Aren’t You Glad You Weren’t Single Fifty Years Ago? By Stephanie Coontz

Vintage - Happy Folks

A half century ago, being single was a very different proposition than it is today. First of all, you were considered deviant.  As one of the leading family experts of the late 1950s put it, “Except for the sick, the badly crippled, the deformed, the emotionally warped, and the mentally defective,” almost everyone could and should wed.

In a 1957 poll, bachelors were categorized as “immature,” narcissistic,” or even “pathological.”  Single women were described by leading psychiatrists of the day as sexually warped, lacking in “the feminine instinct,” and probably suffering from a bad case of “penis envy.”

Women expressed much more anxiety about being single, even for relatively short times, than they do today. Surveys in the 1950s and early 1960s found that single women were far more likely than their married counterparts to regard marriage as the single best option for self-fulfillment and happiness. As for the few people who became single after divorce, they were typically regarded as “damaged goods.”

Second, singles were in fact extremely rare. In 1960, half of all women were married by age 20, and only 10 percent of women age 25-29 were not married.  In 1960, only 13 percent of all households were composed of just one person, typically an elder whose spouse had died. Such elders had far fewer opportunities to date or to remarry then, far less cohabit. In the population as a whole, unmarried-couples constituted less than 1 percent of all households.

Finally, it was much harder to carve out a satisfying life as a single in the 1950s and 1960s, even for those who might have liked to do so. Men who were still unmarried in their early 30s were often denied bank loans or promotions in the 1950s and early 1960s. Single women faced particular handicaps. Sex before marriage was highly stigmatized for women, and very risky. Some states prohibited the sale of contraceptives, and in many others doctors refused to prescribe them for single women.

And it was much more difficult for a woman to support herself outside marriage. As late as 1965, women seeking jobs had to turn to the “help wanted: female” columns of the newspaper, where most of the options were low-paying secretarial or “gal Friday” positions. As late as 1970, a college-educated white woman earned less, on average, than a male high school graduate, and black women earned even less than white women. No wonder  one poll found that almost 2/3 of college women (but only 5 percent of the men) said they would consider marrying someone they didn’t love if he met their other criteria, most of which revolved around financial security.

Today, by contrast, women are far less likely to put financial security ahead of love, and they express far less anxiety about the prospect of remaining unmarried if they do not find someone they love and trust. In many ways, today’s women are more cautious about investing themselves in relationships than are men. According to data from the new Single in America study, women are more likely than men to want to maintain their personal space, their own bank accounts and their own interests, including regular nights out with girlfriends and vacations on their own.

About Stephanie Coontz
Stephanie Coontz teaches history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and is Director of Research and Public Education for the Council on Contemporary Families. Professor Coontz is the author several books including A STRANGE STIRRING: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s (Basic Books, January 2011).  A former Woodrow Wilson Fellow, Coontz has also taught at Kobe University in Japan and the University of Hawaii at Hilo.

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  1. Posted February 5, 2012 at 11:02 pm | Permalink | Reply

    By today’s standards with divorce rates and such being so high, this statistic:

    “In 1960, half of all women were married by age 20, and only 10 percent of women age 25-29 were not married.”

    is almost impossible to believe!

    I wonder how many of those women we’re genuinely happy as opposed to those who married because they felt they had to keep with the status quo?

  2. Posted February 6, 2012 at 3:23 am | Permalink | Reply

    Any thoughts on how many of the half of all women which were married by age 20 in 1960 found themselves wed as they were desperately in love verses the fact that it was merely the status quo at the time? I’m sure they’ll all say now that they married because they were smitten and in love but you can’t help but wonder if some were simply following the crowd 😛

  3. Posted February 6, 2012 at 5:47 am | Permalink | Reply

    How many of those women who were married so early did so for love, do you think? I get the feeling that women then felt pressure to ‘follow the status quo,’ much more than women do these days. It’s brilliant that we have such freedom of choice in terms of our relationships in the modern era and that matchmaking doesn’t need to be a rushed process 🙂

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