I’ve been studying single people for two decades. I’m a social scientist, a numbers person. When people ask me to tell them something important about single people, I like to point to compelling research studies.
The best reporters know something I’m still learning: the power of stories. Recently, a journalist asked me to tell her a story from my two decades of studying single life. Could I capture an especially meaningful moment, she wondered? A time when something shifted, perhaps, or when I realized something I hadn’t fully understood before.
I’ll share two.
The first is from 2008. Barack Obama had just floated the name of Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano to be his Secretary of Homeland Security. Napolitano has been single all her life, and the early coverage of her potential nomination was gloriously free of singlism. I was very happy about that.
Then the next morning, I got a call from New York Times op-ed columnist Gail Collins, who told me that Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell had just said this about Napolitano:
“Janet’s perfect for the job,” he said. “Because for that job, you have to have no life. Janet has no family. Perfect. She can devote, literally, 19, 20 hours a day to it.”
Collins wrote about it in her column:
“…it sure sounded as if he was saying that single people like Napolitano exist in a state so dark and barren that the empty hours can only be filled up by guarding the nation’s borders against terrorists and preparing for the next hurricane.”
About single women, she added:
“They are universally regarded as folks with time on their hands, and thus the most likely recruits for taking care of aged parents, adjusting their schedules to accommodate their married friends working overtime.”
The brilliant take-down by Collins, along with other critiques and mockery that were already taking shape, created a meaningful moment for single people. Suddenly, the stereotype of single people as not having a life was getting skewered everywhere. (And the term “singlism” – the stereotyping, stigmatizing, and discrimination against single people – got a giant jolt of recognition.)
Elsewhere at the New York Times, The Caucus politics blog had at it. So did the Wall Street Journal and ABC News. CNN aired two segments on the topic. A CBS station in Chicago asked, “Are unmarrieds singled out for discrimination?” The staff of The Week posed the question, “Do only married people have lives?”
And on and on it went. It was an episode of consciousness-raising that played out in some of the most prestigious and powerful media outlets across the land.
The topic is still resonating. In 2017, the article “Single workers aren’t there to pick up the slack for their married bosses and colleagues,” became one of the most popular articles on the site (Quartz) soon after it appeared and continued to trend for days. It was named one of the best “Ideas” articles of the year.
The first meaningful moment was a heartening one. Not so for the second.
Let me offer a bit of context to set this one up. Imagine if, in the year 2015, you were asked to answer questions such as the following on videotape, knowing that your answers would be posted online for all to see:
- Can old people contribute to society?
- Can women be leaders?
- Can black people be smart?
- Can women be anything but selfish if they don’t have kids?
Offensive and ridiculous, right? No self-respecting person would deign to respond to such insulting inquiries and no respectable organization would ask them to.
But at the highly-respected Aspen Ideas Festival, a place that sees itself as showcasing “some of the foremost thinkers in the world today,” five of those supposedly brilliant experts were asked the question:
“Can single people be happy?”
They all answered it, unselfconsciously and without apology. They let themselves be videotaped and did not try to disguise their appearance. (I wrote about this in more detail here.) One of the speakers tweeted a link to me, thinking, I suppose, that I would be immensely grateful that he had patted me on the head with his concession that yes, he supposed that single people could be happy.
I’ve been monitoring singlism for a long time. Not too many examples surprise me. This one stunned me. I think it shows just how deeply ingrained the prejudices against single people really are. Five people, supposedly among our most dazzling and cutting-edge thinkers, offered crushingly condescending views of people who are single. And they were invited to do so by a prestigious organization. And their videos were posted online, again without apology.
That’s the thing about singlism. Even now, it is sometimes practiced without even a wisp of awareness of just how utterly offensive it is. It goes unchallenged in ways that blatant instances of other isms such as racism, sexism, ageism, and heterosexism never would.