Single By Choice
Stern lives alone and has never been married, but at 52, she’s created a network of friends, colleagues, and family that she says is as emotionally rewarding as any partnership could be. She has a job in a school and loves working with children. She owns a home in West Roxbury and has a summer place in Maine. She shares patterns and talks politics on Ravelry, the online community for rabid knitting fans. And she’s eagerly anticipating the “Sheep Ahoy” knitting cruise to Nova Scotia that she and her friends have booked for July. (Yarn shops make up the bulk of the onshore excursions.) But she chafes at the notion that her single status, passion for knitting, and, yes, ownership of a wheel make her a modern-day spinster. “I’m a spinner,” she says defiantly.
Given the stigma of the word, you can understand Stern’s reaction. But where do such stigmas come from in the first place? In her book Marriage, a History, historian Stephanie Coontz traces how the institution of marriage has transformed from a ritual primarily concerned with consolidating land and prosperity among families to one centered on couples celebrating their love. In part, the shift was economic — the rise of wage-based labor allowed men and women to gain independence from their parents. And it was coupled with Enlightenment-era sentiments that championed individual rights and the pursuit of happiness. For the first time, men and women began to choose marriage for love rather than wealth or status.
Naturally, what it means to be single shifted over that time period, as well. The word “spinster,” for example, first appeared in the 17th century, when, according to Coontz, as many as 20 percent of women in northwestern Europe were unmarried. In 19th-century New England, it was an honorable term because spinsters earned money for themselves by spinning wool — these women, in fact, were celebrated for their unwillingness to compromise their moral standards for the sake of a relationship. But as marriage became increasingly idealized, “spinster” took on negative connotations, eventually becoming shorthand for any woman who remained unmarried throughout her life.
By the 1950s, traditional marriage was seen as the “only culturally acceptable route to adulthood and independence,” Coontz writes. In fact, in a survey taken in 1957, 80 percent of Americans responded that people who preferred to remain single were “sick,” “neurotic,” or “immoral.”
THE ANTI-SINGLE sentiment began to soften, however, during the countercultural movements in the decades that followed. By 1978, only one-quarter of Americans still felt it was morally wrong to choose to live without a partner. But just because we believe there’s nothing morally wrong with it doesn’t mean we’d actually wish it on a loved one. So we try to “fix up” our single friends. As we see them growing older, we emphasize the “settle” in the idea of settling down. And we just know that being alone means being lonely.
We mean well, of course, but NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg says we’re actually being unfair and oppressive. Klinenberg’s forthcoming book, Going Solo, examines the “extraordinary rise and surprising appeal of living alone,” and destroys a number of myths along the way.
While researching the book, Klinenberg was shocked to discover the sheer number of people in America currently by themselves. He was also surprised to learn that they’re far more connected than the stereotypes might suggest. A dozen years ago, public policy professor Robert Putnam of Harvard’s Kennedy School fretted in his bestselling book Bowling Alone about the loss of “social capital” in public life. But Klinenberg says that today, single people have social capital in spades. “They’re not bowling alone,” he says. “They’re doing things together. One of the crucial points here is that people who are living alone are generally not alone. They’re quite social and well connected.”