We’re pleased and proud to host this guest post by Bella DePaulo, PhD, wrapping up Unmarried and Single Americans Week. The week may be over, but as Bella says, our movement is just taking off!
Successful social movements have rallying cries that become known throughout the land. For example:
Black is beautiful
Sisterhood is powerful
We’re queer, we’re here, get used to it
We shall overcome
So where is the expression of group identification and pride trumpeted by singles activists? Where is the movement for respect and rights for all of the American adults who are divorced or widowed or have always been single? After all, there are more than 100 million of us.
Does the mere thought of hoisting a “singlehood is powerful” sign make you feel embarrassed and self-conscious? That right there is a big hint as to why we do not have a singles movement in the United States. Being single – especially past a certain age – is not regarded as a point of pride here. In a culture steeped in matrimania (over-the-top hyping of marriage and weddings) and singlism (the stigmatizing of people who are single), singles can end up feeling defensive and apologetic simply because they are single. They are not about to march for justice!
Many stigmatized groups that took up the cause of social justice had to first fight the stereotypes that degraded them – stereotypes that, among some members, had even become internalized. Women realized, and then insisted, that they were not shrinking violets, gay men and lesbians rejected the diagnostic label that professionals had tried to impose, and African Americans showed how smart they really were. Marching in the streets is the province of people who cannot be persuaded that they are too weak or sick or stupid to do so.
There are many stereotypes of people who are single. Most fit under the obnoxious assumption that if you are single, there must be something wrong somewhere. Maybe you have “issues” or you are “damaged goods.” Other people think they know all about you, just from learning that you are not married – they are sure you are miserable and lonely and your life is tragic. One of the first and most fundamental tasks of those who want fair treatment of singles is consciousness-raising. Singles themselves – and everyone else – need to recognize that it is wholly inappropriate for anyone to be deemed inadequate in any way simply because they are single.
When we have truly succeeded, the tables will be turned: It will be the people who make singlist remarks who will feel humiliated, and not the people they are targeting with their prejudices. That’s what happens today to public figures (and often to ordinary people as well) when they make racist or sexist or homophobic remarks – they are called to account for their biases and they feel obligated to express remorse. It is a mark of the success of the various civil rights movements that appearing prejudiced is now considered shameful.
There is a comment I hear all too often from other people who learn about my interest in singlism. They say something like, “I’m single and I’ve never experienced discrimination.” Statements like that are a testament to the need for further education and consciousness-raising. It is not possible to be unmarried and treated fairly in the United States. Discrimination is written right into federal and state laws. Single people have fewer avenues of access than married people do to health insurance, Social Security benefits, several kinds of tax relief, and many other rights and entitlements. When last counted, marital status figured into the assignment of 1,138 federal benefits and protections. Unfair treatment has also been documented in the workplace, the marketplace, the military, in access to housing, and in everyday life. (The relevant research is described in Chapter 12 of Singled Out.)
To become part of a movement, singles would need to experience a shared identity. How can that happen when single people can be divorced or widowed or ever-single, when they can be rich or poor or somewhere in between, when they differ in race and ethnicity and gender and age and sexual orientation and just about every other relevant characteristic you can think of? That diversity is a real issue. Still, consider the wide range of people who are women or African American or gay. The many varieties of people within those groups presented challenges, but did not stop any of the movements from making their marks.
Another potential impediment to singles activism is that the practice of singlism does not rise to the level of viciousness that has characterized other forms of discrimination. So far as I know, no one has ever been dragged to their death behind the back of a pick-up truck simply because they were single. Nor have there ever been separate drinking fountains for married and single people.
Such differences are important, and the grievances of singles should not be overstated. Yet singles should not be hesitant to ask for fair treatment in such fundamental arenas as access to quality health care and equal compensation and treatment on the job. I don’t think we should be dissuaded from speaking out about the smaller stuff, either. We need to tell our stories, and not be silenced by singlism.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of single status, in comparison to race or gender or sexual orientation, is that it is perceived as much more fluid. You can be single today and married tomorrow or ten years from tomorrow. How can singles be expected to identify with a status that might be fleeting?
Fortunately, the quest for justice is not limited to the stigmatized. Civil rights marches, for example, have always included whites as well as blacks.
Another point is important, too: Americans now spend more years of their adult lives single than married. Of those people who are currently married, most will become single again, either by divorce or the death of their spouse. As Nicky Grist aptly put it, living outside of marriage is relevant to “all of us most of the time and some of us all of the time.” Let’s advocate for fairness for all of us, over the entire course of our adult lives.
Protest rallies are one of the most visible statements of advocacy, but there are many smaller and less public ways to advance a cause. What are some of the things we can do to promote fairness for people who are single, and how shall we go about doing them? I hope to address those questions in future posts to my blogs, and I hope others will do so as well.
[Thanks to AtMP for the opportunity to write this guest post. Thanks also to Nicky Grist, Rachel Buddeberg, Kay Trimberger, and Wendy Braitman for the terrific suggestions they sent when I asked them for their ideas about this singles activism. I hope to incorporate more of their insights as I continue the theme. Thanks, too, to Keysha Whitaker and Terry Hernon MacDonald for all their work in organizing the blog crawl. I hope it has been a happy Singes Week for all!]