There is a powerful relationship between the population of single women and social progress

Unmarried women create strong demand for social change.
Unmarried women create strong demand for social change.
Image: Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images
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Single ladies aren’t just a catchy Beyoncé lyric, but a major driver of political change. Social and economic structures have typically been designed for married couples and so, as the number of unmarried women increases, so does the pressure to break out of these conservative constructions. Journalist Rebecca Traister explores the idea in depth in her book, All the Single Ladies, published last month. She details stories of unmarried women who had significant impact throughout history, growing acceptance of remaining single, and how unmarried women have long been a powerful political force.

The progressive impact of single women makes sense, given that marriage seems to make women more politically conservative. Kelsy Kretschmer, sociology professor at Oregon State University, says her research shows that after marriage, women tend to shift their priorities from promoting women’s collective wellbeing to that of their partner’s success.

“Their loyalty is split away from other women and they have to be concerned about their husband’s security as well,” she says in an interview. Kretschmer’s research found that single women feel 10% more connected towards other women than those who are married.

There’s no clear-cut explanation for why single women are more liberal than their married counterparts, but Monique Morrissey, economist at the Economic Policy Institute, says it makes sense that since single women are more economically vulnerable, they also tend to want a stronger social safety net. Married women “become more complacent because they’re not as self-reliant,” says Morrissey.

As a result, single women feel a particularly urgent need to demand change on issues such as equal pay, free childcare, and caregiver employment rights.

Heather Boushey, chief economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, and author of Finding Time: The Economics of Work-Life Conflict, says that “the rise of single women is a big trend that creates increased demand for policies that allow people to better manage their time.”

Many of the foundations for America’s current social and labor policy were laid out during the 1930s, including legislation on being overworked, minimum wage, and income support for those who cannot work, adds Boushey in an email.

“While these are all important rules governing time, they no longer reflect the ways we live and work today and the reasons for which a worker may need to be away from work for a view days or weeks, such as to care for a new child or an ailing family member,” she says. “In a world where most families no longer have the ‘silent partner’ at home to provide care and deal with all of life’s big and little emergencies, the reality is that in order to be fully productive members of our economy, most workers need new rules to help them address conflicts over work and life—rules that address time use.”

Of course these issues affect married women too, and it’s difficult to clearly distinguish the political impact of single women versus that of career women overall. But with their more liberal views and greater economic vulnerability, single women are a powerful source for demanding that institutions adapt to benefit those outside traditional marriage.