This month the United States celebrates the achievements of women in American history. March 8, International Women’s Day, celebrates women all across the globe. Often missed in some of the great achievements of women in history is that many of the accomplishments were multi-tiered efforts. Women of color were often not included in major women’s movements and would have to fight longer and harder to get the same access as their white counterparts. As American society slowly grew more comfortable with women voting or working outside of the home, the acceptance of women who shunned either of these roles lagged behind.
The achievement of rights for women who have chosen to remain single has been a somewhat quiet revolution that has been fought in the home, the voting booths and the courts.
In 1960, the first oral contraceptive was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration. The result of more than a decade of efforts by activists, most notably Margaret Sanger, who is credited with coining the term birth control, it didn’t become widely used until a decision by the Supreme Court. In 1965, Griswold v. Connecticut, deemed that the use of birth control was a constitutional right of privacy – for married couples. Women could only get birth control with the permission of their husbands. The majority of states still had laws on the book which banned unmarried women from legally obtaining birth control. It wasn’t until another Supreme Court case in 1972, Baird v. Eisenstadt, that birth control was legal for all citizens – regardless of marital status.
At this time, the women’s rights movement was taking root, birth control had become legal and the journey to Roe v Wade had begun. It is no coincidence that this time period saw a greater number of divorces. However, the effort to become single for many women was not an easy path. To dissolve a marriage in the United States required proof of wrongdoing on the part of the spouse. An accusation of things like abuse or mental cruelty would be needed, and was often fabricated, in order to dissolve a marriage. In 1969, then Governor Ronald Reagan signed the nation’s first no-fault divorce bill. Over the next 15 years, virtually every state in the union would pass laws that would allow the dissolution of marriage without cause (New York would be the lone holdout until 2010).
Women could now be single after marriage.
These newly single women, as well as the never married, began to enter the workforce more and began setting up their own households. However, it was still legal to discriminate on the basis of familial status and gender. Women with children could be denied a place to live and single women would be denied a loan to purchase a home, even if they qualified for a loan. Many would have to get a male relative to co-sign the lease or loan papers. In 1974, the Fair Housing Act, which prohibited lending discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin, was amended to include gender. However, it wasn’t until 1988 that familial status was added and stopped discrimination against those who had children.
In the decades since, single women have outpaced men as homebuyers.
Today, it is estimated that there are 55 million unmarried women of voting age in the United States. While the ranks include divorced and widowed women, the 2012 census noted that 62 percent of single people had never been married. In spite of various groups pushing the idea that marriage is “better,” many women are choosing to remain single for longer, if not forever.
Many of them are choosing to become mothers.
Single motherhood by choice, made famous by many in Hollywood, has been happening since the late 1970s. Advances in reproductive technology and an increase in societal acceptance has seen the numbers of women pursuing motherhood without a partner increase dramatically. In the 2011 census, more than 65 percent of all births to women aged 35 – 50 were to unmarried women. This outpaced the overall average of more than half of all births born outside of marriage. While this number undoubtedly includes women who are in a relationship but remain unmarried, a large portion of them are women who have chosen to be mothers on their own.
Perhaps it might be time to realize that single women are not a statistic — they are a demographic.