Until There Is Equality For Single People, There Will Not Be Gender Equality
Last year in Thailand, the 67-year-old king appointed 34-year-old Sineenat Wongvajirapakdi to be the first royal consort since the 1920s. This made her an official companion to the king but junior to the queen. A nurse, pilot, and general, Sineenat was depicted in palace photographs as a fantastical figure: simultaneously accomplished, alluring, and subservient. In one photograph, she is ready to fly a helicopter in full make-up and a camouflage sports bra; in others she is in traditional dress prostrate or kneeling at the king’s feet. Three months later, the king stripped her of all titles. The royal announcement said the consort had been “ambitious” and that “she neither was grateful to the title bestowed upon her, nor did she behave appropriately according to her status.”
This language was “reminiscent of an era in which women could not have direct political power and so the ways you talked about women with ‘influence’ was that they were ambitious,” said Tamara Loos, a professor of history and Thai studies at Cornell University in an article by the BBC. Loos suggested that Sineenat might have played a wrong move in the Thai system of patronage. After the stripping of her titles, Sineenat disappeared. She lost not only her titles, but also her royally-bestowed name (she is now referred to by her previous name, Niramon Ounprom), and there is speculation that she may have lost her life, or at least her freedom.
According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2020, Thailand is ranked 75th out of 153 benchmarked countries, right in the middle. The United States is ranked 53rd for having stalled in progress since the WEF began issuing its annual report in 2006. It has closed only 72.4% of the gender parity gap and 16.4% of the political empowerment gap between genders. In North America, 32% of women have experienced intimate partner physical or sexual violence. While the WEF predicts it will take 99.5 years to close the global gender gap, it projects it will take 151 years to close the gap in North America due to the lack of progress recently, compared to 54 years in Western Europe.
Although it may be tempting to dismiss what happened to Sineenat as an exotic tale set in a distant country with a polygynous monarchy, the WEF report reminds us that women in the U.S. are not faring as well as one might think. Here, too, “ambitious” women face regressive obstacles that belong in past centuries. In 2019, two of the Republican gubernatorial candidates in Mississippi professed adherence to the Billy Graham Rule, refusing to be alone in a room with a woman not his wife even in a professional situation. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence also follows a variation of this rule.
“If we are framed as temptresses, our only power is sex.”
Commenting on the Pence rule in The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino wrote, “[T]he abiding sense that women are sources of sexual danger…is so entrenched that people of all political orientations, including women, get married and then semiconsciously shrink their social lives so that only friends and close colleagues of the same sex remain….One can imagine some version of these rules that applies equally to both genders and exists in a utopia where men and women have the same share of governmental power. But…that is not the world we live in….women always end up bearing the burden of that reckoning. If we are framed as temptresses, our only power is sex.” This is frustrating for women who know they have so much more to offer than sex. But when a woman does try to use sex as power, she often discovers―as Sineenat did―that it is a double-edged sword that harms her more than it helps her, creating dangerous consequences for herself rather than others.
We hold women to impossible standards because we choose not to hold men responsible. As Margaret Atwood wrote in The Testaments, the 2019 sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, “[a]rms covered, hair covered, skirts down to the knee before you were five…because the urges of men …needed to be curbed. The man eyes that were always roaming…needed to be shielded from the alluring and indeed blinding power of us — of our shapely or skinny or fat legs, of our graceful or knobbly or sausage arms, of our peachy or blotchy skins… it did not matter. Whatever our shapes and features, we were snares and enticements despite ourselves….” Although Atwood was writing about a fictional world, her observations hold true in the real one. No matter what a woman looks like or how circumspect her actions are, she has to bear the burden for what men might feel or do. Rather than teach boys how to manage their feelings, we teach girls they have to change themselves so other people don’t have to feel uncomfortable. Why should Pence waste any time parsing the moment he connected with a woman’s insightful remark when his life would be simpler if he just pretends she doesn’t exist?
In contemporary America, a woman not possessed by a man is still considered an aberrant thing. We hold unmarried men and women to different standards. Faced with societal pressure to be coupled up, I told my friends I wanted to be George Clooney: if I found someone, great, but I was not going to center my life around finding a mate. After Clooney divorced his first wife in 1993, he was single for 21 years until his second marriage at the age of 52. During those two decades, he was widely admired as an eligible bachelor with a successful acting career and interest in activism. Jennifer Aniston, who was single for ten years between her first and second marriages, also had a successful acting career and interest in philanthropy. But rather than focus on her professional accomplishments, the media obsessed about her weight, diet, lack of marriage, then possibly falling apart marriage, and whether she was pregnant or simply had a food baby from eating a large meal. Finally, in 2016, Aniston issued a response in the Huffington Post:
“This past month in particular has illuminated for me how much we define a woman’s value based on her marital and maternal status. The sheer amount of resources being spent right now by press trying to simply uncover whether or not I am pregnant (for the bajillionth time… but who’s counting) points to the perpetuation of this notion that women are somehow incomplete, unsuccessful, or unhappy if they’re not married with children. In this last boring news cycle about my personal life there have been mass shootings, wildfires, major decisions by the Supreme Court, an upcoming election, and any number of more newsworthy issues that ‘journalists’ could dedicate their resources towards.
“Here’s where I come out on this topic: we are complete with or without a mate, with or without a child….We get to determine our own ‘happily ever after’ for ourselves.”
Being a single woman has such negative connotations that Emma Watson felt the need to coin a new term to shift perspective. In a November 2019 interview with British Vogue, Watson said she was “stressed” even at the young age of 29 “because there is suddenly this bloody influx of subliminal messaging around. If you have not built a home, if you do not have a husband, if you do not have a baby, and you are turning 30…There’s just this incredible amount of anxiety….I never believed the whole ‘I’m happy single’ spiel….It took me a long time, but I’m very happy [being single]. I call it being self-partnered.” Watson is a UN Women Goodwill Ambassador and graduate of Brown University, heads a feminist book club, and recently launched a legal advice line for people who experienced sexual harassment at work, but somehow society still made her feel inadequate because she does not have a husband and children.
How can the life of a straight woman not be warped when she has to live as a second-class citizen―to choose between a marriage that is 72.4% equal or being marginalized as a single woman?
In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf discussed how single women and single men are treated differently. She contrasted the situation of female author George Eliot, who was ostracized for her relationship with a married man, to that of Leo Tolstoy, who was “living freely with this gipsy or with that great lady; going to wars; picking up unhindered and uncensored all that varied experience of human life which served him so splendidly later when he came to write his books.”
Woolf proposed that women needed a room of their own to write. But women need a room of their own to be full members of society. Until single women can stand on their own in the community without belonging to a man, there will be no gender equality. Until single women have social, financial, and political equality, the stigma will be so difficult that (as a group) they will settle for unequal marriages, removing the incentive for men (as a group) to change. Only when there is equality for unmarried people will there be gender equality, when heterosexual women will be able to decide the terms on which they will invite male partners into their homes.
Susan B. Anthony spoke of this difficult transition in her 1877 speech, “Homes of Single Women”: “Meanwhile, ‘the logic of events’ points, inevitably, to an epoch of single women. If women will not accept marriage with subjection, nor men proffer it without, there is, there can be, no alternative. The women who will not be ruled must live without marriage.”
In South Korea, which is ranked 108 by the Global Gender Gap Report 2020 and still has very traditional gender roles, this epoch of single women has already started. Faced with the prospect of having to perform four times as much housework and caretaking as the average husband, many women have decided to abstain from marriage and procreation, with only 44% of women marrying and the average woman having only 1.1 children, according to an article by Beh Yih Li. Proponents of the “No Marriage” movement said they did not want to be treated as objects whose sole purpose was to reproduce, Beh wrote, quoting one woman who said, “If this does affect society, then perhaps the government will look at what women really need. The more I dated, the more I felt like I was losing a part of myself.” But South Korean women who want a room of their own will have to find a way to deal with the large wage gap, which makes it difficult for them to save for retirement and forces them to depend on men.
Writing about Charlotte Brontë, who could not afford a room of her own, Woolf said, “her books will be deformed and twisted. She will write in a rage where she should write calmly. She will write foolishly where she should write wisely…She is at war with her lot. How could she help but die young, cramped and thwarted?”
Let us substitute “to live” for “to write,” and “life” for “books”: “her life will be deformed and twisted. She will live in a rage where she should live calmly. She will live foolishly where she should live wisely…She is at war with her lot. How could she help but die young, cramped and thwarted?” How can the life of a straight woman not be warped when she has to live as a second-class citizen―to choose between a marriage that is 72.4% equal or being marginalized as a single woman?
Woolf added, “For masterpieces are not single and solitary births; they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of the people, so that the experience of the mass is behind the single voice.” This, too, is true for lives and not just books. Individuals cannot change the infrastructure of society on their own; there has to be collective action. We must not mistake public problems for personal problems.
“singles are caught in a ‘cultural lag’…between macrosocial changes that encourage and sustain singlehood as a desirable option and slow-to-change cultural ideals that still elevate marriage as the ideal state”
Singles expert Bella DePaulo has written that less than 20% of modern U.S. households live in the nuclear family format, but we still structure our policies and laws to unfairly benefit married people over unmarried ones. Reporters Lisa Arnold and Christina Campbell looked at some of the more than 1,000 laws that privilege married people in the U.S., and concluded that “[o]ver a lifetime, unmarried women can pay as much as a million dollars more than their married counterparts for healthcare, taxes, and more.”
Sociologists Anne Byrne and Deborah Carr argued that “singles are caught in a ‘cultural lag’…between macrosocial changes that encourage and sustain singlehood as a desirable option and slow-to-change cultural ideals that still elevate marriage as the ideal state. Promarriage ideology (and consequently, single stigma) will persist until scholars and laypersons (a) recognize and question the privileges afforded to married persons, (b) acknowledge that problematic aspects of marriage and family life are indicative of ‘public issues’ rather than ‘private troubles’…and (c) investigate more fully the adaptive and creative ways that unmarried persons construct their own unique sets of ‘family’ relationships.”
Mandy Len Catron asked in her July 2019 article in The Atlantic, “What is lost by making marriage the most central relationship in a culture?” She quoted research that showed that marriage actually weakens ties with other people in the community, and that it is care, commitment, and stability that is good for people, including children―not the insular institution of marriage. A person does not need to be married to choose―or deserve―a life of care, commitment, and stability.
Individuals cannot change the infrastructure of society on their own; there has to be collective action. We must not mistake public problems for personal problems.
In his 2018 book Palaces for the People, Eric Klinenberg discussed how social infrastructure is essential to fostering the interactions that build a community. The title of the book is taken from philanthropist Andrew Carnegie’s term for the many libraries he funded. Klinenberg noted that these libraries now provide not just books but also virtual bowling leagues that give isolated elderly people a reason to leave the house and interact with others. There are many opportunities for combining physical and social infrastructure, Klinenberg suggested, such as the building of a park on top of a seawall. In contrast, he said, privatization of social infrastructure, such as the replacement of public pools with backyard pools, degrades social cohesiveness. He also showed how going out of our way for a few minutes every day can have surprising results that improve our lives. For example, a daycare that asks parents to enter the classroom each day to pick up their children will foster friendships between families that can’t arise when daycares have an efficiency-oriented policy that allows parents to pick up their children curbside.
If our society is to cohere, we cannot hide inside privileged nuclear family units but must instead provide for all types of people and look towards the community. Klinenberg wrote an earlier book titled Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone. He pointed out that 28% of Americans live alone, and in Stockholm (which happens to be located in a country with high gender parity), more than 50% of people live alone. He noted that singletons are more likely than others to go out to restaurants, concerts, parks, volunteer organizations, and other public spaces, building social connections and reanimating the cities. Until our society understands the important contributions of single people, and reevaluates more than 1,000 laws that discriminate against them, single women will not have a chance to truly stand on their own as equals in the community. Without equality for unmarried people, there will be no gender equality. I am not sure I will see this in my lifetime, but I hope it will take less than the 151 years projected by the World Economic Forum.