage, children, managing our careers. These problems – and this political movement – cut across the economic spectrum, and (hopefully) will have positive effects on legislation for the ladeez. And, therefore, everyone.

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Some of the most powerful tidbits from the article, to my mind:

In 2009, the proportion of American women who were married dropped below 50 percent. In other words, for the first time in American history, single women (including those who were never married, widowed, divorced, or separated) outnumbered married women. Perhaps even more strikingly, the number of adults younger than 34 who had never married was up to 46 percent, rising 12 percentage points in less than a decade. For women under 30, the likelihood of being married has become astonishingly small: Today, only around 20 percent of Americans are wed by age 29, compared to the nearly 60 percent in 1960.

These numbers are wild.

So far, any affinity single women may feel with Hillary Clinton is being trumped by the aspirationally progressive vision of Bernie Sanders. Young women — young single women, at least the ­predominantly white ones who have so far cast their votes — have broken for him in startling numbers in both the Iowa and New Hampshire contests. In New Hampshire, according to exit polls, Sanders beat Clinton by 11 points with women and by 26 points with single women. Some of this is attributable to the disheveled charm and righteous anger of the socialist senator, and some to Clinton’s difficulty running an inspiring campaign. But much of it may also have to do with the fact that single women — living their lives outside of the institution around which tax, housing, and social policies were designed — have a set of needs that has yet to be met by government. Ironically, Clinton has been in the weeds on some of these issues — health-care reform, children’s health insurance, early-childhood education — for much of her career. But perhaps because of that, she can seem less optimistic than her opponent: “I don’t think, politically, we could get it now,” said Clinton of paid leave just two years ago, a sign both of how improbable these policy changes have seemed until very recently and of her battle-scarred pragmatism. The question, in this year of the single woman, is whether the first truly plausible female presidential candidate can recognize how much her constituency has changed and capitalize on these changes, or if she will get overtaken by this growing group of independent women voters responding to more optimistic promises.

Hoisted by her own petard should be Hillary’s unofficial campaign slogan.

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…As white women married in greater numbers and at younger ages, African-American marriage rates began to decrease. By 1970, black women were not marrying nearly as often or as early as their white counterparts. It was nothing so benign as coincidence. The economic benefits extended to the white middle class, both during the New Deal and in the post–World War II years, did not extend to African-Americans. Social Security, created in 1935, did not apply to either domestic laborers or to agricultural workers. ­Discriminatory hiring practices, the low percentages of black workers in the country’s newly strengthened labor unions, and the ­persistent racial wage gap, along with the fact that many colleges barred the admission of black students, meant that returning black servicemen had a far harder time taking advantage of the GI Bill’s promise of college education. And the suburbs that bloomed around American cities after the war were built almost entirely for white families.

So many things that we were taught to believe were the result of chance, or culture, or way-back history were actually the direct product of intentional policy.

Men, especially married wealthy white men, have for generations relied on government assistance. It’s the government that has historically supported white men’s home and business ownership through grants, loans, incentives, and tax breaks. It has allowed them to accrue wealth and offered them shortcuts and bonuses for passing it down to their children. Government established white men’s right to vote, and thus exert control over the government, at the nation’s founding and has protected their enfranchisement since. It has also bolstered the economic and professional prospects of men by depressing the economic prospects of women. In other words, by failing to offer women equivalent economic and civic protections, thus helping to create conditions whereby they were forced to be dependent on those men, the government established a gendered class of laborers who took low-paying or unpaid jobs doing the domestic and child-care work that further enabled men to dominate public spheres. Our civic institutions both reinforce and ­determine these historic assumptions: ­Consider that school days end in the mid-afternoon and let out for protracted summer vacations. Who is meant to care for those children if we do not subsidize child care? Women. Women who our institutions presume do not have jobs that extend till five, till six, or into overnight double shifts. Women the nation still assumes to be ­married, even though they are not and even though marriage itself continues — contra the ­conservative dogma that it is a cure for ­poverty — to hobble women’s chances at equality in lingering ways.

Self-made never really means entirely self-made, does it.

The apparent lack of trust in Clinton reflects that there is perhaps no politician who has suffered more for having been a wife. Yes, by many measures, Clinton’s role as First Lady launched her political career. But could there be any grimmer emblem of the tolls of the traditional marriage than the fact that Hillary is now picking up the tab for a decade of her party’s policies during which she was not an elected official but a spouse? The 1990s, after all, was the decade in which women began altering marriage patterns dramatically, threateningly. (Remember Dan Quayle berating Murphy Brown?) So much of the compromised legislation enacted in that period was overdetermined by anxieties about changing gender roles, including the odious reform of welfare, which on the one hand treated all women as workers yet failed to provide them with support and sent many of them deeper into poverty. And then there was the 1994 omnibus crime bill, which, as Michelle Alexander wrote in The New Jim Crow, worked to create a criminal-justice system that relegates black men “to a permanent undercaste.” The blame for the fates of black men has also long been laid at the feet of single mothers, whom politicians from Daniel Patrick Moynihan to Mitt Romney to Jeb Bush have singled out as having upended the American family, creating social chaos and lawlessness. Yet the men who wrote, signed, and voted for this legislation — Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry, Joe Biden, even Sanders, who voted for the crime bill — have not been made to pay for it politically. The ­person who is currently being asked to answer for it all is the woman who spent those years as a (too) supportive wife, who spoke volubly and troublingly in defense of her husband’s legislation, but played no ­official role in enacting it.

Really, the entire piece is well worth a read.

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