Living Single

The truth about singles in our society.

High Achievement, High Praise for a Woman Who Has Always Been Single

A single woman's place is in the Cabinet.
"Across the spectrum, praise for Napolitano," was the headline in today's Washington Post. Janet Napolitano, Democratic Governor of Arizona, is likely headed to Barack Obama's cabinet, where she will serve as Secretary of Homeland Security.

The Napolitano story reminded me of Anita Hill; she was a lawyer for Hill during the Clarence Thomas nomination hearings. The story also inspired some musings about some of the other women with impressive cabinet posts in both Republican and Democratic administrations - people such as Condoleezza Rice, Donna Shalala, and Janet Reno. (Shalala's appointment as Clinton's Secretary of Health and Human Services was the topic of one of my favorite New Yorker cartoons. It showed a little girl and a little boy at play, with the girl saying to the boy, "You be the doctor and I'll be the Secretary of Health and Human Services.")

Of course, there is another reason why people such as Janet Napolitano, Anita Hill, Condoleezza Rice, Janet Reno, and Donna Shalala are all linked in my mind and in my heart (politics aside) - all of them have been single all their lives.

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As the Post heading suggested, the story about Napolitano was almost uniformly glowing. A collection of quotes from Republicans and Democrats, supporters and opponents, underscored the Governor's judgment, skills, intelligence, and fairness, as well as her sterling record.

There was not one word - not even an innuendo - of singlism in the article. I haven't found any hints of singlism in any of the other articles I've read about her nomination, either.

Of course, it is very early in the process (the announcement of Napolitano's appointment is not even official yet). Still, I'm hoping this initial coverage is a sign of a society that is evolving toward greater enlightenment.

How different it was when I was writing Singled Out, first published just two years ago. Then, when I researched people such as Condoleezza Rice and Ralph Nader (another political leader who has always been single), the singlism was rampant, and not just in the tabloids. Esteemed journalists such as Bob Woodward, television talking heads such as Chris Matthews, and elite publications such as The New Yorker, all offered dismissive commentary without apology or even awareness.

I'm a social scientist, and I love numbers and systematic research. So while individual examples of successful single people are heartening, ultimately I want more.

Here it is. A study based on a representative national sample of more than 3,000 Americans addressed the question of whether marital status mattered when it came to social well-being. There are many studies of psychological well-being (happiness, for example), and I've discussed them in this blog (here and here) and in Singled Out. Social well-being is different.

Most relevant to the high-achieving singles I've been discussing, social well-being includes a sense of contributing something important to community and society. It also encompasses as sense of belonging to a community, and perceptions of meaningfulness and progress in the world (rather than anomie).

The study compared the social well-being of people of different marital statuses at one point in time. For example, it compared people who have always been single to people who are currently married. As I've explained before, that's always a set-up. By definition, the group of people who are currently married excludes all the people who got married, found it intolerable, and got divorced. So if you compare currently married people to single people and find that the currently married people look better in some way, you can't conclude that getting married made them better. That would be like a drug company trying to persuade you to take a drug because people currently taking the drug are doing better than people not taking the drug, all the while trying to distract you from the fact that close to half of the people who took the drug had a bad reaction (so the drug company simply removed their data from the comparison).

The study in question was unusually precise about the different groups - there were people married for the first time, people who were remarried, people who had always been single, people divorced once, people divorced more than once, and people who were widowed. The authors even looked separately at people who were cohabiting, including subgroups of cohabitors who were previously married or had always been single.

In the most sophisticated analysis presented in the paper (the one that took into account variables that could have mucked up the results), the results were straightforward: Marital status just didn't matter.

So even though the currently-married group had the usual unfair advantage (people who didn't like marriage and got out of it were not included), their social well-being was still not measurably better than that of the people who were divorced or widowed or had always been single. For the always-single group, the direction of the results favored the single people - their social well-being scores were higher than those of the people who were currently married (though not significantly so). Within the group of people who had always been single, the single women reported especially high social well-being.

For one of the social well-being subscales, the women who had always been single were especially advantaged over those who were currently married - they felt that they were contributing something valuable and worthwhile to society.

Now, don't say that high-achieving single women are just compensating for not having a spouse. Bob Woodward implied something of the sort, and I made fun of him for it in Singled Out. I've already mocked the compensation theory as applied to singles and their pets, and check out all the witty and wise comments that were posted there by the readers of this blog. Practitioners of singlism, you're on notice!

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., is author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. She is a visiting professor at UCSB.

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