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“Women Without Men”: The Pros and Cons of a “Man-Free Life”

Writing about gender roles of the 1950s, Betty Friedan once defined the “suburban housewife” as “the dream image of the young American woman.” Just as prescriptive literature of the 19th century geared to the middling classes emphasized women’s “true” place in society as mother and wife, the 1950s saw an ideal perpetuated in books, magazines, movies, television, songs, and ads that depicted the white, middle-class woman fulfilled only by a happy marriage. The following article from a popular magazine of 1960 offered a sociological survey of the more than one-third of adult American women whose lives did not fit this domestic norm. Based on interviews with single, divorced, and widowed women, and a host of “experts”, the author detailed the “frenzied” mating efforts of women who tried, but failed, to marry as well as the adverse psychological effects of being single. Despite the evidence presented that unmarried women could be happy—sometimes even happier than their married counterparts—the article’s rhetorical emphasis on “frantic hordes of unwed women” relentlessly searching for husbands perpetrated a stereotypical depiction at odds with some of the statistics and testimonies quoted.

Women Without Men

About 41,500,000 of the adult women in the United States are married. But 21,327,000 others are women without men: women who have never married (11,822,000); widows (8,047,000) and divorcees (1,458,000).

This means that a little more than one third of the 62,827,000 women in the United States are getting along without steady male companionship. How do they adjust to this fact of life? How do they like their manless lot? What do they do about changing it? Do they want to change it?

To find the answers to these questions, I have interviewed scores of widows, divorced women, bachelor girls, men, gynecologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, managers of women’s hotels, executives of women’s organizations and Government statisticians.

Here are a few conclusions that emerge from these interviews:

1. Despite the assumption by many males that women cease looking for sex, men and marriage after the age of 50, the fact is that, as one gynecologist put it, “they remain interested in all these things until cremation.”

2. Many unattached women of “nice” background are as much drawn to sexual relations with men as married women are, or perhaps more so; relentlessly, they go about most of their lives trying to find sexual fulfillment.

3. Although it is a world-wide and historic conviction that every woman wants to be married, a great many do not want marriage. Consciously or unconsciously, many of them spend a lifetime resisting it.

4. Today, one out of every ten families in the United States is headed by a woman. Many of these women were forced into this role by the death of their husbands or by divorce, while others are the sole support of elderly parents.

5. Hundreds of thousands of young women who have left their homes and moved to the big city in search of work and a husband have found only the work.

What complicates the problems of the more than 21,000,000 women without men is that they outnumber their unattached male counterparts by 3,696,000. (There are 14,331,000 adult bachelors in the United States; 2,272,000 widowers; 1,028,000 divorced men.) Furthermore, if the ladies do not get to the altar at an early age, they are likely to get stranded. Nowadays, 70 per cent of all American women marry before they are 24 years old. From then on, it’s a downhill slide. By the time a woman is 30, there is about one chance in two she will ever get married and at 40, only one chance in five. By the time she is 50, the chances she will marry are just one in 16, and after 60, her chances drop to one in 62.

Undaunted by the statistics, most American women without men make repeated (if sporadic) attempts in the direction of marrying throughout their lifetimes—often in ways that would have scandalized the proper Victorians.

Almost to a woman, those I interviewed said the same thing: “I have only one problem. I would like to be married, but I find it impossible to meet eligible men no matter how I try—and nobody can say I don’t try.”

How the man hunt is conducted
This wail came alike from the throats of divorced, widowed and single women of all ages, regardless of whether they worked in the community in which they grew up (more than 50 per cent do) or whether they had taken a job halfway across the country from their childhood homes.

Since the end of World War II, well over twenty million Americans have moved from their home states to settle elsewhere, and this mass migration included untold thousands of manless women—mainly to California, Texas, Florida, Michigan, New York and Ohio. But whether these women are newcomers or “natives,” and regardless of age or income, they operate with the same husband-hunting techniques.

They reason that first they must locate a male. Even if they are among the special glitter-group of the very rich, the hunt remains the same, essentially, except that it is often conducted in these postwar years against a background of Paris or Rome. “But,” cries a beautiful 32-year-old divorcee, “I’ve been abroad for two years now, and what do I meet? Old bachelors living smugly on their little incomes, or young bachelors who want to live smugly on my big income. I feel strange and alien here; I think I’ll go home and find an American husband again. But where shall I go?”

More typical is the complaint of a pretty 25-year-old secretary who moved to New York City a year ago: “There’s nothing I haven’t done to meet men since I came here. Why, for the first six months, I had 35 different jobs because I deliberately worked for a temporary employment agency. But most of the men I met in offices didn’t want to mix business and pleasure. I’ve met a few men ice-skating, but some evenings I get so lonely my judgment gets off-base; then I go dancing at a public dance hall. How can you meet a man there and be sure of his background?”

Many women join political clubs. (The head of one of New York’s local Democratic clubs says, “They go from club to club to meet men; we call them Carpetbagging Liberals.”) Others go to evening classes at universities, taking courses in such subjects as “How to Sail a Boat,” with the hope that it will attract men. Some of them join a number of churches in succession, interested less in finding God than in finding a husband. Spasmodically, they go in for sports, becoming members of ski clubs, riding clubs, golf clubs. They save their money for cruises—often discovering, once the ship is at sea, that they are trapped with dozens of other unattached women like themselves. One 45-year-old widow mourns, “This winter I went on a 14-day cruise to the West Indies. Whom did I meet? Eighty single women, and only ten men—one of them 17, another 70.” ...

Some single women—and of course many married women—recognize their problems and realize that they need professional help to solve them. An estimated 50,000 to 75,000 women currently get private psychiatric help in the United States. In general, the married women are dissatisfied with their marriages. “The problems of the single, divorced and widowed women are more difficult,” an experienced psychiatrist says. “But probably a common denominator in this group is that they feel they are not getting much out of life—not accomplishing as much as they are capable of. This holds for their jobs, studies, social activities, any area of their lives—a general dissatisfaction applies to all of them.” He adds, “In the younger age group, the dominating symptom among the unmarried is likely to be anxiety; in later years, it’s depression.”

However depressed they may be, most of them continue the frenzied man hunt. ...

One possible sex problem which turns out to be minor among our millions of unattached women is Lesbianism. According to Kinsey, only 13 per cent of all women, married or single, have had an all-out homosexual experience. Among males, the figure is 37 per cent.

Many widows, divorcees and single women have succeeded despite all obstacles in either finding a man—or in learning to live without one. In the search, many women have come up with a geographical solution. They have gone to the states with a high percentage of available males. There are 24 states where the men still outnumber the women: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming. ...

She enjoys “a life of my own.”

But many others have recognized the truth—that they enjoy a man-free life—and are the happier for the recognition. Says a handsome 47-year-old divorcee, “I was married for 23 years, and I’ve been divorced for five—and having my freedom has opened up a new door in life for me. During my married life, I was told I wasn’t able to do a lot of things for myself, like drive a car; I was so timid I believed what I was told. But since my divorce, I’ve taken driving lessons and bought a car; I’ve taken my first job in 18 years; I’m a new and confident person with a life of my own. While I’d like to date men, I don’t think I ever want to marry again.” ...

The decision to accept the fact of living without a man can make an enormous difference. Occasionally a manless woman has the foresight to take fresh stock of herself just because she is manless. She decides to quit marking time in a job of little interest and to find—or invent—work that will absorb her. Often such thinking has led to fascinating, self-fulfilling careers. ...

Some of them find many interests. Thousands of single women do more things, are truly conversant with more subjects and pursue their hobbies with greater concentration than married women of the same age and educational background.

A number of doctors and psychiatrists told me, “In my experience, I have found my unmarried women patients to be happier than many married ones.” A woman psychologist added, "Getting along on her own, either in marriage or outside of it, is what really matters—for each person must be a self-sufficient individual to be happy.

It would do no harm if our frantic hordes of unwed women would think over those statements. Perhaps several million of them would stop their headlong hunt and finally settle down for a well-earned rest.

Source: Eleanor Harris, “Women Without Men,” Look, 5 July 1960, 43–46.