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.
For more information on our “Single in America” study:
- “Everything You Think You Know About Singles is Wrong” by Match.com
- “The Forgotten Sex: Men” by Dr. Helen Fisher
- “Why Monogamy Matters” by Dr. Justin R. Garcia
- “Can Love Last?” by Dr. Bianca Acevedo
- “What does the Match.com 2011 Survey tell us about Singles and Money?” by Dr. Jonathan Rich
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