The Singles Without Bliss

Suzanne Fields
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Posted: Jan 24, 2007 12:01 AM

More than a decade ago I floated a book proposal with the title "Women Without Men," an ironic reference to Ernest Hemingway's "Men Without Women." The Hemingway stories were about a tough world of masculine men who lived without women by choice. They were bullfighters and bruisers, hired hands and hard drinkers, even killers.

The women I wanted to write about were single by choice, too, who adhered to Gloria Steinem's mantra: "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle." These were women for whom career always comes first. I applauded their ambition but thought they would later regret postponing marriage because they were risking the rewards of families of their own. The senior editor at a prestigious publisher liked my proposal, but said, with a sigh of regret, that "the feminists in my shop won't let us have anything to do with it." Protecting their revolution was crucial, and nobody would be allowed to argue with "herstory."

That was then and this is now. Today tons of books describe the dilemma of women who waited too long, didn't reckon with fertility problems, thought there would always be time to get pregnant, and now will never know the pleasures of watching their children grow up. Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and David Popenoe, authors of "The State of Our Unions" in the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, observe that in 1976, one of 10 women in their early 40s was childless; by 2004 it was one of five. Childlessness coincides with expanding numbers of singles.

The New York Times asks, somewhat plaintively, "Why are there so many single Americans?" Only two years ago in the age group between 35-44, important ones for raising children, 66.2 percent of the men were married, down from 88 percent in 1960. Of women, 67.2 percent were married, down from 88 percent in 1960. The statistics, though similar, affect the lives of men and women in different ways. Younger women say they want first to focus on their careers and then have children. Many of these women will find all too soon that they have been exiled to a creative limbo. One of the most suppressed facts of the feminist revolution as it accelerated in the 1970s was that the older a woman gets, the more difficult it is for her to become pregnant.

Men who want children can afford to wait, literally and figuratively. Young bachelors concede their commitment phobias and say they want to keep their freedom for as long as they can. They have bought the Hugh Hefner philosophy of an earlier era: Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?

Single career women have bought a similar line from Playboy, perhaps unwittingly. In 1963, Hefner exhorted men to work harder to become wealthier, buy more consumer goods and keep climbing the golden ladder of opportunity. If we are to believe what the voices in the popular culture tell us, women are equal opportunity consumers. Instead of indulging in stereos, luxury cars and imported whiskey to show off status, they buy Manolo Blahnik shoes to show off the ankle, Botox to enhance the face and boob jobs to improve the curves. The termagant boss in "The Devil Wears Prada," played by Meryl Streep, is not a sympathetic character, but she's based on a real person and there are many like her out there. (I worked for one once at Vogue.)

The feminist revolution was a class revolution and women of the upper class won, if winning means successful careers and lots of money to buy things. But like most things in life, burdens fall hardest on women of the underclass. She's still more likely to have a child out of wedlock and less likely to find a man to provide family and financial support. Her children are less likely to go to college, and without a college degree they're more likely to join the underclass of the next generation. The multigenerational underclass is largely black with overall illegitimacy rates at 70 percent, and closer to 90 percent in the inner cities.

The legacy of slavery, welfare payments that replaced men and fewer opportunities for unskilled work all contributed to this. But the black voices celebrating victimhood are responsible, too. Barack Obama is a phenomenon in large measure because he wants to change that message. In his keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention two years ago, he celebrated inner-city families who "know that parents have to parent, that children can't achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television set, and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white." Such advice might even lead them to the altar.