Single women are reshaping American society, education and public policy.
Soccer Moms are giving way to Single Woke Females — the new “SWFs” — as one of the most potent voting blocs in American politics.
Unmarried women without children have been moving toward the Democratic Party for several years, but the 2022 midterms may have been their electoral coming-out party as they proved the chief break on the predicted Republican wave. While married men and women as well as unmarried men broke for the GOP, CNN exit polls found that 68 percent of unmarried women voted for Democrats.
The Supreme Court’s August decision overturning Roe v. Wade was certainly a special factor in the midterms, but longer-term trends show that single, childless women are joining African Americans as the Democrats’ most reliable supporters.
Their power is growing thanks to the demographic winds. The number of never-married women has grown from about 20 percent in 1950 to over 30 percent in 2022, while the percentage of married women has declined from almost 70 percent in 1950 to under 50 percent today. Overall, the percentage of married households with children has declined from 37 percent in 1976 to 21 percent today.
The single wave
A new Institute for Family Studies analysis of 2020 Census data found that one in six women do not have children by the time they reach the end of their childbearing years, up from one in ten in 1990. Single adult women now total some 42 million, comparable to the key African American voting bloc (46 million), while vastly larger than key groups like labour union members (14 million) or college students (20 million).
The Pew Research Center notes that since 1960, single-person households in the United States have grown from 13 percent to 27 percent (2019). Many, particularly women, are not all that keen on finding a partner. Pew recently found that “men are far more likely than women to be on the dating market: 61 percent of single men say they are currently looking for a relationship or dates, compared with 38 percent of single women.”
There’s clearly far less stigma attached to being single and unpartnered. Single women today have many impressive role models of unattached, childless women who have succeeded on their own — like Taylor Swift and much of the US women’s soccer team. This phenomenon is not confined to the United States. Marriage and birthrates have fallen in much of the world, including Europe and Japan. Writing in Britain’s Guardian newspaper, columnist Emma John observed, “Singleness is no longer to be sneered at. Never marrying or taking a long-term partner is increasingly seen as a valid choice.”
Rise of identity politics
The rise of SWFs — a twist on the personal ad abbreviation for single white female — is one of the great untold stories of American politics. Distinct from divorced women or widows, these largely Gen Z and Millennial voters share a sense of collective identity and progressive ideology that sets them apart from older women.
More likely to live in urban centres and to support progressive policies, they are a driving force in the Democratic party’s and the nation’s shift to the left. One paradox, however: Democrats depend ever more on women defined in the strict biological sense, while much of the party’s progressive wing embraces the blurred and flexible gender boundaries of its identity politics.
Attitudes are what most distinguish single women from other voters. An American Enterprise Institute survey shows that married men and women are far more likely than unmarried females to think women are well-treated or equally treated. As they grow in numbers, these discontented younger single women are developing something of a group consciousness. Nearly two-thirds of women under 30, for example, see what happens to other women as critical to their own lives; among women over 50, this mindset shrinks to less than half.
This perception of linked fate stands in contrast to survey results regarding single men, who report that they are increasingly disconnected from each other while women bond more closely. This is not a temporary phenomenon, and it is much bigger than the bohemian movements of the past.
There is even a sense in which women are redefining families, and themselves, by choosing to neither get married nor have offspring. And social observers such as Bella DePaulo, a University of California, Santa Barbara professor and singles advocate, are all in favour. As she told Nautilus magazine:
“[It’s] a tremendously positive thing! Once upon a time, just about everyone in the United States thought that they needed to squeeze themselves into the heterosexual nuclear family box, even if they weren’t heterosexual or weren’t interested in getting married or had no interest in raising kids.
Now, people can create the lives and the families that allow them to live their best, most authentic, and most meaningful lives. They can choose to put friends at the center of their lives. Or they can assemble their very own combination of friends and family to be the social convoys that sail beside them as they navigate their lives. They can have kids in their lives without having children of their own.”
The key driver of these attitudes may be universities, where feminist ideology often holds powerful sway. Women now predominate on college campuses. In the late 1960s, they were about 39 percent of college graduates; now they are about 59 percent. The percentage of full-time female professors has risen dramatically; at the full professor level the percentage has grown by roughly one-third.
Women now earn more than half of advanced degrees, not only in education but health and medical sciences, and are making great strides in engineering and law. With this growth, a feminist agenda has become increasingly de rigueur in colleges. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of women’s and gender studies degrees in the United States has increased by more than 300 percent since 1990, and in 2015, there were more than 2,000 degrees conferred.
There are widespread movements to establish women’s centres almost everywhere, even as men are abandoning college and university life in record numbers, and those who remain are hit with messaging about behaviour and status from diversity, equity, and inclusion offices along with various student life offices that regularly call them toxic, aggressive, and born misogynists.
More recently, anti-family attitudes have become more pronounced. “Queer studies” often advocate replacing the “nuclear family” with some form of collectivised childrearing. Progressive groups like Black Lives Matter made their opposition to the nuclear family a part of their basic original platform, even though evidence shows family breakdown has hurt African American boys most of all.
The economics of singleness
While both married and unmarried women have made impressive gains in the workplace, family status appears to be driving a big cleavage in politics among women. Research shows that having children tends to make one more conservative — critically, divorce does not change this calculus decisively, although it moderates leftism.
The AEI 2022 data shows that divorced women — of all age cohorts — tend to be more conservative than liberal. In aggregate, 23 percent of divorced women are liberal while 31 percent are conservative — the plurality (38 percent) are somewhere in the moderate middle.
The fault lines, however, run deeper and appear to be generational. The data show that 40 percent of Millennial women — those born between 1981-1996 — identify as liberal and 20 percent identify as conservative. For single women of the baby boomer generation (born between 1946-1963), the number of liberals drops to 25 percent and the number of conservative women increases to almost 30 percent.
We are witnessing, as sociologist Daniel Bell noted a half-century ago in The Coming of the Post-Industrial Society, a new type of individualism, unmoored from religion and family, something fundamentally transforming the foundations of middle-class culture. This echoes what the popular futurist Alvin Toffler in 1970 described as a growing immersion in work at the expense of family life. He envisioned a revolution in marriage that would result in a “streamlined family,” and, if children are in the picture, relying on professional child-raisers. The ideal of long-term marriage would give way, he expected, to more transient relationships and numerous partners at different stages of life.
There is a clear economic divergence between married and unmarried women, if for no other reason than that two incomes provide more resources and children present different demands. There are plenty of renting couples and home-owning singles, but married people account for 77 percent of all homeowners, according to the Center for Politics. Married women tend also to do far better professionally and economically, and their rate of marriage has remained constant, while those without spouses have declined by 15 percent over the past four decades, notes the Brookings Institution. Single-parent households, they find, do far worse.
This economic reality impacts political choices. Not part of an economic familial unit, they tend to look to government for help, whether for rent subsidies or direct transfers. The pitch of Democratic presidents as reflected in Barack Obama’s “Life of Julia” and Joe Biden’s “Life of Linda” — narratives that advertised the government’s cradle-to-grave assistance for women — is geared toward women who never marry, with the occasional child-raising addressed not by family resources but government transfers.
Critically, unmarried women also tend to be employed heavily in “helping professions” like medical care and teaching, an expanding field even as many traditional male jobs, particularly in manufacturing, construction, and transportation, have disappeared.
Whereas high taxes and regulation pose problems in the general economy, women predominate in fields that actually benefit from more government spending. This now includes the once GOP-leaning medical profession, nurses as well as doctors who now lean Democratic. In contrast, heavily male professions like engineers, masons, and police officers tend toward the GOP.
These differences are also showing up in backlashes against left-wing education policy, epitomised by such programs as Drag Queen Story Hour for K-12 students. Parents have been at the forefront of movements to replace progressive school board members from Virginia to California.
Geography is destiny
The divisions between married and unmarried women are reinforced and amplified by the geographic divisions in the country — what some call “the big sort” — as Americans increasingly settle into distinct communities of likeminded individuals. Urban centres, for example, are particularly friendly to singles.
In virtually all high-income societies, high density today almost always translates into low fertility rates, led by San Francisco, Los Angeles, Austin, and Boston. In urban cores like Manhattan, single households constituted nearly 50 percent of households, according to American Community Survey 2019 data.
And with many businesses and cultural opportunities moving away from cities and diffusing and becoming more diverse and family friendly with varied amenities, the polarisation between cities and their narrowly left residents and the rest of the nation may increase.
According to the recent AEI data, even married women in the Northeast are conservative. This gap, unsurprisingly, widens in the South and Midwest. But the major divides are in terms of type of community. Married women who live in urban settings are evenly split between conservative and liberal, but among single women, just 18 percent are conservative with 44 percent liberal (the rest identify as moderate or refused to say).
In the suburbs, the key political battleground, 35 percent of married women are conservative and 22 percent liberal. For unmarried women, 23 percent are conservative and 34 percent are liberal. In rural areas, 42 percent of married women are conservative compared to 14 percent liberal, while single women divide evenly.
Unlike the wave of immigrants or rural migrants who flooded the American metropolises of the early 20th century, urbanites today generally avoid raising large families in cramped and exceedingly expensive spaces. According to analysis by demographer Wendell Cox, households in suburbs and exurbs are roughly four times more likely to have children in their household than residents of the urban core.
The lowest birthrates are found in ultra-blue cities and states, magnets largely for singles and the childless. Six years ago the New York Times ran a story headlined “San Francisco Asks: Where Have All the Children Gone?” and stories abound about the Golden Gate City having the fewest children of all major American cities. Many other major cities lost families with children during the pandemic. Between 2020 and 2021, Manhattan saw a whopping 9.5 percent decline in the number of children under 5 — and many families are not returning.
Some of this reflects policies associated with driving housing prices up more than elsewhere. Like other blue states, California has adopted policies that discourage single family housing favoured by married couples with children in favour of dense, usually small urban apartments. Given the political orientation of single women, urban areas can be expected to go further left, while the suburbs, and particularly the exurbs, with their concentrations of married families, will likely shift towards the centre and right.
The great demographic race
In the near future, American politics, both national and local, may turn on the degree to which people remain single, and also whether they decide to have children. Right now, the short run demography favours the Democrats. People are getting married at the lowest rate in American history and the birth rate remains depressed. The longer people stay single, and perhaps never marry, the better things will be for the Democrats.
The wild card may be age — specifically whether historic patterns hold and women, like men, tend to become conservative as they get older. This is hard to gauge as the evolution has usually taken in place of the context of marriage and motherhood. Unmarried women, in particular, may hold onto their youthful ideology far longer than those whose lives are transformed by marriage and parenting.
In many places, particularly on the coasts, single women have become a politically rising force. Twelve women were elected governor in 2022, a record. Maura Healey’s election as the nation’s first openly lesbian chief executive shows that in states like Massachusetts, once a Catholic conservative bastion culturally, there is enough support for single women in politics to overcome traditional reluctance to elect childless and non-heterosexual candidates.
“It’s thrilling to see Maura break down historical obstacles to both women and LGBTQ candidates to lead Massachusetts,” says Janson Wu, executive director of the Boston-based GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders. “It really shows the progress we’ve made as a society, in understanding that what counts is really the quality of the leader and not who they are.”
Future policy conflicts
Public policy may have a strong influence on this dynamic. The single, the unattached, and the unmarried are already demanding state provisions to guarantee “affordable” urban housing, more money for transit, and steps toward a guaranteed income for individuals — all of which will, in turn, provide incentives to remain unattached. In contrast, the demands of family-oriented voters may be more focused on economic growth, safety, improving basic education, and ways to save money for their offspring.
If the policy preferences of singles become more significant, the United States may have to brace for the kind of long-term demographic decline already evident in Japan and parts of Europe. Some suggest that one possible solution, attractive to some on the left, would be to adopt the “Nordic way” which encourages reproduction (if not marriage) by transferring much of the burden of child-raising from families to the state.
Other countries have also adopted pro-birth policies — like free or low-cost childcare, or even cash payments. These schemes have been applied in places as dissimilar as Poland and South Korea, as well as Quebec. But according to United Nations data, all of them, including the Scandinavian states, still suffer well below replacement rate fertility rates.
Some women in particular embrace singleness not just as a lifestyle, but a chance to redefine the role of women in society. Author Rebecca Traister, herself married with children, has followed this movement, calling it a “a radical upheaval, a national reckoning with massive social and political implications … a wholesale revision of what female life might entail.”
“We are living through the invention of independent female adulthood as a norm, not an aberration,” she adds, “and the creation of an entirely new population: adult women who are no longer economically, socially, sexually, or reproductively dependent on or defined by the men they marry.”
The likely best way to overcome the demographic decline may lie instead in boosting the economic prospects of the next generation. This includes steps that could allow for easier purchase of homes or lower cost apartments suitable for families. As Richard Florida, among others, has suggested: Efforts should be made to lower housing prices, which correlates to higher rates of fertility.
Reforms that encourage home-based businesses could spark greater fertility rates, as historian Alan Carlson suggested almost two decades ago. The rise of home-based businesses and work, now taking off, offers a unique opportunity for increased family formation. Indeed, a recent study by the Federal Reserve of Kansas City suggests that the current rise in remote work could spark a family-friendly housing boom, as people can live further away, and spend more time being parents. For that to occur, however, it would require that such housing can be constructed, which would require loosening of regulations that seek to restrain construction both in cities and suburban areas.
Ultimately the question remains what kind of society Americans want to have. Historically, here in the US and elsewhere, the family perspective has generally been prevalent and tied intimately to the sense of a common polity. But as the country changes and becomes ever more single and female-influenced, the historical pattern is likely to be challenged and significantly modified.
Joel Kotkin is Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and executive director of the Urban Reform Institute. More by Joel Kotkin
Samuel J. Abrams is a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. More by Samuel Abrams
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