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Gone are the days when single women looked for company

Study on "women alone" goes against Wave and proves that "one can be happy on one's own" and still find love

LEDA CATUNDA, "Retrato", 2002, Acrylic on canvas and voile, Courtesy of Galeria Fortes Vilaça galleryWith the suggestive title “The tragedy of spinsters” (A tragédia das solteironas), the article published in the Revista da Semana magazine, from 1937, clearly illustrates how the “topic” was perceived: “They all hate married women. They all have, to a greater or lesser degree, a certain evil streak. Many marital tragedies arise from the doings of these crooked souls, who must be forgiven for practically everything given all they have been through. Happy couples should avoid single women like the plague. It is medically known that people with certain contagious diseases have a diabolic pleasure in transmitting them to healthy people. There is a similar phenomenon in spinsters’ psychopathology.” The dramatic and old-fashioned tone may have changed but the essence of these ideas is still predominant, unfortunately. “Being single is often depicted as an essential lack, a social anomaly, and never a choice among other alternatives, made as part of a lifestyle that can be experienced positively,” explains Eliane Gonçalves, author of the doctoral thesis recently presented at Unicamp “Singular lives: ideas on ‘single women’ in contemporary Brazil,” (Vidas no singular: noções sobre “mulheres sós” no Brasil contemporâneo), produced under the guidance of Adriana Piscitelli.

After working with a group of childless women aged 29 to 53 who had been living on their own for over two years, the researcher “challenges the notion that women are alone because they are waiting for Prince Charming, or were replaced by younger models or any such reason,” stating that “it is a result of choices they made throughout their lives, such as placing their career first, to mark their place in the world.” According to Eliane, from the point of view of  family orientation, which bestows upon couples and marriage a privileged position in terms of health and happiness, “single” women are seen as lonely and unhappy, frustrated and unsatisfied, since their existence is measured and assessed in relation to the perspectives of married women or of women who have a male partner. However, according to the study, these notions are not things of the past as in the transcribed text above. “The most prominent idea that permeates social theories of populational, media and, to a lesser degree, some feminist studies, is the notion that single females ‘lack’ something, consolidated by the idea that they are lonely creatures,” she assesses.

“Demographically speaking,” she continues, “loneliness is the effect of a culturally manufactured difference and materializes as a result of the disproportion between genders and ages in the singles market”. After analyzing a series of demographic classics, including Pirâmide da solidão, i.e., “Pyramid of Loneliness” (1986), by Elza Berquó, the researcher realized “the limitations of classic categories that the populational study experts currently resort to, as they are insufficient to analyze and understand the changes Brazilian society has undergone in the last few decades.” The media, in turn, “translates and reinterprets the ideas developed in demographic academic circles or in population studies and other disciplines.” According to Eliane, the media focuses on information that has not been fully developed or that is not covered in population studies: the idea of sociability as a characteristic of a certain lifestyle of people who live alone and the expression “new single women,” a description apparently only used in these studies. “Media analyses and demographic studies go hand in hand with regard to the need for some sort of external mediation in order to find a companion or husband, in some cases making explicit suggestions on how to go about it. Both are also in sync in that they consider ‘living alone’ an expression of individualism that has increased in our days, an aspect reiterated by social science intellectuals and experts in the ‘psi’ fields.”

The figures seem to reflect the trend. According to the UN’s most recent World Fertility Report, women across the globe married at the age of 21.2 back in the 70s, on average; this figure has now risen to 23.2. In developed nations, the discrepancy is even greater: from 22 in the past to 26.1 today. In Brazil, the survey Sexo, casamento e economia [Gender, marriage and economics] conducted by the Getúlio Vargas Foundation indicated that there are about 19 million women over 20 who have no husband or companion and whose income is 62% higher than that of married women or of those who live with a partner informally; this increased the rate of “single females” from 35% to 38%. Thirty years ago, six out of every ten women were married.

The gains achieved by the feminist movements are the basis of all of this. “Several of the ideas ascribed to ‘single’ women in the different contexts remind us of some of the ideas that the feminist movement upheld. In population-based studies, in the media and according to the interviewees’ perceptions, education plus qualified paid work are the favored path for women to acquire independence and self-sufficiency,” states Eliane. This  has increased self sufficiency, she adds,  and allowed a group of educated and professional women to make their own decisions and even to challenge the classic “spinster” stereotype. However, according to Eliane, one sees the effect of the importance ascribed to marriage and family, when the act of living alone, which does not change one’s marital status, is perceived as an act of social isolation and as a weakening of the rules of alliance. Thus, observes Eliane, demographics, despite acknowledging the achievements of women, highlights “the issue of mature women over 30, depicting them as victims of the large pool of women who are at a disadvantage in competing with younger women and reinforcing the notion of the need for a mate.” It is the “pyramid of loneliness”.

The concept refers to the dwindling likelihood of older women getting married, given current social norms, according to which men seek younger partners, thus dooming older women to a life of loneliness. “To qualify the fact that a woman does not marry as a fatality, regardless of the reason, illustrates the importance ascribed to marriage as a value in and of itself. Choosing to marry involves policy strategies,” cautions the author. According to the author, Berquó herself, upon analyzing data from the 1980 census, noted that one-person homes were owned by younger, single men and older women with higher education, leading one to conclude that there is not only a discrepancy in the availability of singles to marry, but also that major cities are seeing a lifestyle shift. However, the pyramid concept gained a life of its own and is often improperly used and misunderstood, being indiscriminately employed as an explanatory panacea.

There are aggravating factors. Since reproduction, according to some demographic assumptions, is seen as a function meant to be carried out by the family, low fertility rates, perceived to be the result of the rising number of educated and professional women, are of major concern to demographers, an idea that, Eliane maintains, was embraced by the media, which transformed it into a universal value. “Although Berquó confirms that demographically speaking individuals are a unit of analysis, ‘family’ often is used as a core concept in population-based studies, making it necessary to understand how this concept is used to qualify ‘single women’ who live alone.” Whereas single men are not questioned, given that their “single” condition is assumed to be a temporary phase they have chosen, female “loneliness” is conversely and repeatedly highlighted, in the most diverse studies, based on statistical data and demographic concepts. “The ‘pyramid of loneliness’ started to be seen as an unquestionable truth, a generating matrix or explanans category, used to explain a range of phenomena, such as Brazilian machismo, the ‘loneliness’ of young women without boyfriends, elderly widows and, even, the rising vibrator sales in sex shops.”

Eliane believes that, “by generalizing conclusions based on populational studies, demographics helps make these assumptions natural and thus encourages social regulation, as in the case of intervention strategies in regard to marriage and family matters.” Additionally, according to the researcher, the recourse to maintaining a “balance within the marriage market” upheld by the demographic paradigm, whose key concern is the reproduction of the species, may be deemed to be an imposition, given that social policies reinforce the family unit and help eliminate alternative models, a trend found in both national and international studies.

“The media regards the status of being single more kindly when it is a transitory stage during which the person is investing in herself, marriage being perceived as an idealized dream. In contrast to the image of the ‘lonely single woman’, society created the stereotype of the executive, a liberal and self-sufficient figure who theoretically does not ‘suffer’ from loneliness or avoids it, by drowning herself in work or consumption.” Eliane’s studies reveal that articles on the “new single woman,” an expression widely adopted by journalists, apparently challenge the stereotype of the “spinster of the past,” offering a novel description of women that have no male in tow by using contrasting opposites. Now they are “independent,” “schooled,” “successful,” “traveled,” “toned,” “elegant,” and “socially active”. Thus, the author carries on, these “new single women” are presumably reaping the benefits of the achievements of the female and feminist revolution and their discourse adds a positive tone to “being a single woman”. However, “another aspect contradicts the positive aspects of being alone, given that it highlights the lack of a partner, despite explicitly condemning matrimony: ‘I love being independent, but I do miss not having a partner.’ These contradictory notions, which are also recurrent in population-based studies, are reinforced by the media, which emphasizes that education and income are women’s instruments of independence in the face of marriage, although they create barriers to finding a stable partner.”

The inconvenient subtext includes the “suffering” and the need to find “refuge” in work or in a mall in order to “compensate” for the choices made. “The nature of the lack is packaged as the impossibility of finding a candidate able to fulfill all the requirements of the ‘ideal man’, as identified by the ‘new single women’.” Accordingly, notes Eliane, another idea that is widely disseminated in articles in different media is that of the new single woman who is “in pursuit,” but, to a certain degree, does not care whether she finds a partner or not. This kind of woman falls into the “happy and resigned” category, a woman who dreams of finding someone, but who will not give up certain achievements just to have “any old toad” at her side. “Currently, highly educated and professionally accomplished women still suffer social pressure to marry and their independence is seen as conflicting with the ‘matrimonial market’, a recurring paradox (almost cliché) reiterated by the media and demographic studies, as well as by respondents,” states Eliane. Then how does one deal with this independence, especially, as the researcher recalls, the kind identified in “A room of one’s own”, by Virginia Woolf, a book about a woman’s concern with her own annual income and room in which to develop creatively? “The metaphor of a room or of a house of one’s own seems quite appropriate in the context of my research, because I reiterate that the experience of living alone tends to be linked to the idea of the ‘new single woman’ or the ‘independent’ and ‘modern’ woman in the corpus of the ideas analyzed,” deduces Eliane.

It is a curious paradox, coercing women to turn back, after their long struggle to reach the job market independently. “After all, though men qualify for the new figure of a free, carefree, independent individual, women, up to a few decades ago, were still seen as naturally dependent beings that lived for others. The ideology of the housewife was consolidated based on a refusal to generalize the principles of modern individualistic society. Aligned with altruism and the family community, women do not fall under the domain of society’s contractual order, but under the natural order of the family,” observes French philosopher Gilles Lipovetsky in his essay: “A third woman”. However, it is only recently that “women’s work is not a last recourse, but an individual and identity-related requirement, a prerequisite for existence, a means of self-affirmation,” states Lipovetsky. Out of this unprecedented transformation in the socialization and individualization of women, this generalization of the principle of self-government, this new economy of feminine powers, a so-called “third woman” arises. “The first was crucified and despised; the second, cajoled, idealized, placed on a throne; in both cases, subordinated to a man, created by him and defined in relation to him. The third, in turn, was created by women themselves.” Freedom, notes Eliane, “has historically been seen as a masculine prerogative. However, the freedom portrayed by my respondents is symbolized by the repetitive act of moving about freely in an arena that they control. On their own, they learn to take care of themselves.”

So if we observe the historical process, as Lipovetsky proposes, this lifestyle, which is increasingly manifest in major cities, especially in the middle class, is in turn  related to the increasing individualization that is apparently occurring in these segments, i.e., a characteristic of modern times. As Berquó states, this world, changed by the feminist struggle, would drive “independent” women to self-determination, favoring certain “choices” and investments in other individual projects, not just marriage. This dualism between “simple community life” and “modern individualism” may carry different values: the first option, surrounded by solidarity, is the opposite of the second, which is “objective,” “selfish” and “competitive” in nature. Eliane has reservations about these dichotomies. “If individualism is understood primarily as a pursuit of oneself and not as a mechanism for social atomization, self-centering or isolation, this concept is aligned with the stories told by my ‘single’ respondents,” completes the researcher. “In addition to the process of establishing their individual identity – for instance the idea of a career-focused project, which leads them to decide to live alone, initially out of need and later in order to adapt to circumstances and finally out of preference – they maintain sound amorous, sexual, friendly and family relationships.”

Nonetheless, “although it is adopted as a life style which distinguishes them socially as independent, confident and self-reliant women, living alone is not on the sidelines of a broader social life and is highlighted by other kinds of dependencies and contingencies.” It is possible to love and be alone at the same time. Living alone does not mean having no relationship with someone and Eliane is a ferocious critic of the media, which brands “single” women as bereft of love and sexual bonds. In the words of American sociologist Kay Trimberger, from the University of California, author of The new single woman, which, like Eliane’s study, is based on interviews with single women, “even if they feel they would like a steady companion, they are confident that their lives do not depend on this and that there are other life styles,” and “‘singleness’ in the future will be viewed as something more than just a gap between matrimonial relationships, and will be transformed into a way of life with many variations, yet a satisfactory way of life with its demands and rewards.”

Eliane’s studies also showed that the “single” woman does not necessarily renege maternity. After all, our compass, as Lipovetsky pointed out, is not a model of reversibility between genders, but rather a two-fold individualistic model, which rewrites the masculine/feminine difference. Thus, the Frenchman does not believe that maternity can be abolished within this new arrangement. “The exceptionally deep changes in the feminine condition will not change this constancy. As for the progressive decline of the maternal role to the benefit of professional values, nothing allows us to attest to this. The maternal role is being historically recycled, but motherhood is not being abandoned.” Moreover, the choice of living within a particular aesthetic, which enhances silence, the calculated distance, and love and friendship relationships on equal bases are a possibility accessible only to women who are highly educated, professional, and financially independent, who can move between contingencies and desires, says Eliane. “Whether the single lifestyle and the residences of a person will continue to be a trend, I don’t know, but perhaps single women are reinventing ‘loneliness’ and transforming it into ‘adventure,'” adds the researcher. Neither alone, nor in poor company.