Single Women Are Now the Most Potent Political Force in America

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Photo: Bobby Doherty

I was a grown-up: a reasonably complicated person. I’d become that person not in the company of any one man, but alongside my friends, my family, my city, my work, and, simply, by myself.

I was not alone.

In 2009, the proportion of American women who were married dropped below 50 percent. In other words, for the first time in American history, single women (including those who were never married, widowed, divorced, or separated) outnumbered married women. Perhaps even more strikingly, the number of adults younger than 34 who had never married was up to 46 percent, rising 12 percentage points in less than a decade. For women under 30, the likelihood of being married has become astonishingly small: Today, only around 20 percent of Americans ages 18–29 are wed, compared to nearly 60 percent in 1960

It is a radical upheaval, a national reckoning with massive social and political implications. Across classes, and races, we are seeing a wholesale revision of what female life might entail. We are living through the invention of independent female adulthood as a norm, not an aberration, and the creation of an entirely new population: adult women who are no longer economically, socially, sexually, or reproductively dependent on or defined by the men they marry. 

This reorganization of our citizenry, unlike the social movements that preceded it and made it possible — from abolition and suffrage and labor fights of the 19th and early-20th centuries to the civil-rights, women’s, and gay-rights movements of the mid-20th century — is not a self-consciously politicized event. Today’s women are, for the most part, not abstaining from or delaying marriage to prove a point about equality. They are doing it because they have internalized assumptions that just a half-century ago would have seemed radical: that it’s okay for them not to be married; that they are whole people able to live full professional, economic, social, sexual, and parental lives on their own if they don’t happen to meet a person to whom they want to legally bind themselves. The most radical of feminist ideas—the disestablishment of marriage — has been so widely embraced as to have become habit, drained of its political intent but ever-more potent insofar as it has refashioned the course of average female life.

I am not arguing that singleness is in and of itself a better or more desirable state than coupledom. Many single women, across classes and races, would like to marry — or at least form loving, reciprocal, long-term partnerships, and many of them do, partnering or cohabiting without actually marrying. Still, the rise of the single woman is an exciting turn of historical events because it entails a complete rethinking of who women are and what family is and who holds dominion within it — and outside it. (It might seem as though the journey toward legal marriage for gays and lesbians is at odds with this trend, but it is part of the same dismantlement of the power structure on which the traditional institution was built.)

Beyond whether you regard this shift as dangerous or thrilling, it is having a profound effect on our politics. While they are not often credited for it, single women’s changed circumstances are what’s driving a political agenda that seems to become more progressive every day. The practicalities of female life independent of marriage give rise to demands for pay equity, paid family leave, a higher minimum wage, universal pre-K, lowered college costs, more affordable health care, and broadly accessible reproductive rights; many of these are issues that have, for years, been considered too risky to be central to mainstream Democratic conversation, yet they are policies today supported by both Democratic candidates for president.

Single women are also becoming more and more powerful as a voting demographic. In 2012, unmarried women made up a remarkable 23 percent of the electorate. Almost a quarter of votes in the last presidential election were cast by women without spouses, up three points from just four years earlier. According to Page Gardner, founder of the Voter Participation Center, in the 2012 presidential election, unmarried women drove turnout in practically every demographic, making up “almost 40 percent of the African-American population, close to 30 percent of the Latino population, and about a third of all young voters.”

Perhaps more dramatically than any other voting block, un­married women — comprising as they do other liberal-voting groups including young women and women of color — lean left. Way left. Single women voted for Barack Obama by a wide margin in 2012 — 67 to 31 percent — while married women (who tend to be older and whiter) voted for Romney. And unmarried women’s political leanings are not, as has been surmised in some quarters, attributable solely to racial diversity. According to polling firm Lake Research Partners, while white women as a whole voted for ­Romney over Obama, unmarried white women chose Obama over Romney by a margin of 49.4 percent to 38.9 percent. In 2013, ­columnist Jonathan Last wrote about a study of how women ages 25 to 30 voted in the 2000 election. “It turned out,” Last wrote in The Weekly Standard, “that the marriage rate for these women was a greater influence on vote choice than any other variable.” 

All of this prompts the question of how marital status might affect women’s voting patterns in 2016. This would have been a critically important election for this constituency even without a Supreme Court seat potentially hanging in the balance, but the sudden death of Antonin Scalia puts an even finer point on it. The cases brought before the court, and the decisions rendered, will be tightly wound up with questions of women’s independence in America: women’s ability to control their reproduction, to seek redress from workplace discrimination and benefit from programs like affirmative action that bolster their ability to pursue equal opportunities; the rights of poor women and women of color to vote easily—these are the issues that will be decided by the court in the coming decades, and thus at some level by this election.

So far, any affinity single women may feel with Hillary Clinton is being trumped by the aspirationally progressive vision of Bernie Sanders. Young women — young single women, at least the ­predominantly white ones who have so far cast their votes — have broken for him in startling numbers in both the Iowa and New Hampshire contests. In New Hampshire, according to exit polls, Sanders beat Clinton by 11 points with women and by 26 points with single women. Some of this is attributable to the disheveled charm and righteous anger of the socialist senator, and some to Clinton’s difficulty running an inspiring campaign. But much of it may also have to do with the fact that single women — living their lives outside of the institution around which tax, housing, and social policies were designed — have a set of needs that has yet to be met by government. Ironically, Clinton has been in the weeds on some of these issues — health-care reform, children’s health insurance, early-childhood education — for much of her career. But perhaps because of that, she can seem less optimistic than her opponent: “I don’t think, politically, we could get it now,” said Clinton of paid leave just two years ago, a sign both of how improbable these policy changes have seemed until very recently and of her battle-scarred pragmatism. The question, in this year of the single woman, is whether the first truly plausible female presidential candidate can recognize how much her constituency has changed and capitalize on these changes, or if she will get overtaken by this growing group of independent women voters responding to more optimistic promises.

This is not the first time that single women have had such a dramatic impact on the country. In fact, wherever you find increasing numbers of single women in history, you find change. In the 19th century, when the casualties of the Civil War and drain of men to the American West upset the gender ratio, marriage rates for ­middle-class white women on the East Coast plunged and marriage ages rose. Unburdened of the responsibilities of wifeliness and motherhood, many of these women did what women have long been trained to do: throw themselves into service to community, in this case reform movements. Many, though by no means all, of those who led the fights for abolition and suffrage and against lynching, who founded and ran the new colleges for women (Mount Holyoke, Smith, Spelman), who were pioneers in new fields including ­nursing and medicine, were unmarried. Susan B. Anthony; Sarah Grimké; Jane Addams; Alice Paul; Catharine Beecher; Elizabeth Blackwell: None of these women had husbands. Many more ­activists had marriages that were unconventional for the time — brief, open, or entered into late, after the women had established themselves economically or professionally.

These women had a hand in rewriting the Constitution via the 14th, 15th, 18th, 19th, and 21st Amendments. So great was this wave of change that in the early-to-mid-20th century, there was a cultural backlash, from the pathologizing of single life to the encouraging of early heterosexual pairing through “dating.” Even Teddy Roosevelt, as part of his campaign against “race suicide,” railed at single middle-class white women for failing to reproduce at high rates: “A race is worthless,” he proclaimed, “if women cease to breed freely.”

By the mid-20th century, the patriotic step-back of women from the workforce after World War II ushered in a whole new brand of enforced marital domesticity, largely supported by the government. Thanks to the GI Bill, returning veterans (or at least white veterans, who were far more likely to be admitted to universities) were eligible for college educations that could propel them into the coalescing middle class. Meanwhile, the federal government underwrote loans and built up a suburban infrastructure that would house the millions of children American women were busy making. It was a neat, elliptical system. Advertisers sold both women and men on an old cult-of-domesticity-era ideal: that the highest female calling was the maintenance of a domestic sanctuary for men on whom they would depend economically. In order to care for the home, these women would rely on new products, like vacuum cleaners and washing machines, sales of which would in turn line the pockets of the husbands who ran the companies that provided these goods.

The push was not simply for women to marry but to marry early, before gaining a taste for independent life. A 1949 American Social Hygiene Association pamphlet advised that “Marriage is ­better late than never. But early marriage gives more opportunity for happy comradeship … for having and training children … ­promoting family life as a community asset, and observing one’s grandchildren start their careers.”

By the end of the 1950s, around 60 percent of female students were dropping out of college, either to marry or because the media blitz and realignment of expectations led them to believe that further education would inhibit their chances of finding a husband. In his 1957 Harper’s piece “American Youth Goes Monogamous,” Charles Cole, president of Amherst College, wrote that “a girl who gets as far as her junior year in college without having acquired a man is thought to be in grave danger of becoming an old maid.” In these years, around half of brides were younger than 20, and 14 million women were engaged by the time they were 17.

But as white women married in greater numbers and at younger ages, African-American marriage rates began to decrease. By 1970, black women were not marrying nearly as often or as early as their white counterparts. It was nothing so benign as coincidence. The economic benefits extended to the white middle class, both during the New Deal and in the post–World War II years, did not extend to African-Americans. Social Security, created in 1935, did not apply to either domestic laborers or to agricultural workers. ­Discriminatory hiring practices, the low percentages of black workers in the country’s newly strengthened labor unions, and the ­persistent racial wage gap, along with the fact that many colleges barred the admission of black students, meant that returning black servicemen had a far harder time taking advantage of the GI Bill’s promise of college education. And the suburbs that bloomed around American cities after the war were built almost entirely for white families.

These maneuverings cemented a cycle of economic disadvantage that made marriage — especially the traditionally patriarchal marriages that white women were being shooed into — less practical. If black women were working all day (often scrubbing the homes of white women), it was impossible for them also to fulfill the at-home maternal ideal that white women were being celebrated for. If black men had a harder time getting educations and jobs, earning competitive wages or securing loans, it was harder for them to play the role of provider. If there were no government-subsidized split-levels to fill with publicly educated children, then the nuclear family chute into which white women were being funneled was not open to most black women. It’s not that black women simply happened not to experience mid-’50s domesticity; they were actively barred from it, trapped in another way — walled off in underserved neighborhoods by highways that shuttled fairly remunerated white husbands back to wives who themselves had been walled off in well-manicured, stultifying suburbs.

The civil-rights and women’s-rights movements, along with the sexual revolution of the late-20th century, led to enormous legislative and judicial gains for women, married and single, of course. But maddeningly, even as women have moved closer to equal professional participation, educational advancement, and sexual liberation and thus have made marriage itself a better, more equitable institution, remnants of the ’50s-era social contract remain. Marriage still enhances men’s professional standing and has the opposite impact on women’s. A 2010 survey by the American Historical Association showed that it took, on average, a married female historian 7.8 years to become full professors, compared with the 6.7 years it took a single woman to earn the same promotion. For men, the pattern was reversed: Unmarried men became full professors in 6.4 years, compared with the 5.9 years it took men with wives at home. For men, marriage, and presumably the domestic support derived from wives, boosted professional focus. For women, the lack of marriage and its attendant responsibilities is what allowed them to move ahead at a faster clip.

Less surprising, but still maddening, is that the same patterns apply to having children. Sociologist Michelle Budig has been studying the gendered wage gap between parents for years and, in 2014, found — based on data from 1979 to 2006 — that, on average, men saw a 6 percent increase in earnings after becoming fathers; in contrast, women’s wages decreased 4 percent for every child. The gap narrows significantly for women in upper-echelon professions—also the population that tends to marry later, after careers have become more established. But another 2014 study of Harvard Business School graduates (as high-flying as it gets) found that even well-remunerated, super-educated wives weren’t meeting their professional or economic goals, largely because, despite ­having comparable educations and ambitions, those women were allowing their husbands’ careers to come before their own. Only 7 percent of female Generation-X HBS graduates said that they expected their careers to take precedence over their husbands’. More than 60 percent of Gen-X men surveyed said that they expected their careers to be the top priority. Eighty-six percent of Gen-X and baby-boomer men said that their wives did most of the child care.

Is it any wonder that women are not rushing down the aisle? Today, marriage delay is a move that women are making across the country and across classes, in both unconscious and very conscious ways, and the economic impact is clear. In 2013, Pew released Census data revealing that, in the words of the report, “today’s young women are the first in modern history to start their work lives at near parity with men. In 2012, among workers ages 25 to 34, ­women’s hourly earnings were 93 percent of those of men.” Those workers represent the very same generation of women who are remaining unmarried for longer than ever before. Remaining unmarried through some portion of early adulthood, especially for college-educated women, is intimately linked with making money. The “Knot Yet Report,” published in 2013, revealed that a college-educated woman who delays marriage until her 30s will earn $18,000 more per year than an equivalently educated woman who marries in her 20s. Women without college degrees also gain a wage premium if they delay marriage into their 30s, though only an average of $4,000 a year. (Both college-educated and non-­college-educated men earn more money if they marry early.)

Whether they know these statistics consciously, many ­American women understand them instinctively. Academic drive, the urge to capitalize on educational opportunity, a plan to put off distracting romantic entanglement, all with the conscious desire to make later independence possible: These motivations were mentioned by nearly every one of the college students or recent graduates I interviewed.  

“I know it sounds hyperbolic,” said Amanda Litman, who was a senior at Northwestern University when I spoke with her, “but I mean it when I say that getting married right now would ruin my life. I want freedom. I want the chance to pick up and move to a new city for a new job or for adventure, without having to worry about a spouse or a family. I need to be able to stay at the office until three in the morning if I have to and not care about putting dinner on the table.”

The reasoning of low-income women who delay or abstain from marriage is not so different from the reasoning of their privileged peers, though the resources they have are far less, the alternative opportunities far more limited. Across classes, women are living more years independent of marriage both because it is now possible to do so, and because it is often the emotionally and economically more sensible choice.

In 2012, Barack Obama’s campaign released a bit of propaganda that featured a cartoon figure named Julia. “Julia” was born, earned a college ­degree, had a career and a child, thanks, in part, to the aid of government-sponsored programs. According to Julia’s bare-bones time line, her life did not include marriage.

Conservatives went bananas. One Washington Post op-ed writer called her “Mary Tyler Moore on the government’s dime”; lamented that while single parenthood used to be a disgraceful state, single mothers now ­present “a new and proud American demographic”; and described a world in which independent women receive from their government a pitiable “hubby state” in which missing husbands are replaced by Uncle Sam.

During the lead-up to the 2014 midterms, Fox News pundit Jesse Watters opined that single women “depend on government because they’re not depending on their husbands. They need things like contraception, health care, and they love to talk about equal pay.” Conservative pundit Phyllis Schlafly went so far as to claim in 2012 that President Obama was working to keep women unmarried by giving away so many social services to them. “President Obama is simply trying to promote more dependency on government handouts because he knows that is his constituency, ” Schlafly said.

The notion that what the powerful, growing population of unmarried American women needs from the government is a husband (or a gynecologist, as was the case with one horrifying 2013 Koch-funded anti-Obamacare ad that featured a grotesque Uncle Sam popping up leeringly from a pelvic exam) is of course problematic. It reduces all relationships women have to marital, sexual, hetero ones and suggests that they are, by nature, dependent beings, in search of someone—if not a ­husband then an elected official or a set of public policies — to support or care for them.

Whether or not single women are looking for government to create a “hubby state” for them, what is certainly true is that their (white) male counterparts have long enjoyed the fruits of a related “wifey state,” in which the government has supported (white) male independence in a variety of ways. It’s hard for us to recognize this, since it has been the norm for so long — and here, it’s useful to recall Elizabeth Warren’s stirring “You didn’t build that” speech, in which she pointed out that “there is nobody in this country who got rich on his own — nobody.”

Men, especially married wealthy white men, have for generations relied on government assistance. It’s the government that has historically supported white men’s home and business ownership through grants, loans, incentives, and tax breaks. It has allowed them to accrue wealth and offered them shortcuts and bonuses for passing it down to their children. Government established white men’s right to vote, and thus exert control over the government, at the nation’s founding and has protected their enfranchisement since. It has also bolstered the economic and professional prospects of men by depressing the economic prospects of women. In other words, by failing to offer women equivalent economic and civic protections, thus helping to create conditions whereby they were forced to be dependent on those men, the government established a gendered class of laborers who took low-paying or unpaid jobs doing the domestic and child-care work that further enabled men to dominate public spheres. Our civic institutions both reinforce and ­determine these historic assumptions: ­Consider that school days end in the mid-afternoon and let out for protracted summer vacations. Who is meant to care for those children if we do not subsidize child care? Women. Women who our institutions presume do not have jobs that extend till five, till six, or into overnight double shifts. Women the nation still assumes to be ­married, even though they are not and even though ­marriage itself continues — contra the ­conservative dogma that it is a cure for ­poverty — to hobble women’s chances at equality in lingering ways. 

This is why the expansion of the population of unmarried women across classes signals a social and political rupture as profound as the invention of birth control, as the sexual revolution, as the abolition of slavery, as women’s suffrage, and as the women’s-rights, civil-rights, gay-rights, and labor movements that made this reordering of society possible. By their very growing presence, single women are asking for a new deal from their government. The Democratic platform, suddenly more liberal than it has been in a generation, is more liberal largely in response to this new segment of the American population.

Raising the minimum wage? Two-thirds of minimum-wage workers are women. Forty percent of working single mothers would benefit directly from an increase in the minimum wage, according to the National Women’s Law Center. Paid family leave, a third-rail issue for decades, now back in conversation? Well, it would benefit all families, but especially struggling single mothers; so would the government-­subsidized early-education programs touted by both Clinton and Sanders. Paid-sick-day legislation is fundamental to a world in which women are primary earners and no one is home to care for sick children or elderly family members. Promises of free college and lowered student debt likely appeal to the women who now outnumber men on ­college campuses.

The Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal funds for those women seeking abortion, has gone largely un­challenged by mainstream Democrats for decades. But in Congress, California representative Barbara Lee has proposed a bill that would reverse it, and Hillary ­Clinton recently became the first mainstream Democratic presidential candidate in history to campaign vocally for its reversal on the grounds that it is a restriction that ­disproportionately limits the ability of poor women of color to exercise their reproductive rights and make decisions about whether and when to have children.

Even criminal-justice reform and jobs programs intersect with changed ­marriage patterns in the U.S., since low-income men of color are far more likely to be unemployed or incarcerated than their white peers, which makes it difficult for them to provide stability as marital partners.

In the context of the presidential primary, it’s Sanders who has become emblematic of the leftward inclinations of a changing party and especially its younger members. But the movement that has undergirded much of what we now perceive on the presidential stage as a leftward lurch has been building for more than a decade. “If you were to take a step back and look at what’s going on in American social and labor policy over the past decade where we’ve actually moved forward and made on-the-ground wins, it’s with stuff that addresses changing marriage patterns and attendant work-life conflicts,” says Heather Boushey, chief economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, and author of Finding Time: The Economics of Work-Life Conflict. But what’s stunning, she adds, is how little we talk about unmarried women as the driving force behind these changes.

Boushey, who has advised Clinton, points to California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island, states that now mandate paid family leave for (nearly) every citizen, legislation that could soon pass in New York State and that Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is pushing federally as the FAMILY Act. She also notes significant progress at the city level on paid-sick-day programs, universal pre-K, and anti-caregiver-discrimination policies. “What this community of ­advocates has achieved is remarkable,” says Boushey of those activists and politicians — including Gillibrand, Rosa DeLauro, ­Warren, Nancy Pelosi, Patty Murray, Clinton — who’ve been pressing these issues for more than a decade. “But the reason they’re able to do it is that they address what’s really going on in America: a change in families and in women’s labor participation. The activists fighting for those women are leading. Sanders is following them.”

To some feminists, there is bitter irony in the fact that Sanders, a 74-year-old white man from Vermont who has committed himself for decades to fighting economic inequality but who has not put himself at the center of fights for things like paid sick days or family leave, has become the symbol of a move toward a social-democratic model of government that would better serve America’s independent women. That unmarried women are not rallying around Clinton, who not so long ago was one of the most visible symbols of threateningly powerful womanhood in America and who has devoted a significant chunk of her career to issues of early-childhood education and health-care reform, is somewhat baffling. But remember, this is not a symbolically motivated movement. Single women may not be looking for a feminist hero; they may just want their affordable college, higher wages, and paid sick days. A January poll released by National Partnership for Women & Families revealed that 68 percent of unmarried women (compared with 52 percent of all likely voters) believed an elected official who supported new paid-leave laws would be more likely to understand their needs. While Clinton and Sanders both support this legislation, and Clinton has talked about it more often, those who have voted so far have heard Bernie making more robustly progressive economic promises. And they seem to believe him more.

The apparent lack of trust in Clinton reflects that there is perhaps no politician who has suffered more for having been a wife. Yes, by many measures, Clinton’s role as First Lady launched her political career. But could there be any grimmer emblem of the tolls of the traditional marriage than the fact that Hillary is now picking up the tab for a decade of her party’s policies during which she was not an elected official but a spouse? The 1990s, after all, was the decade in which women began altering marriage patterns dramatically, threateningly. (Remember Dan Quayle berating Murphy Brown?) So much of the compromised legislation enacted in that period was overdetermined by anxieties about changing gender roles, including the odious reform of welfare, which on the one hand treated all women as workers yet failed to provide them with support and sent many of them deeper into poverty. And then there was the 1994 omnibus crime bill, which, as Michelle Alexander wrote in The New Jim Crow, worked to create a criminal-justice system that relegates black men “to a permanent undercaste.” The blame for the fates of black men has also long been laid at the feet of single mothers, whom politicians from Daniel Patrick Moynihan to Mitt Romney to Jeb Bush have singled out as having upended the American family, creating social chaos and lawlessness. Yet the men who wrote, signed, and voted for this legislation — Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry, Joe Biden, even Sanders, who voted for the crime bill — have not been made to pay for it politically. The ­person who is currently being asked to answer for it all is the woman who spent those years as a (too) supportive wife, who spoke volubly and troublingly in defense of her husband’s legislation, but played no ­official role in enacting it.

Beyond Clinton, there is another generation of women politicians whose own lives have played out along new models. There’s Gillibrand, married in her mid-30s, who sat through a 13-hour Armed Services Committee hearing hours before delivering her son at age 41; Donna Edwards, a single mother currently running for the Senate in Maryland; Kamala Harris, married for the first time at 49 and running to fill Barbara Boxer’s Senate seat in California; Lucy Flores, running for the House in Nevada, single at 36 and open about the abortion she had as a teenager; Nanette Barragán, running for Congress in California, single; Zephyr Teachout, running for Congress in New York, single; two of EMILY’s List’s rising political stars, Georgia legislator Stacey Abrams, single, and Boston city councilwoman Ayanna Pressley, married at age 40. It doesn’t necessarily take a woman to push legislation that benefits single women, but these women, by sheer dint of personal experience, will have a better perspective on the new approaches to social policy that this new population of women requires.

Whether Sanders or Clinton is the Democratic nominee this year, single women are likely to overwhelmingly vote for either one of them over any Republican candidate, according to pollsters. Republicans have made wan attempts to appeal to unmarried women — remember the gubernatorial “Say Yes to the Candidate” ads that featured young voters engaging in electoral choices as if they were on a reality-show wedding-dress-shopping spree? But they have mostly retreated to shaming and attempting to punish single women, as when Rand Paul suggested in 2014 capping welfare benefits for women who have children out of wedlock, or Rush Limbaugh referred to unmarried law student Sandra Fluke as a “slut” and a “prostitute” after her testimony in support of mandating birth-control coverage.

But how much of an impact single women will have on this election and on public policy in the years to come depends, in large part, on whether they begin to recognize their growing political power. Part of this is simply a matter of getting out the vote. According to Page Gardner, in 2016, “for the first time in history, a majority of women voters are projected to be unmarried,” but going into the previous presidential-election season, nearly 40 percent of them had not registered to vote. This is partly because of the very obstacles that single women need social policy to account for: Many are low-earning single parents with erratic schedules, low wages, few child-care options, and no time to wait in lines at polling places where conservative lawmakers have made voting difficult and time consuming.

There is also the question of whether this vastly disparate group that runs the gamut of race and class and has largely defied the pull of identity politics can be unified and politically activated around its remarkably common needs. The independent woman, both high earning and low earning, looks into her future and sees decades, or even a lifetime, lived outside marriage, in which she will be responsible for both earning wages and doing her own domestic labor. This is the new social compact that she requires: stronger equal-pay protections that guarantee women’s labor will not be discounted because of leftover assumptions that they are likely to be supported by husbands; a higher federally mandated minimum wage, which would help to alleviate the burdens of poverty on America’s hardest and least-well-remunerated workers; a national health-care system that covers reproductive intervention, so that those who want to terminate pregnancies or have babies on their own or wait until they are older to do so are able to avail themselves of the best medical technologies; more affordable housing for single people, perhaps subsidized and with attendant tax breaks for single dwellers who choose to live in smaller, environmentally friendly spaces; criminal-justice reforms that address and correct the injustices of our contemporary carceral state; government-subsidized day-care programs; federally mandated paid family leave for both women and men who have new children or who need to take time off to care for ailing family members; universal paid-sick-day compensation, regardless of gender, circumstance, or profession; increases rather than continual decreases in welfare benefits; reduced college costs and quality early-education programs. Come to think of it, these policies would benefit lots of people who are not single women as well.

None of this is easy, or likely to happen quickly, especially not with a Republican-led Congress. But it is the beginning of a new kind of relationship between American women and their government. Single women are taking up space in a world that was not designed for them. They make up a new republic, a new category of citizen. If the country is to flourish, we must make room for free women, and let go of the economic and social systems built around the presumption that no woman really counts unless she is married.        

Adapted from All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, by Rebecca Traister, to be published by Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright © 2016 by Rebecca Traister.

*This article appears in the February 22, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.

This article has been updated to clarify that around 20 percent of Americans ages 18–29 are wed, not 20 percent of all Americans under 29.

By the time I walked down the aisle — or rather, into a judge’s chambers — in 2010, at the age of 35, I had lived 14 independent, early-adult years that my mother had spent married. I had made friends and fallen out with friends, had moved in and out of apartments, had been hired, fired, promoted, and quit. I had had roommates and I had lived on my own; I’d been on several forms of birth control and navigated a few serious medical questions; I’d paid my own bills and failed to pay my own bills; I’d fallen in love and fallen out of love and spent five consecutive years with nary a fling. I’d learned my way around new neighborhoods, felt scared and felt completely at home; I’d been heartbroken, afraid, jubilant, and bored.