Will single women use their power?

March 12, 2007|By Page Gardner

The recent census finding that there are about as many single women as married women nationwide has triggered a flood of speculation about the cultural fallout from this demographic shift. But now that the single woman has officially arrived, the implications are broader than cultural. This emerging majority could have significant influence over America's political future as well.

Who, exactly, is she? For starters, most unmarried women don't lead lives straight out of Sex in the City. As a whole, their reality is more accurately reflected by the sitcom Grace Under Fire, which featured a newly divorced woman struggling to support herself and three kids by working lousy, low-paying jobs. Half of unmarried women have household incomes of under $30,000. Nearly 40 percent rely on the government for their health care, and nearly 20 percent have no health insurance at all. Twenty-three percent are widowed, and slightly fewer are single moms. Whether widowed, divorced, separated or never married, these women are less likely to own their homes or cars than their married sisters.

These women are on their own in an America where it's hard to earn a decent living, raise children, afford health care and secure a nest egg for retirement. While these women are a huge constituency, until recently they haven't participated in the political process in anything approaching their numbers. Thus, their voices haven't been heard, and their needs haven't been addressed, much less answered.

That is why it is so important that single women are beginning to increase their political participation. By every indication, single women want the nation's politics to be more civil- and solution-oriented. And they want public policies to reflect the reality that most people can no longer count on the support of stable jobs, traditional nuclear families and communities that reach out to the most isolated individuals.

Why aren't our nation's leaders paying more attention? After all, there are 48 million unmarried American women - 25 percent of potential voters. Yes, they usually participate much less than married women; in 2000, unmarried women accounted for only 19 percent of voters. But things are changing. With national efforts to encourage their participation, unmarried women cast 22.4 percent of the total vote in 2004 and had a significant impact on the outcome of many races in 2006.

Increased participation by unmarried women will have a healthy effect on the political process and public policies. In surveys conducted over the past two years, unmarried women said that they're turned off by the abusive tone of much political campaigning nowadays. They said they want factual information from trustworthy sources without appeals to support specific candidates or parties. Once politicians understand that this pivotal constituency prefers issue-oriented information, not personal attacks, campaigns will become more enlightening.

Similarly, increased participation by unmarried women could forge new public policies for the new America. In the same surveys, unmarried women said they supported raising the minimum wage, expanding access to health care and health insurance, and making higher education and job training more available and affordable for young people and older workers. Single mothers place a priority on improving child care and public education. Older women are concerned with maintaining Medicare and Social Security.

Taken together, unmarried women's concerns could reshape the nation's public- and private-sector policies, which still assume that most families consist of a wage-earner, a homemaker and their children. School days that end at 3 p.m., schools that shut down for the summer, and health insurance and pension plans that assume a breadwinner providing for his wife and kids - all are decades out of date. When policymakers listen to the unmarried majority of women, they can begin to provide for an America where women and their children are trying to make it on their own.

That America isn't as comforting as Ozzie and Harriet or as glamorous as Sex in the City. But it's the land we live in, and we're honor-bound to make it better for all our people, including the unmarried majority of women.

Page Gardner is executive director of Women's Voices, Women Vote. Her e-mail is info@wvwv.org.

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