Philobiblon: <i>The New Single Woman</i>

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The New Single Woman

I knew at age five that I didn't want to get married and have children, and I've never seriously questioned that decision. (And I'm now about to turn 40.) I knew then that it was unusual, but reading E. Kay Trimberger's The New Single Woman I came to understand why many people, Americans in particular, find it not just odd, but extraordinary.

She asks: "Is it possible to be a single woman in one's fifties with a full life and a lot of joy?" My answer, "well of course; you're at least as likely to be happy than if you are married or, at least as likely, going through a divorce." Yet, as Trimberger points out, the general answer is: "Not if you listen to the cultural messages beamed at us.... Only in an intimate couple will we find emotional satisfaction, sexual fulfillment, companionship, security and spiritual meaning." (I'd added, from everything I've read and seen: "particularly in America". These pressures also exist in Britain and the UK, but being societies generally less keen to enforce conformity, they are not as strong.)

Trimberger, by profession a sociologist (she's professor emerita of women's and gender studies at Sonoma State University), over a decade from 1994 followed the progress of a group of 46 middle-class, largely professional women, some white, some African American, some Latina, to explore how their personal and professional lives developed through their thirties, forties and fifties. Her initial finding was that "almost all of the women, even those in their fifties, whether heterosexual, lesbian or bisexual, still hoped to find the 'right one'."

In part seeking answers for her own life -- she's a never-married woman who adopted a child on her own at age 40 -- Trimberger seeks to identify the steps, emotional and practical, they needed to take to become "happy". She eventually arrives at six key points that she believes single women need:
1. A home "that nurtures her, whether she lives by herself or with other people".
2. Work that is satisfying, allows her to be economincally autonomous, and that also provides "a psychological identity but is not her whole life".
3. Satisfaction with her sexuality, whatever that means.
4. Some connection with the next generation - family relationships, volunteering, proteges or similar.
5. A network of family and friends "that provides companionship and people they can rely on in times of trouble".
6. A community built around that friendship network.

Yet looking objectively at this list, it is clear that this is not just a list for single women, but for all women, and men. Trimberger says:

"When we embark on adulthood, few of us really know where we will end up. Given that, it is important for single women in their twenties, thirties and forties more consciously to pursue these goals. Whether they hope to couple or not, this is the route to a richer life and one with more options later on. Conversely, to focus primarily on finding a partner while other parts of life are neglected is a recipe for unhappiness."

That list also addresses one of the biggest fears Trimberger's subject identify, as a successful African American woman she calls Lanette says, even though she's already made financial arrangements:

"Whenever I pick up the paper at Christmas-time and see a story about an older woman who has no relatives, who needs a couple of hundred bucks so that her lights don't get turned off, I say to my mother, 'That's my fear. I'll be eighty-five years old and all my family and friends will have passed on, and because I have not partnered myself, I'll end up here."

My reaction to this is that most women will end up this way anyway; even if partnered, and happily partnered, the mortality statistics mean that most women will end up on their own. And while some children might be in a position to take a large role in these circumstances, many will not be able, or will not want, to do so.

But Trimberger is resolutely focused not on comparisons, but on the strategies her subjects attempt to take to deal with this and other concerns. And she has hugely reassuring tales from two of her subjects, both of whom died of breast cancer during the decade. Yet they died not alone, but within large friendship networks, which looked after both their practical and emotional needs. The account of Diane is particularly inspiring:

"She told me that she preferred to rely on friends rather than family members. Although her daughter had moved back in with her, Diane wanted her to have her own life. Diane's mother was eighty-six, and her sister and cousins lived several hours away. Diane shared her fears more intimately with her friends, for she felt that they could handle her illness more objectively and philosophically. Family members got too upset and made dealing with the cancer more difficult for her."

Yet, as Trimberger points out, much needs to change in the framework of society to facilitate such networks of care.

Hospitals ... often admit only immediate family members (which, in progressive institutions now include domestic partners) to intensive care units and the rooms of those who are seriously ill or dying. ... Workplace bereavement policies do not include paid time off to attend the funeral of a friend. Even the most progressive family leave policies provide time off only for the care of family members ... Public policies that help build networks of care will improve the life of all adults."

The fact is that societies are returning to more historically normal levels of childlessness and "singleness". The New Single Woman points out that in 1950 20 per cent of women aged 40-45 were childless; the 2002 figure of 18 per cent is heading in the same direction. Trimberger quotes a psychological survey which says motherhood is no longer "necessarily central to the development of women's sense of her adult self". Yet of course what is needed is to find alternative adult selves, as women in earlier ages did. In the end, Trimberger concludes, in the words of one of her subjects: "The art is in making the choice you can live with."

This book offers, through practical examples and advice, a framework for doing just that. Trimberger's case studies from one social class, and one nation, which does limit its scope. (For many women with low-incomes financial constraints ensure daily survival is the most choice that they have.) But there's still something here for anyone, particularly any woman, who wants to address the question: "How can I have a good life?"


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lannette's fear describes why I stay in the military. Mortality rate, no interest in marriage, I need that pension to survive when I get old.

2/01/2006 03:58:00 am  
Blogger l said...

(I'd added, from everything I've read and seen: "particularly in America". These pressures also exist in Britain and the UK, but being societies generally less keen to enforce conformity, they are not as strong.)

I am happily single with no intention (or belief in the possibility) of finding "the one" - and I have arrived at this by the powerful women that surrounded me while growing up in the US. I do not place my worth in a relationship or in raising a child (in fact, I prefer to be no where near little children), and know many other American women who agree. This may be because of the people I choose to associate with, but regardless I just wanted to point out that there are plenty of American women who love being single and childless. I bet the difference depends less on nationality and more on factors such as education and geographical location (urban v. rural). I highly doubt it is a US v. UK kind of thing.

2/01/2006 04:22:00 am  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

Hi Le Lyon,

I take your point about intra-national differences. I was making a large generalisation, but I do think generally it stands. I was listening to snippets from the state of the union address and what really got me was the applause - so regimented, so mechanical. With a similar speech in the House of Commons you'd get cheers, boos, catcalls - not that awful mechanical applause.

And Ms Anonymous, good on you. The surveys show that many women are not thinking and making provision for old age. And whether you intend to marry or not, relying on a man to provide for you is extremely risky.

2/01/2006 09:32:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Natalie,
I understand your point. But remember, Bushie only won by something like a 53% majority of Americans who actually even got out and voted (I worked on Kerry's campaign). I think that the conformity you see in American culture may be more of just the really loud people who all think the same (and I use the word think very loosely here). My point is just to say that I really don't think it is a difference in countries when it comes to the single woman thing. Yes, obnoxious Americans tend to be very loud (like the clappers in the state of the union address), but there is a strong community of dissenters here. That's all really. We progressives in the West should be sticking together, you know? I appreciate your post on this though - interesting stuff.

2/01/2006 12:52:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the other night i turned on the 'tube' before going to bed, i landed on an evening series (fictional) and watched while an elderly woman surrounded by dear female friends, her mature daughter and adult granddaughter, passed away. to my great surprise, i was overwhelmed by emotion. this wasn't a documentary, but a sort of night time soap! i had to ask myself what about the scene upset me so very much.

it was that the woman was surrounded with love and caresses as she quickly slipped away.

surely my greatgrand mother would have wanted this, my great aunt (whom i was very close to) passed less than a year ago and there was but one relation in their presence at the time (due to geographical distances). my own mother should be so fortunate, due to family rifts. and, i should be so fortunate, when time comes as well.

this silly tv show reminded me of the matters you've posted about here. life can be so easily filled with "got to's" and "to do's" and can pass so very quickly. all the while the most important and valuable aspects of living fall by the way side.

2/01/2006 02:33:00 pm  
Blogger clanger said...

Maybe its subjective, but in the last decade I feel there's been an increasing and hardening gulf between the US and UK across the board.

Issues that are 53/47 in the US are more typically 80/20 or 90/10 in the UK.

Here, anyone suggesting that evolution be replaced by, or placed on a par with creation in state education would be regarded as being simply bonkers. It wouldn't be taken seriously as an issue.

Bluntly, the UK and the US are very different in key areas such as this:

Statistical quote: '...the percentage of adults who believe that "the Bible is the actual word of God and it is to be taken literally, word for word" is 5 times higher in the U.S. than in Britain. Church attendance is about 4 times higher in the U.S. than it is in Britain. Similarly, according to one opinion poll, belief that "Human beings developed from earlier species of animals..." is much smaller in the United States (35%) than in other countries (as high as 82%).'

[Source: which was chosen simply because it came up first on google.]

Under Bush, and post-911, there has been a deliberately fostered nationalism apparent in US culture, and such movements emphasise socio-cultural differences, politicise them, and reinforce them.

2/01/2006 03:40:00 pm  
Blogger clanger said...

A little more on-topic, sort of.

I'm not sure those 6 key points required 30 years of academic research to work out. Perhaps the message this work should send is that we really need to address society's failure to offer an acceptable level of support to the elderly. Why, for example, are hospices run as charities, and not integrated into the NHS? Why is the job of 'carer' one of the lowest paid in the small ads? One day it will be us.

I'm single, nearing the F-word, but male. I'm probably designed to be single. I'm too selfish, crotchety, bloody-minded, uncompromising, and frankly odd for any sane person to put up with me. For the majority of the time, I'm well aware that I'm much happier being in more control of my time, my space, and my thoughts, than any person in a relationship can ever hope to be.

But that doesn't deal with the remainder of the time, when being non-single, unalone, might be nice. All very Morse.

There are up-sides and down-sides to being both single, and in a relationship. Generally folk stumble towards the situation they are most suited for, for the greater percentage of the time, whether they like it or not.

I suspect single people regret moments of lost companionship a little more than partnered people regret the freedoms of the solitary path, and will ultimately suffer more as old age and infirmity kick in. If you have a partner, you can have an awayday. If you are single, a day's worth of a relationship is not an option.

Perhaps the internet will create distance partners, a new type of relationship. Time will tell.

You don't get to choose your neurological and psychological make-up. Make the best of it, plough your own furrow, and find comfort in enough to paper over the cracks.

There are always cracks. The accumulated regrets that scuttle through your mind like rats, never quite fading away. The paths never taken. The life's love you lost, and the times you hurt people you never wanted to hurt in ways you didn't think you ever could.

Nobody is emotionally bullet-proof, and ultimately, even if surrounded by a crowd, we all die alone.

As Mr. Jobs would say, 'the journey is the reward'. So do things that matter. Do things you enjoy. Spurn prejudice, avoid poverty as best you can, be as honest as you can, and be generous when you can. Avoid cruelty, treasure friendship, and value trust. Expect little of the world, but never lose hope. Try to maintain as much zest for life as you can, preserve your capacity for wonder, and revel in the many ways we can experience pleasure in our short existence.

And if you can think of no other way that you might make your mark on the world, leaving some tangible memento of your existence, plant trees.

2/01/2006 06:49:00 pm  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

Yeah, I've always liked the idea of woodland burial - having a tree planted on top of you.

I think what really matters is to die well, which requires not having too large an ego - knowing that the world will go on without you.

I was terribly disappointed when I read an account of Bruce Chatwin's death - he died, very badly of Aids, refusing to acknowledge what it was.

You do your best, then when the time comes, try to bow out gracefully, knowing you have done your best.

2/01/2006 11:16:00 pm  
Blogger clanger said...

I'll do graceful if those around me are prepared to do pain-free and dignified. When its time for the final exit, 'pursued by bear' or otherwise, we are kind to animals but make people suffer, whining on about religion.

A woodland burial is nice, but I meant planting trees whilst still alive. Lots of them. Plant an oak or a yew in the right place, and you could make a positive contribution to the environment for the next half millennium. Failing that, toss your apple cores, cherry and plum stones in a hedgerow, as people have done for hundreds of years.

Many named fruit varieties have been discovered growing from pips discarded by people, or, erm, 'sown' by birds. Hedgerow fruit were always an important part of the landscape for both wildlife and people.

To help folk a little further afield, check out:

2/02/2006 12:43:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here via Alas, A Blog. An interesting post and a topic that I've thought on a bit myself (single woman and no intentions of having a relationship). I've always been particularly annoyed at the fact that businesses are set up to give leave in only certain, prescribed situations. I would be devastated if any of my close friends died but there are family members whose deaths wouldn't be as affecting.

A quick thought about clanger's post too:

I suspect single people [...] will ultimately suffer more as old age and infirmity kick in. If you have a partner, you can have an awayday. If you are single, a day's worth of a relationship is not an option.

I would suggest, especially given the title of this post, that it's important to make a distinction between the qualities of life for men as opposed to women in long-term relationships. For a woman with an infirm spouse/partner there is very little likelihood of an away day. I'm thinking of something I read just today (a man who has deliberately scheduled minor surgery to coincide with his wife's major surgery, so he can be flat out and not help her recovery). Studies have shown that while marriage tends to improve men's health (and increase longevity), it does the opposite for women.


2/02/2006 03:49:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Americans believe what they do because they are made to feel guilty about being white, something "liberals", and even conversatives in America want. It's profitable.

Evolution theory is strongly pro-European white (unracism: not just whites but any cohesive nationality) and against profitable and expliotable semitic forms of belief.

2/02/2006 08:09:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

evolution theory in truth doesn't relate nor have anything to do with race or nationality of human's. social evolutionists (a completely, unrelated and unscientific) are those that refer to such things.

"whites" are not "made" to be "guilty", that some might view it this way i merely evidence of personal reactionary tendancies related to the appropriate rediscovery of history in our cultures. and the acknowledgement that inequalities have and do exist.

2/03/2006 02:55:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Which studies? Can you quote them? CDC statistics show that married men AND married women live longer than their single counterparts. Sadly, I have searched all over the CDC site and can no longer find the report which contains this information. If you have counter information, I am interested in seeing it.

2/11/2006 09:05:00 pm  
Blogger The Regret Keeper said...

What do the reactions to the State of the Union address and the number of United States citizens who believe in a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible have to do with the percentage of women who choose not to marry?

5/13/2006 12:35:00 am  

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