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Single Women and the US Women’s Movement: Insights from India

April 7, 2008

E. Kay Trimberger

Last fall, I began to study single women in India in preparation for attending a Women’s Studies conference in New Delhi in January 2008. I knew beforehand that marriage was even more dominant there, and that the number of single women was proportionally much smaller. I found census figures as confirmation: 89.5% of Indian women between the ages of 25-59 are married, as compared with 65% of American women in the same age group. As for the unmarried women in that age group, the “never marrieds” account for 2.5% in India versus 16% in the U.S., while the percentage of divorced women in that population is 17% in the U.S. as opposed to a mere 1% in India. The percentage of Indian widows is 7%, higher than the 2% rate in America. (Sources: 2000 U.S. Census, 2001 Indian Census).

I expected to find feminist organizing of Indian widows, since their plight has been widely publicized. Nor was I surprised to find that the long-standing, large, and diverse Indian women’s movement focused on issues such as marriage/family reform and ending violence against women (including rape, wife-beating and wife-burning), as well as addressing women’s poverty, and caste and class differences. I was startled, however, to discover concrete examples of Indian feminists bringing together diverse groups of single women (e.g., the never-married, divorced, deserted wives and widows), agitating for recognition of their common interests as singles. In America, our women’s movement has never done so. In reflecting on the possible reasons why Indian feminists have organized singles while we in the U.S. have not, I gained insights into how our women’s movement could initiate a new campaign to address the needs of U.S. women who spend an increasing percentage of their life span single.

The All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) — founded in 1981 from the women’s divisions of two of India’s communist parties — today is the largest independent women’s organization in India. AIDWA attests to 9 million members and 600 paid organizers. In November 2007, AIDWA held its eighth national conference, with 900 delegates from 23 Indian states. An important outcome is the organization of seven commissions to investigate and propose actions on problems that they consider most pressing, including issues facing “single women.”

Social structural differences in how single women relate to the institution of marriage might help explain why single women have been organized in India and not in the U.S.

In New Delhi, I obtained a copy of the initial paper of the Commission on Single Women. It gives most emphasis to the continuing discrimination against widows, but it includes a section on “single, deserted and divorced women,” articulating similarities between all single women, cutting across class and caste distinctions. No woman’s organization in the U.S. — not NOW, The Feminist Majority, nor any more specialized woman’s group – has ever articulated a program to organize single women. Why the difference?

I found evidence that single women in India are seen as objects of sexual prey, especially vulnerable to sexual exploitation and violence. Social structural differences in how single women relate to the institution of marriage might help explain why single women have been organized in India and not in the U.S. Yet, two insights I gained into differences between Anglo-American. and Hindu culture in regard to marriage and singleness seem to me to best explain why the women’s movement in the U.S. has not yet recognized singleness as a problem.

First, Hindu culture has no word comparable to the English spinster, with its negative, asexual connotations. Rather, Madhu Kishwar, a writer and activist on women’s issues says in an essay in Off the Beaten Path: Rethinking Gender Justice for Indian Women, “We are still heavily steeped in the old Indian tradition which holds that voluntary sexual abstinence bestows extraordinary power on human beings. . . . Our culture has the remarkable ability to provide special space and respect for women who voluntarily opt out of the sexual, marital role.” Voluntary is rarely used with spinster in our culture, and certainly respect and extraordinary power are never part of the image.

Hindu culture has no word comparable to the English spinster, with its negative, asexual connotations.

Given these cultural distinctions, activists in the US would have to directly attack our negative cultural image of middle-aged single women in order to make this a feminist issue. Exactly the opposite was true of second-wave feminism. Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem — the two best-known American feminists — both distanced themselves from spinsters without providing an alternative model for life as a mature, single woman.

In The Feminine Mystique, published in 1962, Friedan wanted women to have it all — marriage, family and career. Ironically, this articulation of all managed to incorporate negative views of both the full-time housewife and the single, career woman. She saw both as “half-lives,” that failed to embrace “the fullness of life that is open to women now, in love and work, as it never was to women before.” Friedan once told an interviewer that she left graduate school, turning down a large fellowship to pursue a phD in Psychology, because she feared “she would become an old maid school teacher.”

In autobiographical essays written in the 1990s, Steinem disclosed what she considered her neurotic and unfulfilled single life, and stressed that she might still marry.

But what about Gloria Steinem — a single, childless woman until she married for the first time at the age of 66? Steinem attended Smith College in the 1950s, where she for the first time learned some history of late 19th century and early 20th century feminists. What she read, led her to conclude that “everything had been solved decades earlier by worthy, but boring, asexual suffragists about whom I knew very little, except that I didn’t want to be like them.” Although Steinem proved that a woman can be beautiful and an activist for women’s liberation, she never saw herself as a model for single women. In autobiographical essays written in the 1990s, Steinem disclosed what she considered her neurotic and unfulfilled single life, and stressed that she might still marry.

Following Friedan and Steinem, the liberal wing of the US women’s movement emphasized the importance of careers and work outside the home, permitting women to be self-supporting and develop autonomy. This led to growing numbers of never-married and divorced women. Influenced by feminism, a cultural shift legitimized young women postponing marriage. Although second wave feminism also validated self-supporting women in their thirties becoming “single mothers by choice,” older, childless single women, and teenage and poor single mothers were left outside of feminism’s embrace. Thus, the U.S. women’s movement has created divisions by class and age among single women, exactly the opposite of what happened in India.

in the 1970s made a critique of marriage, but their alternative vision was deep personal sharing in an equalitarian coupled relationship, whether lesbian or heterosexual.

The second difference that stands out is a cultural legacy inherited by the U.S. women’s movement, but that India’s feminists did not have to combat: the romanticized image of the couple as essential to human happiness. In The New Single Woman, I discuss how radical feminists in the 1970s made a critique of marriage, but their alternative vision was deep personal sharing in an equalitarian coupled relationship, whether lesbian or heterosexual. This legacy, I argue, was a major force leading to the current emphasis on finding a soul mate. The implications of the failure of U.S. feminism to question the cultural hegemony of the couple was brought home to me by learning that single women in India do not have to battle the internalized belief that true happiness can only be found in a couple.

Marriage in India is more highly valued, but its purpose is family ties, not coupled happiness. Compatibility between spouses is not linked to finding a soul mate, but is seen as the result of patient work, along with family support. Personal happiness has less cultural significance, and is not linked to being coupled. To illustrate the implications, let me quote from an essay by one of India’s feminist intellectuals, Urvashi Butalia , a publisher who founded the feminist press Kali for Women. Butalia contributed an essay to a 2006 book, Chasing the Good Life: On Being Single. (I can think of nothing comparable in the U.S. — a book where some of a country’s best known male and female writers, journalists and artists contribute essays on their mainly positive experiences as singles. ) She says, “Oddly enough, the first time I really became conscious of my singleness was in, of all places, England. . . . [I found myself] in a culture that so privileges relationships, especially heterosexual one, that if you are not in one (and even if you have been in one that may have broken up you are expected to jump into another almost immediately), there has to be something wrong with you. So I was always the odd one out, the one without the man, the one to be felt sorry for. And it always bewildered me, because I did not feel sorry for myself, so why did they? It wasn’t a nice feeling.”

What we learn from Butalia and other Indian feminists is how culturally ingrained is our exclusion of single women, including single mothers, from the so-called glories of coupled life, and we better comprehend the great cultural wall that we will have to break down to have singleness included as one, among many, ways to lead a satisfying life.

THIS POST ORIGINALLY APPEARED AT BEACON BROADSIDE.

Sociologist E. Kay Trimberger is professor emerita of women’s and gender studies at Sonoma State University and is a visiting scholar at the Institute for the Study of Social Change at the University of California, Berkeley. The author of The New Single Woman , she lives in California. Visit her website at kaytrimberger.com.

Copyright 2008 E. Kay Trimberger

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