Two Single Women Who Outlived Nearly Everyone in the World

How single people’s individual life stories topple sturdy cultural myths

Posted Dec 16, 2017

Occasionally, a story about a single person or about single life captures the imagination of countless single people, and it gets sent to me over and over again. It gets forwarded by email, posted on my Facebook page or the page of the Community of Single People, and posted on Twitter.

So it was with the story of Emma Morano, a 115-year-old who attributed her longevity to living single for the previous 77 years of her adult life. I was delighted that so many people got a kick out of that story, and that it went viral. But the social scientist in me just shrugged. As a researcher who likes to make empirical statements based on data – lots and lots of carefully-collected data from rigorously designed studies – the story of just one person is, well, the story of just one person.

And yet, my analyses and critiques of scientific research have never had the same impact as the story of that one awesome 115-year-old single woman. I’ve been laboring for two decades, trying to show that all those proclamations we keep hearing about how getting married makes people happier and healthier and how they live longer, too – well, they are grossly exaggerated or just plain wrong. I’m glad I did, and I will continue to do so. But what is it about the power of individual life stories?

I’ve been thinking about this because of reading Kinneret Lahad’s new book, A Table for One: A Critical Reading of Singlehood, Gender and Time. With thanks to Professor Lahad for allowing me to reprint the relevant section, here is her discussion of Emma Morano and another single woman who has lived a very long life. Take a look at it if you are interested, then I’ll have more to say afterwards.

Excerpt from A Table for One: A Critical Reading of Singlehood, Gender and Time, by Kinneret Lahad

Counter-representations of long-term singlehood

The heteronormative scripts about female singlehood are so deeply embedded in our social imaginary that it seems almost impossible to contest them. However, numerous internet sites, personal blogs, and local initiatives have sought to debunk common understandings and stereotypical attitudes towards single men and single women. In what follows, I will examine some of the alternative voices offering subversive views of female singlehood and gendered temporal timetables.

In a New York Times cover story published in February 2015, Emma Morano, the oldest woman in Europe and the fifth oldest person in the world, noted that one contributory factor to her longevity was being single. Morano’s story was published under the suitably catchy headline, “Raw Eggs and No Husband Since ’38 Keep Her Young at 115” (Povoledo 2015).

“I didn’t want to be dominated by anyone” (Davies 2015), Morano explained, thus crediting her longevity to the fact the she did not re-marry after separating from her husband in 1938. The New York Times piece (Povoledo 2015) went viral, receiving extensive media coverage. But Morano is not alone; 109-year-old Jessie Gallan from Scotland, for example, revealed when interviewed by the Daily Mail (2015) that her “secret to a long life has been staying away from men. They’re just more trouble than they’re worth,” she added, saying that “I also made sure that I got plenty of exercise, eat a nice warm bowl of porridge every morning and have never gotten married.”

Various bloggers soon recognized the potential that these stories possessed for challenging some of the well-established discourses of singlehood. For example, Chrissa Hardy (2015), a blogger writing for Bustle argues that we should pay attention to Morano’s views on romance: “The fact that she was able to put her needs first and end a relationship in which she was no longer happy says a lot about the kind of boss lady Morano has always been.” According to Hardy, Morano “values her freedom, and she is perfectly comfortable with the life she has built since” (ibid.).

Thus, Morano’s story leads Hardy to reach the following conclusion:

"So instead of wallowing about your lack of Valentine’s Day (or Singles Awareness Day) plans yesterday and whether or not you’ll end up finding “The One,” think of Emma Morano, and how her long and happy life has been centered around her romantic freedom. She is living proof that a husband is not the key to eternal happiness for everyone, and that you should find what works for you and stick with it." (ibid.)

I concur with Hardy’s reading. Morano and Gallan’s stories, similar to many alternative scripts advanced by single women, carve out their own time path and life-course trajectory.

Such paths are still rarely recognised in mainstream society, and reflect the need to harness conventional hegemonic discourses. Indeed, Morano and Gallan do not define themselves through “the love plot of intimacy and familialism that signifies belonging to society in a deep and normal way” (Berlant and Warner 1998, 554). Neither do they adhere, as Hardy points out, to the conventions of the “happily ever after” script; in this way, they show the possibilities that exist for resisting the regulatory effects of heteronormative time.

Such accounts also point to the possibility that singlehood is both a social category and an analytical tool for questioning some of our core understandings of the normative and the natural. Morano and Gallen’s biographies, as presented above, echo some of the accounts presented in this book. These accounts do not follow the heteronormative linear trajectory, in which marriage and procreation are considered as obligatory milestones (see Chapter 2); neither do they define their lives as franticly waiting and searching for “Mr. Right” (see Chapter 7). On the contrary, Morano and Gallan tell us that their single life trajectory has provided them with longevity, health, autonomy, and freedom.

Conclusions such as the ones I like to draw, based on averages across hundreds or thousands or sometimes even tens of thousands of research participants, seem like abstractions. That’s fine with me, but sometimes they just don’t have the power of one or two people telling the story or their lives. Sometimes they can’t compete with Emma Morano or Jessie Gallan saying that they chose to live single, and they went on to live well over 100 years, longer than most people in the world have lived.

As Professor Lahad noted, Emma and Jessie tell stories that counter the ones we have all been told our entire lives, stories that are mere myths. No, Emma and Jessie proclaim, you do not need to obsess about finding The One. Commit to your single life if that’s what works for you, and maybe it will be you – the lifelong (or nearly lifelong) single person who will live happily ever after. Maybe it will be you who will outlive nearly everyone else in the world. Maybe it will be you who will be approached from reporters all over the world asking about the secret of your longevity.

And in response, you do not repeat the tired old pablum about the spouse you could never do without. Instead, you tell them – as if it is the most obvious thing in the world – that you have lived a long and happy and healthy life because you lived your chosen life, your single life, and that made all the difference.

Want to know more about Kinneret Lahad? Here’s what she has to say: "I am currently a Senior Lecturer in the NCJW Women and Gender Studies Program of Tel-Aviv University, Israel. I am a sociologist and a gender, cultural studies scholar, a single woman, a loving aunt and a good friend (I hope).  I think what sparked my initial interest in singlehood was my fascination with the idea and gendered ideology of the “ideal family. I am currently involved in various research projects among them are aunthood, friendships, discourses of freezing eggs and “late” motherhood. All these projects in various degrees communicate and attempt to understand the notion of the “good family” and female respectability. More about my work can be found here."

Want to read the book? Table for One is available here, or here as an open-access e-book, or here as a hardcover (you may be able to use the discount code table41 at checkout if it is still available).