Without Unmarried Equality, Gender Equality Is Not Enough

Singles face double doses of discrimination

Posted Feb 18, 2013

Marking the 50th anniversary of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, the New York Times published Stephanie Coontz’s essay, “Why gender equality stalled.” It quickly shot up to the #1 slot on the most-emailed list.

Coontz argued that over time, Friedan’s work of consciousness-raising transformed attitudes, upending the conventional wisdom that “held that a woman could not pursue a career and still be a fulfilled wife or successful mother.” Now, Coontz believes, the persuasion part of the package has been accomplished. Men and women agree that they should both be able to work and to contribute equally to child-care and household chores.

The real impediments in today’s society, Coontz believes, are the structural ones:

“…in the past 20 years the United States has not passed any major federal initiative to help workers accommodate their family and work demands.”

There is so much of significance in Coontz’s essay. The U. S. really does need to make major reforms in the workplace and in accommodating people’s needs to receive and to provide care. However, her article, like Friedan’s book from a half-century ago, is focused overwhelmingly on married people and their kids. There’s one mention of single mothers and a nod to singles in the last paragraph, but in her article, “gender equality” is mostly something important for married heterosexual couples to achieve.

I think 21st century gender equality is important to people of all marital, relationship, and parental statuses. People who are single need more than gender equality. They need what the newly renamed “Alternatives to Marriage Project” now calls itself: Unmarried Equality.

In the campaign for unmarried equality, much consciousness-raising remains to be done. Attitudes still overwhelmingly favor married people, as my colleagues and I have demonstrated in our studies in the U.S. and elsewhere, and as other scholars have documented in other nations. (See, for example, Singlism: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How to Stop It.) Too many people believe that the stereotypes of singles as miserable, lonely, self-centered, and all the rest are truths rather than myths. Matrimania – the over-the-top hyping of marriage, weddings, and couples – barrels along, mostly unchecked.

 To achieve unmarried equality, single people need to be able to choose to be single, without stigma, shame, or second-guessing. In their everyday lives, they should, for example, be able to support themselves as single people, without needing to marry in order to survive financially. Single people need to have the same options to give and receive care as married people do. They should not be charged more for the same services, nor should they be expected to subsidize people who are coupled or married. No law should discriminate against people who are single. As long as singlism persists, there is no real equality.

Gender equality for people who are single means that it should be equally possible for men and women to live full lives as single people, free of stereotyping, stigma, discrimination, or exclusion.

Articulating what it takes to live full lives as single people is what I have been doing for years, with much more thinking still to come. Here, I will point to three examples from Stephanie Coontz’s article, and show how her arguments can be broadened to include single people.

#1 Women are paid less than men

Noting that “women are still paid less than men at every educational level and every job category,” Coontz locates the implications in marriage. Wives are more likely than husbands to give up their jobs to care for kids.

For single people, the problem is more daunting. With no spouse to pay the bills, quitting work is not an option. And as Lisa Arnold and Christina Campbell pointed out in their Atlantic article, The high price of being single in America, to be single and disabled is to be especially vulnerable, financially.

Until men and women are equally able to support themselves economically – and some children, too, if they wish – there is no gender equality among the unmarried.

#2 Part-time workers get screwed

Coontz reports that:

“A 1997 European Union directive prohibits employers from paying part-time workers lower hourly rates than full-time workers, excluding them from pension plans or limiting paid leaves to full-time workers.”

Wow, wouldn’t that be nice!

Here’s the next sentence: “By contrast, American workers who reduce hours for family reasons typically lose their benefits and take an hourly wage cut.”

Single people sometimes work at part-time jobs not because they have chosen to “reduce hours for family reasons,” but because part-time work is all they can get. With only their own employment package to live on, and no spouse as a back-up economic plan, getting screwed on pay, pension, and paid leave is all the more devastating.

To the extent that part-time work is disproportionately disadvantageous to women vs. men, then singles are facing gender inequality as well as unmarried inequality.

#3 Family and Medical Leave is unpaid leave

The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, Coontz says, “guaranteed covered workers up to 12 weeks unpaid leave after a child’s birth or adoption or in case of a family illness.” She believes that we should be more like the vast majority of other comparable countries that “offer guaranteed paid leave to new mothers” and sometimes new fathers, too.

For people who are single, the deficiencies in FMLA are far more formidable. Single people do not have the same opportunities under the law as married people do to give and receive care – not even unpaid opportunities. Under the Act, eligible employees are entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid leave “to care for the employee’s spouse, child, or parent who has a serious health condition” or to deal with “a serious health condition that makes the employee unable to perform the essential functions of his or her job.”

The married person’s spouse is covered under the Act. There is no equivalent person covered for single people. That means that single people cannot take time off under the Act to care for an important person in their life, such as a sibling or close friend; nor can such a person take time to care for them.

If the need for care, or the need or desire to provide care to others, is different for single men than for single women, then, once again, single people are doubly discriminated against – they are targets of unmarried inequality and gender inequality.

[Notes. (1) I owe an intellectual debt to Rachel Moran who underscored the ways in which Betty Friedan was dismissive toward single women in (pdf) How second-wave feminism forgot the single woman (discussed here). (2) Also, if you are interested, check out Challenging compulsory coupledom.]