Living Single

The truth about singles in our society.

Shriver’s “Woman’s Nation” is Actually a Wife and Mother’s Nation: The Evidence

The many ways the Shriver Report shortchanged singles and people without kids

The Shriver Report Serves Up Compulsory Marriage and Mothering. That was the claim I made in my previous post. The report, I argued, seemed simply to assume that just about every woman wants to marry and have children and just about every woman does. It then puts those women at the center of its report, marginalizing - or not even recognizing the existence of - women who neither marry nor have children.

I ended Part 1 with this:

It is the year 2009. It is past time to accord single women and women who do not have children a place of recognition and respect in our society, our universities, our policies, our politics, our workplaces, our marketplaces, our media, and in reports with the title, "A Woman's Nation." We should do this not just for the women (and men) who are single and do not have children. We should do it because until staying single, or deciding not to have children, are valued options, then marriage and parenting are not options, either - they are compulsory.

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In this post, I will back up my claim with reams of quotes and survey questions drawn directly from the Shriver Report. I'll also point to the implications of all that we miss in women's (and men's) lives when we focus too myopically on marriage and family. I'll highlight some remarkable and conventional-wisdom-defying findings from the report that were published but never headlined. Along the way, but especially at the end, I will also credit many of the strengths in the report, and the authors here and there who were not so taken by the Ideology of Marriage and Family.

In addition to a preface by John Podesta, an introduction by Maria Shriver, an executive summary, and an epilogue by Oprah Winfrey, the Shriver Report includes 13 more chapters. Scattered throughout are 20 brief essays (typically just two pages). It is in some of the essays, and a few of the chapters, that some enlightenment shines through.

Because this post is longer than usual, I'll begin with an outline of what is to come:

I. Oops, We Never Even Thought to Include You! Actually, We Didn't Even Realize You Exist!
A. The Survey Questions
B. The Writings

II. It's Hard Out Here for a Couple. Then Isn't It Hard for a Single Person, Too?

III. What We Miss When We Maroon Women on a Nuclear Family Island
A. A Marooned Mentality Misses Out on Friends and on Three Degrees of Connection
B. A Marooned Mentality Misses Out on Work that Is Passionate

IV. Ring the Doorbell and Run Away:
The Remarkable Findings that Did Not Make Any Headlines

V. Saving the Best for Last

VI. Final Word

Don't stop reading before you get to the section, "Ring the doorbell and run away." There are some amazing survey findings described there.

I. Oops, We Never Even Thought to Include You! Actually, We Didn't Even Realize You Exist!

A. The Survey Questions
Single and childless Americans faced with the Shriver survey questions don't need to try to generate answers - they can tell just from the questions that they don't count. Consider, for example, these three:

1. "Which of these things, in particular, would need to change in order for working parents to balance evenly their job, their marriage, and their children?"

2. "Was there ever a time when you wanted to take time off from work to care for your child or elderly parents but were unable to do so?"

3. Do you agree or disagree: "Businesses that fail to adapt to the needs of modern families risk losing good workers."

What is so exasperating about these kinds of examples is that it would have taken so little to have made them inclusive. In question #3, for example, simply changing the word "families" to "workers," or even rewording as "Americans and their families" would have made all the difference.

Fortunately, not all of the questions required marriage and parenting for admission. The non-discriminatory questions occasionally produced knock-your-socks-off results. Take, for instance, this one: "Is it important to be self-sufficient and not to have to depend on others?" Ninety-eight percent of women and 97 percent of men said yes.

B. The Writings
One of the goals of women's movements throughout the years has been to win recognition for women. What that meant in the past was so fundamental that it is still sobering, even in retrospect. For example:
• Don't use the word "men" when you are referring to both women and men.
• If you are going to study heart disease (or any other disease relevant to men and women), don't just include men in your research.
• Don't write history books that cover only the contributions made by men

Many of the authors of the Shriver Report participated in the hard work that made women a part of our consciousness, as well as our workplaces, schools, boardrooms, operating rooms, athletic teams, military missions, and so much more. Others are students of that history. How, then, did so many of them kick childless single women to the curb, maybe without even realizing it?

Here are just a few of the examples in which the Shriver Report seems not to even acknowledge that single, childless women, or non-family households, exist, or are of any consequence.

1. At the end of his preface to the Shriver Report, John Podesta expresses his hope that we will all join the "efforts to transform our ideas into actual policies that make the world around us work better for families." Fine. But how about transforming the world to work better for ALL of us? More than 38 million Americans live in non-family households. Shouldn't we count, too?

2. In her introductory chapter, Maria Shriver tells us that she is trying to teach her girls "to look not for a savior, but a loving, supportive, open-minded partner." Does that mean that staying single is not an option? Will other young women who read this assume that Maria Shriver, and others like her, think less of women who do not marry?

2. Heather Boushey's chapter on "The New Breadwinners" is in many ways a brilliant and telling piece of work. She describes, for example, how a woman who is equally qualified as a man in every way will earn 5 percent less the first year out of school, and how that initial gap will grow into a chasm just by the usual practice of calculating raises as a percent of current salary. She even mentions single women here and there.

But look at some of the tables and figures. The differences between what they claim to describe in their titles, and what they actually do describe, are stunning examples of the erasure of single women, especially those without children, from our consciousness. Here are some examples:

• Figure 2 is titled "The new workforce." Great - single women with and without children are surely part of that. What does Figure 2 actually show? The share of mothers who are breadwinners or co-breadwinners, 1967 to 2008.
• Table 1 is titled "Bringing home the bacon." Okay, single women do that. But what's really in the table? Numbers showing that working wives bring home half or more of family earnings.
• Figure 3 is titled "A snapshot of today's working women." That surely includes single women, doesn't it? Nope. The graphs show the percentage of working wives (divided into various subgroups) earning as much or more than their husbands.

3. Consider just this chapter title: "Family friendly for all families." A laudable goal, but again, why shut the book on all women in non-family households before they have even read the first word? The report is called "A Woman's Nation," not "A Family's Nation." There is no chapter dedicated to friendly workplaces, retirement benefits, or access to health insurance for people who are single - just a two-page essay.

4. In his chapter, Michael Kimmel asks, "Has a Man's World Become a Woman's Nation?" He presents a persuasive case that men are becoming more involved in child care and other domestic tasks and that it redounds to their own benefit and that of their wives and children that they are doing so. But there is no place in this chapter, supposedly about a man's perspective, for the single man.

In fact, Kimmel proclaims that one thing has always been non-negotiable in men's quest to prove their manhood: "a real man provides for his family." That means there's a second thing, too: "if one's identity is wrapped up in being a family provider, one has to have a family to provide for." Kimmel is talking perceptions here, so that's fine as far as it goes. But it doesn't go far enough. Kimmel believes that consciousness-raising must extend to men, and he's right. But an awareness that does not include a place of respect for single people will never be truly enlightened, and that's just as true for single men as it is for single women.

5. In his chapter, "Gender Full of Question Marks," Jamal Simmons ponders the question of why it may be impossible for men to know what women want. Here's part of his answer: "because the question presumes there is a uniform answer. Instead, it appears different women answer the question differently at various points in their lives.
• There are many women who start a career before their children are born, then choose to stay home for some time while their children are growing up and return to the workplace later.
• Others choose a career and entrepreneurial endeavor that will allow them to work from home or nearby so they can spend more time with their children.
• And still other mothers work throughout the lives of their children, balancing work and child care as best they can alongside their husbands and often on their own - because they are single or divorced or because their husbands are unemployed."

See the problem? Not having children is not an option. Later, he gets a little closer to allowing for that possibility, noting that some of his female friends face the question: "Is my career and lifestyle more important to me than having biological children at all?" Even here, though, there is no recognition that some women simply do not want kids, even if career or lifestyle were not construed as impediments.

III. It's Hard Out Here for a Couple. Then Isn't It Hard for a Single Person, Too?

Married women, the Shriver Report tells us over and over again, are oh so vulnerable. The authors have a point. But they also miss other important points.

Consider, for example, the "Sick and Tired" chapter by Jessica Arons and Dorothy Roberts, that truly does have a lot to offer. It starts out strong: "As with so many of our institutions, employer-sponsored health insurance was developed around the assumption that men are the breadwinners, women are the caregivers, everyone gets married, and all families are nuclear." But look how it continues: "For this reason alone, our health insurance system fails women in significant ways - a full quarter of women still receive health insurance through their husbands' jobs, which makes them more vulnerable to losing coverage should something happen to him (he gets fired) or the relationship (they divorce)." Right, but NO single women have access to health insurance through a spouse's plan; aren't they vulnerable, too? (In fairness, single women do rate one sentence to that effect in the 34-page chapter.)

Ann O'Leary and Karen Kornbluh's "Family Friendly for All Families" chapter makes similar arguments with regard to Social Security. They, too, allot one sentence to the single worker and it is a stunning one: "Spousal benefits allow dependent spouses to collect 50 percent of the retirement benefits earned by the breadwinning spouse - on top of his benefit - so that married couples receive 150 percent of the benefits of a single worker with the same earnings." That, to me, merits discussion, but the authors move on.

"Divorce," they continue, "reveals the problem with making caregivers' benefits derivative of a spouse's benefits." But of course, people who have always been single never have the option of drawing from anyone else's benefits. What's more, if they are single and childless, their benefits cannot go to the person of their choosing upon their death; the money just goes back into the system. Meanwhile, the benefits of a married person (who may have worked side by side at the same job for the same number of years as the single person) go to the spouse after death.

When marriage and mothering are considered compulsory - not by statement, but by assumption, because in the conventional wisdom it is just so obvious that they are what every woman wants - then childless, single women merit, at most, an aside. The same Compulsory Marriage mindset has set a nation aflutter about the injustice of denying same-sex marriage. That is an injustice. But the basic argument advanced by the same-sex marriage advocates - that they should not have to be a particular kind of couple, comprised of one man and one woman, to qualify to the wide array of benefits and protections, is just a slice of a bigger injustice - that an American has to be part of ANY kind of couple to have special access to such basic dignities.

As I detailed in Singled Out, single people are targets of housing discrimination, workplace inequities, tax penalties, and unequal access to health insurance, health care, and retirement benefits. Whenever goods, services, insurance premiums, club memberships, or anything else are cheaper by the couple or the family, those discounts are being subsidized by the single people who are paying full price.

There is, fortunately, a nod to some of the unfriendliness to single women in the workplace in Brad Harrington and Jamie J. Ladge's chapter, "Got Talent? It Isn't Hard to Find." They note that "single women face barriers to socializing with their married male colleagues or supervisors because of misconceptions that may arise, or due to the fact that these are often couples-only events." If that seems unremarkable, imagine a parallel hypothetical sentence: "Women of color face barriers to socializing with their white male colleagues or supervisors because of misconceptions that may arise, or due to the fact that these are often whites-only events."

While decrying the inequities faced by married women and mothers, chapter authors occasionally let in another fact along the way - that single men, and men who are not parents, are treated unfairly, too. For example, in her chapter, "Better Educating Our New Breadwinners," Mary Ann Mason notes that "while marriage and childbirth often derail the tenure plans of women, they actually have a positive effect on the tenure of men." And in Heather Boushey's "The New Breadwinners," as she makes her case about the biases against mothers in the workplace, she also mentions that fathers often have an edge compared to men who are not parents.

Boushey also underscores women's unfair pay: "The typical full-time, full-year woman worker brings home 77 cents on the dollar, compared to her male colleagues." She mentions several subgroups of women, such as women of color, for whom the gap is even greater. But to learn that "unmarried women make on average barely more than half of what a married man makes," readers of the Shriver Report will need to make it to the two-page essay by Page Gardner, "Single in a Marriage-Centered World," the last of the 20 essays in the collection. (Imagine if a 454-page history book included just a 2-page essay on women.)

III. What We Miss When We Maroon Women on a Nuclear Family Island

The women in the Shriver Report are marooned on a nuclear family island. Sure, some of the moms aren't married, and some of the partnered people don't have kids, and there are sometimes grandparents in the picture. But basically, that's it.

A. A Marooned Mentality Misses Out on Friends and on Three Degrees of Connection
Real-life Americans don't live on an island. Even the woman who is single is typically not (as is suggested in the token 2-page essay on singles) "on her own" - at least not interpersonally. She often has networks of friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, mentors and others. Some of her friendships have lasted longer than many marriages. In some studies, there are no groups of women any less likely to be lonely in later life than women who have always been single.

Americans are networked. They are connected - and not just in cyberspace. That was the theme of a cover story of a recent New York Times magazine and the book describing the phenomenon. One of the signature findings of the Connected book is that our influence on one another routinely travels as far as three degrees of separation. As the authors document, our friends' friends' friends can make us thin - or happy or healthy or politically active or wealthier or kinder, or the opposite of all of those things. [Beware, though, in Connected, of the bachelor bashing and the same old misleading claims about marriage and longevity - I've debunked those here, here, and here on my Living Single blog.]

In her introduction to the report, Maria Shriver remarks, "I learned women are hungry for something that's missing in their lives - a place to connect." Yet the only connection-places we hear about in the report, at any length, are places of worship. Even the workplace, the place that inspired Shriver's "aha" moment when the balance of workers tipped toward women, is not envisioned as a place for creating meaningful human connections. We learn that women are still left out of the old boys network, and that more women than men think that female bosses are harder to work for than male bosses. But we crave more than that. You can argue, if you'd like, that the workplace isn't a great place for friendship (I'm not sure whether I agree), but only if the topic gets aired. As Susan Douglas noted in her wonderful chapter on the media, "Where Have You Gone, Roseanne Barr," the media does agenda-setting: "They may not succeed in telling us what to think, but they certainly do succeed in telling us what to think about."

In a report that did such superb work at representing women across races, ethnicities, and economic circumstances, that recognized immigrant women, that put out a call for women to join unions (and not just marital ones), that found places to celebrate the achievements of women and urge for more barrier-busting in so many domains - sports, the military, the media, politics, religion, and more - these were stunning omissions. If ours is indeed A Woman's Nation, shouldn't there be a place for friends and for other people outside of our nuclear families?

B. A Marooned Mentality Misses Out on Work that Is Passionate

There is much talk in the Shriver Report about work-family balance (and occasionally, more inclusively, work-life balance). There are lots of pleas for ways to cut back, scale back, work around daunting schedules, and stay back home instead of working on site. These are all good goals, and ones shared by huge numbers of workers. With few exceptions, though, they are formulations in which work is something to minimize or avoid. (The exceptions include Courtney Martin's echoing of Buechner's call for work in which our "deep gladness meets the world's deep need" and Oprah Winfrey's extolling of the value of "fulfilling your soul's intention.")

While recognizing that work is obligatory drudgery for far too many people, I'd still like to see a report like this acknowledge that it isn't, and shouldn't be, for all. There are people who pursue their work, and the great causes their work advances, with a passion. Maybe it is an all-encompassing passion, such that their work is not "balanced" with family or with life, but is instead at the center of their lives. Why can't we respect and even celebrate this, instead of belittling it?

During all the time that Ralph Nader has spent advocating for consumer protections and sunshine laws and energy efficiency and safe water and food and cars, and inveighing against government malfeasance and corporate corruption, if he would have gotten less accomplished if he had a spouse and children of his own, then I'm glad he didnt. When Sandra Day O'Connor stepped down from the Supreme Court, she said she wanted to spend more time with her husband, who was in poor health. If she had been single, perhaps we would not now have both Justices Alito and Roberts on the Court.

Not all work can satisfy the soul or contribute to the greater good. But can't we at least try to improve every workplace? The gender ratio has changed at work. That, and its implications, are what the Shriver Report is all about. Shouldn't it also be about ways to reduce tedium and oppressiveness in the work itself?

IV. Ring the Doorbell and Run Away:
The Remarkable Findings that Did Not Make Any Headlines

You know that kids' game - ring a doorbell, then run away. Who me? I didn't ring the doorbell. No, there's not even anyone at the door. That's what happened in the text of the Shriver Report and in the story accompanying the Time magazine report.

There were some truly remarkable findings uncovered by the Shriver survey. Here are some headlines that could have been written about them, but so far, I haven't seen them:

• "Less than half of working women believe that it is very important to be married"

• "Only half of working women say that a happy marriage and children is what they most want for their daughters."

• "More than three-quarters of women agree that it is possible for a woman to have a fulfilling life if she remains single."

• "Americans rank marriage last in importance, behind health, self-sufficiency, financial security, a fulfilling job, religious faith, and children."

All of these findings are included in the tables and graphs of the Shriver Report. But you won't find a section of text reiterating these findings and discussing why it is that Americans are not as smitten with marriage as the report might otherwise lead you to believe.

Time magazine's October 26, 2009 cover story was about the Shriver Report. In pages of charts, graphs, and statistics, they did not at all ignore what Business Week once called, on its cover, Unmarried America. They noted that the median age at which women first marry (among those who do marry) has risen a dramatic five years from age 21 in 1972 to age 26 in 2008. During that same time, their charts also document, there has been a doubling of the percentage of women between the ages of 45 and 54 who have always been single. They show, in numbers, the dive in the overall percentage of married women in that 36-year span.

Time also charted those seven goals (health, self-sufficiency, etc.) and showed in numbers that marriage ranks last. The magazine included the charts of responses to the question of whether a woman can have a fulfilling life if she remains single (though only the "strongly agree" responses are shown, not all of the agreements).

In the accompanying story that she wrote, though, Nancy Gibbs came close to acknowledging these matters in only two places. In the first, she writes boldly that "Among the most dramatic changes in the past generation is the detachment of marriage and motherhood...Women no longer view matrimony as a necessary station on the road to financial security or parenthood." Later, she notes that "men and women express remarkably similar life goals when asked about the importance of money, health, jobs and family." All true enough, though the latter wording buries the fact that marriage comes in last. Maybe the most dramatic change is not that marriage and motherhood are no longer enmeshed, but that both are optional.

V. Saving the Best for Last

Along the way, I've mentioned some chapters and essays that broke through the mind-closing barriers of the Ideology of Marriage and Family to offer up more enlightened fare (for example, Courtney Martin and Oprah Winfrey's visions of more soulful work). Here I want to highlight a few more.

A. Susan Douglas, in her spirited essay on the media, "Where Have You Gone, Roseanne Barr," broadcasts many of the epithets I have been hurling at my television for years now. Here are a few darts that she hurls at media portrayals of women. May they draw blood, and lots of it:
• "Young women in America [are] portrayed as shallow, cat-fighting sex objects obsessed with their appearances and shopping"
• "There has been a resurgence of retrograde dreck clogging our cultural arteries - ‘The Man Show,' Maxim magazine, ‘Girls Gone Wild,' and ‘The Bachelor' - that resurrect stereotypes of girls and women as sex objects obsessed with romantic love and pleasing men"
• The film industry focuses on "'chick flicks' in which the women are desperate to get married"
• Media fare sells the line that "true power comes from getting men to lust after you and other women to envy you...reinforce the notion that a girl's appearance is more important than her achievements or aspirations"
To make her point even more searing, Douglas reviews research showing that these objectified portrayals of women matter, and not in a good way.

B. In "Sharing the Load," Stephanie Coontz describes the independence effect: "When marriage was based on a woman's lack of alternative options rather than on mutual respect or interdependence, then a woman who acquired educational and economic resources was indeed a threat to the stability of marriage." She goes on to conclude: "Now that women have so many more options outside of marriage and men have so much less arbitrary authority within it, [we all need to understand that] today's ‘independence effect' is good for the married and unmarried women and men alike." This is in accord with my main point in these two posts: When living single is a choice, then marriage is a choice, too - and a better one than when it is compulsory.

C. Some of the essays offer us a glimpse of women's lives that is bigger, broader, more meaningful, and more inclusive than in much of the rest of the report. Anna Deavere Smith, in "Goals and Values;" Miriam W. Yeung, in "Lusty;" and Malika Sada Saar, in "Don't Make This Bridge Our Back," all recognize that our interpersonal lives do not stop at the nuclear family's edge.
• Smith hopes for greater "imagination about extending circles of care beyond me and mine."
• Yeung expresses her "deep appreciation for the ways networks of friends come together as chosen family to take care of each other."
• Saar points out that there are "organic networks that ought to be nurtured" and urges us to "turn to each other as women, across the divides of race, ethnicity, and income." Her focus is on co-mothering, but I think a similar call would be a welcome sound to many other women as well.

D. On a different theme, Suze Orman, in "Money Matters," takes a shot at intensive parenting and the mommy myth by offering this piece of advice: "Women need to feel great about using their hard-earned money to fund a Roth IRA rather than using the money to buy more things their already cared-for kids don't really need." (Personally, I love to spoil my niece and nephews; still, point taken.)

VI. Final Word

In her review and critique of the Shriver Report at the Women's Media Center, Gloria Steinem proclaimed that "anyone with a stake in increased equality also has a stake in the success of The Shriver Report." I, too, share Steinem's hope that "government and business will have to adjust policies to meet women's needs as parents and workers in order to keep the economy going, and also that more men will get accustomed to women as indispensable co-workers and co-breadwinners, and thus increase their share of the housework and childcare." But really, you're Gloria Steinem. Isn't the goal of honoring the many meaningful ways of leading a life at least as important as getting men to do more dishes and diapers?

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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