Savoring the Single Life

New Attitudes

When Marcelle Clements set out to write a book on single women eight years ago, people thought the topic was sad. Single women "end up" that way because they didn't have a choice - they couldn't "find" a husband.

But as she interviewed more than 100 single American women, ages 20 to 94, and asked them to reflect on their lives, a new attitude emerged.

The social stigma is eroding and a cultural force is emerging.

"Being single may not be their first choice, but it is the best choice," explains Ms. Clements during a phone interview.

In her new book, "The Improvised Woman: Single Women Reinventing Single Life" (W.W. Norton & Co., $26.95), Clements describes an outlook where women consider independence "at least as desirable as, and in some cases more important than, a successful marriage."

The observation is buttressed by demographics. In 1970, only 1 in 6 Americans over 18 had never been married. By 1996, nearly one-quarter had never been married.

Two main factors come into play, says Clements, herself a single parent living in New York. The first is money (women's earning power) and the second is that many women would rather be alone than in an unhappy relationship.

At a time when TV's Ally McBeal and the fictional Bridget Jones are wondering if they'll ever find Mr. Right, Clements's book is testimony to the real ideas and ideals found in the lives of single women. The view of single women in pop culture is rather "exasperating," she says, because "that is still the default image. Still pathetic, obsessed, and desperate."

To be fair, some single women have good self-images, others have internalized the stigma. But a lot of women feel both, says Clements. They're conflicted: proud about their accomplishments but fearful about the future and being lonely.

There are different choices now, she continues. Women's ideal - how they imagine themselves - has changed. No longer does romance have to be exclusively limited to getting married, she notes. There's a lot of romance around being independent.

She cites one particularly telling study, a CBS-New York Times poll of teenagers that received front-page coverage. The poll found that 73 percent of the girls said they could be happy without being married, while only 61 percent of the boys said they could have a happy life if they didn't get married.

To some extent these views are shaped by a society of high divorce and low remarriage rates, and longer life spans.

"This area is tricky," Clements says, explaining that she was careful not to seem as if she was putting down marriage or suggest that being single is better.

"Even the word is slippery," she writes, "and very few women actually think of themselves as 'single' except when filling out forms. They'll say 'I live alone" or "I'm raising children on my own.' "

Her wish is to not convince anyone of anything, but rather persuade readers to consider reshuffling their conclusions.

The most important change is the nature of the discussion, she says. It used to be that there were two groups: the kind of women who would marry, and those who didn't. There was no way of being unmarried and fully being a woman.

Now the line between being married or being single is separated by a permeable membrane - and "increasingly many women do not exclude the possibility of passing from one state to the other," says Clements.

One surprise, says Clements, is that single and married women often look at "the other" with both envy and pity.

"It reflects an enormous amount of confusion on both sides," says Clements. To single women, married life may look cozy, warm, supportive, intimate, and safe. Married women, even those with great relationships, may still hanker after adventure and solitude or they want some relief from family life.

Clements is quick to disqualify her book as self-help. "It's about ideas," she says, concluding, "What's really interesting is the improvisation."

Single In America

* For every 3 married women, there are 2 single women.

* The adult unmarried population in the US has doubled, from 38 million to 77 million between 1970 and 1996.

* In 1970, 16 percent of adult women were never married. By 1996, 23 percent were never married.

* Since 1970, the number of women living alone has doubled (to 14.6 million); the number of men living alone has tripled (to 10.3 million).

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