Tales from the Crypt: Living Single 40 Years Ago

Singlism on steroids, from a past that's not distant enough.

Posted Nov 16, 2020

I have been studying the stereotyping and stigmatizing of single people that I call singlism for decades, and some days, I feel utterly discouraged. In the recent political season, for example, single voters were almost entirely ignored, and candidates from across the ideological spectrum were obsessed with “working families.”

Happily, though, one of the most popular guest bloggers here at “Living Single,” Joan DelFattore, has returned to tell us what it was like for unmarried women and men four decades ago. Her stories will leave you laughing, shaking your head in dismay, and maybe even feeling a bit reassured that some things actually are changing for the better.

Tales from the Crypt: Living Single 40 Years Ago

By Joan DelFattore

October 10, 2020 marked a milestone in the emerging effort to establish Singles Studies as an academic discipline in colleges and universities. It was the date of the first-ever Singles Studies conference, organized on Zoom by Ketaki Chowkani and Craig Wynne, which drew more than 400 registrants from all over the world.     

As the oldest of the conference speakers (aged 73), I've been thinking about what it has meant to be an unmarried woman in the United States within my lifetime. In case some historical perspective might be helpful as this new discipline unfolds, I am moved to share a couple of memories.

For the first seven years that I worked full-time as an adult, I had no legal right to a credit card, mortgage, or other line of credit. Although no law barred unmarried women from obtaining credit, banks and other lending institutions could, and often did, reject our applications without even pretending that it was for some other reason. It wasn't until 1974 that the Equal Credit Opportunity Act banned discrimination on the basis of marital status.

Back then, that legislation was viewed as a matter of gender equity because credit had not been widely denied to unmarried men and because the new law also prohibited lending institutions from requiring married women to have their husbands' permission to obtain credit. If you've read or seen Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, you may recall that the government subjugated women by preventing them from having access to money independent of men. That wasn't fantasy or imagination on Atwood's part. It was memory.

But although singlism was not yet recognized as a form of discrimination in its own right, separate from sexism, the difficulty of obtaining credit in one's own name was clearly a singles issue. Its effect -— and indeed its purpose — was to obstruct independent living.

Predictably, not even a new federal law could instantly terminate a practice rooted in long-standing prejudice. In 1979, five years after its passage, I finished graduate school and joined the faculty at the University of Delaware. I also applied for my first Visa card. I fulfilled all the legitimate standards for credit: a good job, no debt, and a pristine credit history based on department store credit cards (which were easier to obtain) and years of paying rent. Still, without explanation, bank after bank denied my application.

The now-defunct Bank of Delaware was the last institution in town that I hadn't tried. To my dismay, I was referred to a portly, white-haired manager who looked like a stereotypical good ol' boy. It thus came as a welcome surprise when he put into words what we both knew to be true: If he submitted my application for approval, it would be rejected because I was a single woman. He gave me a Visa card with a limit of $499 — the most he could approve on his own signature. Note to self: Never, never judge people by their looks.

I wish I could say that the academic world of that era was more enlightened about single life than the banks were. In reality, though, it was dominated by white men of the World War II generation, almost all of whom were married. They wore tweed jackets with suede patches on the elbows, filled the hallways with pipe and cigar smoke, and had their wives type their research papers. In that environment, sexism and singlism went hand in hand.

An incident that occurred shortly after I arrived in Delaware illustrates that point. Women faculty had been protesting that important decisions should be made at faculty meetings and not in informal settings closed to women, such as all-male golf and poker games and the men's locker room at the faculty gym. In an effort to quell the escalating unrest, the university president, born in 1920, said that he understood that women on the faculty felt undervalued and excluded. His proposed solution was to have his wife invite us to a Sunday tea, together with the wives of our male colleagues. He was almost touchingly taken aback by the outraged response, as if a kitten he was trying to pet had inexplicably bitten him. He simply could not see women outside the context of marriage, or envision men and women as professional equals without reference to romance or the possibility thereof.

Although the keynote speaker at the Singles Studies conference, Bella DePaulo, is younger than I, we started our academic careers only a year apart. In her landmark book Singled Out, she describes singlist practices in her first university job, such as being expected to teach night classes so that married faculty could be at home with their spouses, which was seen as more important than anything a single person might want to do in the evenings.

As a psychologist with a Ph.D. from Harvard, Bella viewed discrimination against singles not only as a personal issue, but also as a research topic. In 2000, she made the life-changing decision to give up a tenured faculty position in order to pioneer the scientific study of what she was soon calling "singlism."

Although I, too, was troubled by pervasive singlism, it never occurred to me to do anything so radical as quitting my job to open up a whole new area of research. To be honest, even if I'd thought of it, I wouldn't have taken the risk. Rather, as a comparative latecomer to the field (my first article about singlism was a guest post on one of Bella's blogs in 2016), I'm benefiting from the opportunities that now exist for publishing about single life. I'm also savoring the work of other writers, including some of those at the Singles Studies conference. So, Bella — thank you.

In sharing memories of the past, I am by no means implying that the dragon of singlism has now been slain, and we can all stand down. True, moving from totally disgusting to somewhat less disgusting is an improvement. It is not, however, a final victory. The only acceptable status is unconditional equality, and that remains a distant goal. My own research shows, for instance, that even something as critically important as medical care may be affected by physicians' matrimaniacal biases.

Moreover, as traditional gender distinctions fade, the historical association between singlism and sexism is weakening. Unmarried men experience the same financial discrimination as unmarried women do, such as tax codes that favor married couples. They're also subject to social pressures, including the conflation of sexual activity with masculinity. Craig Wynne, an organizer of the Singles Studies conference, has addressed these issues in his blog and in his book, How to Be a Happy Bachelor.

As singlism and sexism become more clearly differentiated from each other, singlism stands out in sharper relief as a form of discrimination that is far too often normalized for men as well as for women. And that brings me back to the Singles Studies conference, with its little Zoom boxes showing the faces of scholars and students from four continents. They wouldn't have been there if single adults had not made great strides in having our concerns taken seriously. But they also wouldn't have been there if those concerns had already been met.

provided by Joan DelFattore
Professor Joan DelFattore
Source: provided by Joan DelFattore

About the Author

Joan DelFattore is a professor emerita at the University of Delaware. She published three books with Yale University Press about freedom of speech and now writes about issues facing unpartnered adults in American health care. Follow her on Twitter @joandelfattore.