Singles are suspect to those who divide the world by twos

ALICE STEINBACH

February 18, 1993|By ALICE STEINBACH

To the list of such "isms" as racism, sexism and ageism, let us now add another: Call it singleism.

Which is to say: bias against those who never marry in a society that considers marriage the "norm."

Divorced people do not fit into this category since, even though they have "failed" at marriage, they still have done the "normal" thing.

Young bachelors and bachelorettes do not fit into this category because it is presumed that once having sown their wild oats they will marry and settle down.

Even those singles who shun marriage but live together are not the target of singleism, since they qualify in some ways as a couple.

So just who is the target of the singleism bias? Well, a woman like 54-year-old Attorney General-designate Janet Reno, for one. And a man like 53-year-old Supreme Court Justice David Souter, for another.

In other words, mature men and women who have chosen, for whatever reason, to remain unmarried.

It's a subtle "ism," to be sure. Not as clearly articulated as racism or sexism, singleism usually surfaces when some event propels it into our consciousness. For proof of this theory we need look no further than the two examples cited above.

Let us begin with Janet Reno, who was Bill Clinton's third first choice for attorney general. Or as one headline described her, "The spinster who came to bury Nannygate."

Yes, it's true that she didn't have the Zoe Baird problem. Or the backlash from the Zoe Baird problem that knocked out Kimba Wood. That Janet Reno is single and childless undoubtedly worked in her favor.

Until something else kicked in. Something that had to do with Reno's single status.

First, there were the endless descriptions of Reno as an eccentric, single woman who lived alone in a house built by her mother. "A canoe-paddling, barefoot-stomping nature lover . . . who refuses discounts on pizzas and automobiles," wrote one reporter of Reno.

Meanwhile, Florida reporters were busy rounding up friends of Reno's who "confirmed" that the nominee "dates men but hasn't found anyone she wanted to marry."

Then National Public Radio answered the unasked-but-in-the-air question: "According to administration sources, the White House satisfied itself that Reno was not gay before going ahead with the nomination," reported "Morning Edition."

Finally, when Reno's longtime political opponent, Florida attorney Jack Thompson, suggested Reno was a "closet lesbian" and morally unfit to be attorney general, the nominee herself shut down the issue, saying: "Mr. Thompson always worries about my sexual preference. But the fact is, I'm just a very awkward old maid with a great affection for men."

Now let's back-pedal a few years -- back to David Souter's appointment to the Supreme Court.

Souter's unmarried status received the same kind of attention as Reno's. Portrayed as an eccentric who lived alone, some even questioned whether such a man -- one who had never experienced marriage or parenthood -- was capable of understanding some of the important family issues that wind up being decided by the Supreme Court.

And, of course, questions about Souter's sexual orientation were raised. The innuendoes were shot down when several women came forth to announce they were former girlfriends of Souter's.

Of course, Janet Reno and David Souter represent the high end of the never-married group. Even at the low end -- which is to say people who are not famous or running for office -- singleism exists.

The bottom line is: We seem to think there is something wrong with the man or woman who has never married. Why aren't they married? What's the reason? Too selfish? Too repressed? Too unattractive? Too immature? A misfit? Gay?

Why, I wonder, don't we think, "This is a strong individual who has chosen the life he or she wants to live."

But the sad truth is that even Janet Reno's description of herself as "an awkward old maid" buys into the myth of the never-married eccentric. That's how deep singleism goes.

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