What’s the difference between single and unmarried?

May 20, 2010 | NeW Staff

In an interesting New York Times op-ed this week, Maureen Dowd asks the question, “How do women go from single to unmarried?” as she discusses the differences between the two terms. Dowd writes,

“Single carries a connotation of eligibility and possibility, while unmarried has that dreaded over-the-hill, out-of-luck, you-are-finished, no-chance implication. An aroma of mothballs and perpetual aunt.”

Ouch. “Mothballs and perpetual aunt.” Not exactly the kind of words that any woman wants to be characterized by. 

Dowd argues that the different connotations of these two words are at play in the news surrounding Supreme Court Nominee, Elana Kagan.  Dowd writes,

“White House officials were so eager to squash any speculation that Elena Kagan was gay that they have ended up in a pre-feminist fugue, going with sad unmarried rather than fun single, spinning that she’s a spinster.”

According to Dowd, the White House is doing more harm than good in painting Kagan as “lonely and unmarried” as opposed to “single and fun.”  

Her discussion on the issue got me thinking.  Why so often today does our society paint marriage at a young age as burdensome, oppressive, and a dead-end, while at the same time characterizing “unmarried” women at the age of 40 as old, alone, and frumpy?  Who decides when a woman reaches the optimum marriage age and when she is past her prime?  In my opinion, this quick shift in thinking does more harm than good for women. 

As Dowd points out, cultural influences tell us that at a certain point we have to be married in order not to be labeled as a “perpetual aunt.”  And yet, at the same time, women are told not to look for a husband until they’ve reached the pinnacle of their careers.  It may just take too long for a woman to do become a senior executive before being labeled “unmarried.”   Is this what the women’s movement was intended to do?  Its goal was to give women choice to pursue the things in life they find most fulfilling and when they find them most fulfilling.  Is this the message women receive today?
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