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The Strategic Singlehood of Black Women

Defying stereotypes, single life for Black women is often purposeful and freeing

The number and proportion of people living single has been on the rise for decades, both in the U.S. and around the world. In the U.S., the proportion of Black women who are not married is higher than for Latinx, White, or Asian American women.

If you were to guess why so many Black women in the U.S. were not married, what would you say? If you pointed to rates of incarceration and mortality for Black men, or if you said that Black women earn more college degrees than Black men, you would be citing the kinds of factors that most often get discussed by social science researchers and opinion writers. And those factors are not irrelevant, but they leave out something important — what Wayne State University assistant professor Jessica D. Moorman describes as “Black women’s agency in their single status.” Black women are not just pushed by external forces; sometimes they choose to be single. Even if they want to marry eventually, these women often lead a purposeful single life in which they pursue goals that are important to them.

Moorman conducted in-depth interviews with 24 Black women from Detroit, ages 25-46, who either had never married (17 of them), were divorced (6) or were widowed (1). Seven had children and another 12 were actively involved in children’s lives. All were cisgender and heterosexual. None were cohabiting with a romantic partner. The findings were reported in “Socializing singlehood: Personal, interpersonal, and sociocultural factors shaping Black women’s single lives,” in Psychology of Women Quarterly.

Singlehood on Their Own Terms

For many of the Black women Moorman interviewed, their single lives were “intentional and beneficial”:

Singlehood is in and of itself a strategy for managing one’s broader life goals and responsibilities, one that afforded participants more control over their time, resources, and relationships to men.”

Moorman called that strategic singlehood, or “the intentional practice of enacting or maintaining one’s single status for the purposes of growth, safety, or exploration.”

Some of the women did express frustrations with their single lives. They wanted more opportunities for companionship or for sexual expression. They worried about staying single if they wanted to marry. They also recognized that people who marry are rewarded with substantial social and economic benefits, just for being married; even the single women who liked being single were unhappy about that singlism.

Purpose-Driven Single Lives

Single lives were often lives of freedom and security. The women appreciated the opportunities singlehood offered them to pursue adventures and explorations, “to enjoy life at their own pace and for their own reasons,” and to “side-step gendered responsibilities that eat up time, money, and autonomy.” By living single, the women felt that they were also more likely to be spared “problems with money, lying, problematic management of the home, and emotional inconsistency.” They were not saying that all romantic partners pose those risks, but that by living single, they were more likely to be safe from those risks.

The lives of the single Black women were purposeful ones. They devoted the time they spent single to the pursuit of important life goals including:

  1. Education
  2. Travel
  3. Employment and entrepreneurship
  4. Financial planning, money management, and property ownership
  5. Emotional growth and self-discovery
  6. Spiritual growth
  7. Community involvement

Not the Same Old Stories About Single Life

The Black single women were targets of the same kinds of judgments familiar to so many others. Their sexuality was questioned, as was their maturity. They were asked to account for their single status, to explain what was supposedly "wrong" with them. If they had no kids, they were mocked for it (e.g., “Do you know how to hold a baby?”).

In other important ways, though, their experiences defied the standard cultural narratives. Examples include the advice they receive, the systems of support they create, and what they take from popular culture.

Advice. Moorman notes that “Popular culture subjects single Black women to all manner of advice about how to get a man,” as for example, in Steve Harvey’s “Act like a lady, think like a man.”

“But this type of advice was nearly absent from the current study. Rather, participants described receiving advice as girls and in adulthood, directing them to finish school, work, and establish financial security all while avoiding men and relationships.”

In their descriptions of the goals they were pursuing, the women showed that they were taking that advice seriously. They also reported giving similar advice to their friends and relatives and to younger girls in their lives.

Support systems. Terms like “alone” and “unattached,” as well as descriptions such as “doesn’t have anyone,” are used interchangeably with “single,” as if having no one in your life is the definition of being single. In fact, though, single people are in many ways more connected to other people than married or coupled people are.

Scholars in the Black feminist tradition have been documenting the robust social networks of Black women for decades, as for example, in Carol Stack’s 1975 book, All Our Kin. Moorman, too, found stereotype-defying social connections among the Black women she studied:

“Friends, family, and ex-romantic partners played a critical role in the day-to-day lives of participants…Support varied and included assistance with money, support with chores in the home, help in times of illness, childcare, aid in times of crisis, and help with transportation.”

Popular culture. Black single women are often caricatured as “desperate for partnership, combative, or reproductively irresponsible.” The women Moorman interviewed weren’t buying it. Even those who wanted to find a long-term romantic partner “were unwilling to compromise their life goals or safety” to achieve that.

“Filled with Infinite Possibility”

The 24 women Moorman interviewed described very different experiences of single life, but there were commonalities, too. Taken together, their accounts supported this conclusion:

“Singlehood was complex, enacted strategically, preferred over misogynistic partners and restrictive gender roles, and filled with infinite possibility. Collectively, these findings upend dominant notions of Black women’s singlehood as unwanted or evidence of dysfunction.”

Scholarship and popular writings have long focused on single women. I’d like to hear more of the life stories of single men, as told by them, and I know others would, too.

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