Today is Thursday, May 23, 2013.
I have a number of girlfriends in their fifth and sixth decade of life who are, for one reason or another, flying solo. Only a few have never been married. A growing number of them are widows, while a majority of the solo set are moving on from divorces in various stages of messiness, anywhere from amicable to all-out war. Among the divorced are those who left and those who were left behind. Each of my friends who has made the change from married to single has had to pick up the pieces of her life and move on.
In my mother’s generation, many women had gotten married with the idea that they were going to be wives and mothers for the rest of their lives. Among those who worked outside the home, a majority were happy to give up dead-end jobs such as waitress, cashier, secretary or receptionist, and the like. A few gave up a promising career in favor of the domestic life. Those whose marriages crumbled were most generally not the initiator of the divorce. A lot of husbands in that generation complained that their wives had stagnated, that they were no longer interested in the outside world or interesting to be around. That may actually have been true in some cases, but you may also recall, if you lived during the 40s, 50s and 60s that women were not encouraged to “find themselves” or “explore their inner child” until the very late 60s.
One friend of mine who – if she is still with us – would be in her 90s, told me that she married in the late 40s. Ellen (not her real name) was proud of the fact that she went to college, but her major was “home economics,” in preparation for the marriage that she assumed would follow, and follow it did. She raised three boys and made a home for her husband, even finding time for some low-key political activities and an active presence in her local church. When her husband killed himself in their backyard because he was clinically depressed, due to an unfortunate interaction of blood-pressure and heart medications, she was cast adrift into the world of singles. She began to pay a lot more attention to me after her husband died, because I was suddenly her role model. She would call me up for advice on “cooking for one” or how to go about fixing something around the house. Ellen told me that her married friends were no longer interested in socializing with her, because she was a “fifth wheel” that they didn’t know what to do with. Some of them actually told her that they were afraid she might steal their husbands. (“I don’t want her old fart of a husband,” she would complain. “I just want Al back.”) Those married girlfriends who did continue to socialize with her would now do so only when their husbands were busy with something else, and I realized that Ellen was having to learn a lesson I’d learned a while back – that once you are married, you enter the exclusive social world of couples, and your female friends who are still single have to take a backseat to the married ones.
The women in my mom’s generation fought legal battles for alimony and child-support payments. Those who lost out had to scramble to find any job at all, having left the job market – if they had ever entered it – with no skills to speak of. A lot of these women had to endure a huge lifestyle change. The more their ex-husbands made, the bigger the fall once they were on their own, even if their “ex” made support payments as agreed. Many of these women also found that alimony and child support were just another way for their husbands to exert control over them or humiliate them. Their daughters, the women of my generation, saw these things happening and decided that something had to change.
Things have changed, slowly, but it’s been a long, hard fight for many women. Those who raised consciousness about women’s issues in the early days were verbally maligned and some of them were physically beaten, as well. When I was in college in the early 70s, it was still de rigueur to call young women in the “Feminist Movement” cows or worse. Many young women felt that they couldn’t be seen supporting the feminists if they wanted to get a husband – and getting a husband was still the main goal of the vast majority of women, whether they wanted to pursue a career or not. In fact, some girls still went to college just to find a boyfriend who might have a chance of supporting them in a certain style. They were said to be getting their “MRS Degree.”
It’s much easier for women to live on their own, now, because for one thing, having a career is no longer totally frowned upon, whether the woman opts to marry or stay single. A wife who can bring home serious money is an asset in economic times like the present. These days, career women can support themselves pretty well, thank you very much. There are still women, though, who seem to think that having a husband is an economic necessity.
A friend of mine who has been the divorce route a couple of times decided, very wisely, to learn therapeutic massage and esthetics. She found work in a very upscale spa and her monthly rent is more than my gross income for the month, before taxes. She deserves every cent she makes, though, and I applaud her for getting to the point where she does not have to depend on a man to live the life she wants.
Today was her day off, and she decided to go for a walk in a nearby park with her little dog. She encountered a neighbor lady along the walking path, and the conversation went something like this.
MY FRIEND: Good morning! Beautiful day!
NEIGHBOR LADY: Good morning! wish I could stay here all day!
MY FRIEND: Me too, it’s my day off!
NEIGHBOR LADY: Is your husband working?
MY FRIEND: I don’t have one,
NEIGHBOR LADY: Oh, my God, how can you afford to live here?
MY FRIEND: (Thinking, “Do I slap her now or after I answer?”) Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!
My friend smiled and continued on her way, framing an answer in her head to her neighbor. “…because I work my sweet ass off, that’s how! No, I don’t have a husband, and no, I don’t have a sugar daddy! I work very hard. I’m self-made. I’m self-sustained and extremely happy to be able to live here and enjoy all of life’s luxuries, paid for by my hard work. How ignorant of you to assume that women aren’t capable of supporting themselves at this level! And now, I’m off to enjoy my beautiful life! Maybe YOU need a husband to pay your bills and give you a better life, but NOT this girl!”
I want to clarify, here, that I’m not against men or against marriage, and neither is my girlfriend. What we are against is the attitude that women cannot support themselves at any level they desire. Sure, it takes hard work. I’ve heard successful women say that women still have to work twice as hard as men to achieve the same lifestyle, and with unequal pay for women and glass ceilings at the upper levels, I’m sure that’s true. But it can be done. Although I don’t make that much in retirement, I did pretty well for myself while I was working, and the vast majority of my single friends have done the same.
Hopefully, one day our daughters and granddaughters will reap the benefit of a change in society’s attitude about single women supporting themselves. Meanwhile, change is very slow in coming.