Did Second-Wave Feminism Neglect the Single Woman?

Where was the vision for a fulfilling life outside of marriage and motherhood?

Posted Sep 05, 2010

In 2004, a law review article by Rachel Moran was published under the title "How second-wave feminism forgot the single woman." It is a lengthy and important paper, well worth the time of anyone seriously interested in singles and their place in American history. In this post, I'll highlight some of the main points.

Do you know the terms "bachelor girls" or "single blessedness"? How about the name Susan B. Anthony? They were among the faces of single womanhood from the mid-1800s through the beginning of the next century. "Bachelor girls" were the young adults who were not marrying so young; instead they were enjoying life in the city first. The phrase "single blessedness" was not used ironically. Single women who pursued spiritual growth and moral action were seen as serving a higher calling than marriage. (See, for example, Lee Virginia Chambers-Schiller's book, Liberty, A Better Husband.) Susan B. Anthony was one of the most famous single women who worked for women's right to vote, but the suffrage movement was powered by many other single women as well.

The late 1800s through the early 1900s was a time when the age at which Americans first married was rising, and the number of men and women who stayed single was growing, too. Women formed intense friendships with each other. Those bonds helped to sustain the activism of the first-wave feminists. Their goals were primarily political. When they succeeded in getting the vote in 1920, women of all marital statuses were empowered.

It was a different world, interpersonally and ideologically, when second-wave feminism started making its mark in the early 1960s. The age at which Americans first married was near an all-time low, as was the percentage of people who stayed single. The most revered relationship was the conjugal one. Freud seemed to have a dirty hand in persuading Americans that singlehood was not blessed but pathological.

Single women did not contribute to the ideological vision that would motivate second-wave feminism the way they did during the first wave. There were relatively few of them in the nation, and they were not well-represented among the liberal feminists of the 60s.

Second-wave liberal feminists set their sights on improving women's access to education, jobs, and benefits, as well as reproductive rights, and their accomplishments improved the lives of women across the marital status spectrum. Their focus, though, was on married women. Motivated by what Betty Friedan called "the problem that had no name," activists envisioned a society in which women would not be trapped at home from a very young adult age, raising lots of children and feeling bored and depressed. Instead, they would be able to "have it all" - marriage, family, and a career.

Rereading Rachel Moran's article reminded me, sadly, that Betty Friedan was not standing up for the single woman. She insisted on crediting mostly only married women for the success of the first-wave feminists, and bemoaned the "strangely unquestioned perversion of history that [held that] the passion and fire of the feminist movement came from man-hating, embittered, sex-starved spinsters" (from p. 82 of The Feminine Mystique).

Of course, Susan B. Anthony did not fit that story line. Friedan could have lauded Anthony for choosing a life of activism. Instead, she said that because of "fortune or bitter experience," Anthony had "turned away from marriage."

The 1966 charter of NOW flaunted the same focus on married women. As Moran noted, the statements of goals included:

  • "We do not accept the traditional assumption that a woman has to choose between marriage and motherhood, on the one hand, and serious participation in industry or the professions on the other."
  • "We believe that a true partnership between the sexes demands a different concept of marriage, an equitable sharing of the responsibilities of home and children and of the economic burdens of their support"
  • NOW also demanded "proper recognition" of "the economic and social value of homemaking and child-care."

These are all worthy goals, but they ignored the single woman. There was no vision of a full and fulfilling life outside of traditional marriage and mothering.

It is a well-known part of activist history that second-wave liberal feminism was too white, too middle-class, and too heterosexual. It is far less often recognized that it was also too much about marriage and traditional family, to the neglect of other ways of leading a meaningful life. The recent Shriver Report, supposedly about a "woman's nation," is evidence that the same privileging is continuing. The report served up compulsory marriage and mothering.

As Singles Week draws nearer (September 19-25), let's keep the spotlight on the contributions made by single people and the possibilities for living a fulfilling single life in 21st century America.

[In Next Up: Emotional Independence over at my "All Things Single" blog, I discuss another significant theme from Rachel Moran's article.]