All of which came to light Wednesday via Maureen Dowd, who used the current flap about the sexuality of Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan to note how quickly women go from “single” — read: sexy, fun and available — to “unmarried,” a fate somewhat akin to that of Mary in “A Wonderful Life” had George Bailey never been born. (That’s her, up in the corner. Note the glasses.)
In case you’ve been hiding under a rock this past week, it’s been suggested that Kagan, 50 and never married, must then be a lesbian. The WSJ even went so far as to use a page one photo of her playing softball, wink wink. All of which prompted Kagan’s friends, the White House, and Kagan herself to assert that she is straight.
At which point, she became unmarried. As in, poor thing. Now, take a man in similar circumstances. He, of course, would still be single. Or better yet, a bachelor. We all know what that means. He doesn’t even have to be remotely attractive — Henry Kissinger, anyone? — for the girls to come flocking. But without addressing the double standard because, you know, it makes us too angry, let’s go straight to Dowd, who is herself, by the way, single:
When does a woman go from being single to unmarried?
As my friend Carol Lee, a Politico reporter, observes: “It seems like a cruel distinction and terrifying crossover.”
Single carries a connotation of eligibility and possibility, while unmarried has that dreaded over-the-hill, out-of-luck, you-are-finished, no-chance implication. An aroma of mothballs and perpetual aunt.
Men, generally more favored by nature as they age, can be single at all ages. But often, for women, once you’re 40 or 50, or simply beyond childbearing age, you’re no longer single. You’re unmarried — meaning it isn’t your choice to be alone. There are post-50 exceptions. Consider celebrity examples: Samantha in “Sex and the City,” Dana Delany, Susan Sarandon and Madonna are seen as sexily single.
But if you have a bit of a weight problem, a bad haircut, a schlumpy wardrobe, the assumption is that you’re undesirable, unwanted — and unmarried.
All of which leads to the current Kagan narrative, writes Dowd:
Kagan has told a friend in the West Wing that she is not gay, just lonely. Even so, that doesn’t mean her sherpas in the White House, in their frantic drive to dismiss the gay rumors, should be spinning a narrative around that most hoary of stereotypes: a smart, ambitious woman who threw herself into her work, couldn’t find a guy, threw up her hands, and threw herself further into her work — and in the process went from single to unmarried.
It’s inexplicable, given that this should be Kagan’s hour of triumph as potentially only the fourth woman ever to serve on the highest court.
Here we go again with the pre-feminist junk: We women can be smart, we can be accomplished, we can be ambitious. But we can’t be all three — and married, too. After all, what man wants a woman who sports a better title, matches him paycheck for paycheck, and can beat him at chess?
And have a family? Fuhgeddabout it.
I can’t help thinking back to the mid-80s when a media misinterpretation of a combined Harvard-Yale study led to headlines and magazine cover stories that proclaimed that unmarried women who had reached the age of 40 were more likely to be killed by a terrorist than to ever find a mate. True story. The media reports, I mean. The study’s findings, at least the way they were reported? Not so much. In fact, Newsweek did a mea culpa twenty years later — another cover story that found that many of those single women the magazine had profiled back in the day not only had not been killed by terrorists — fancy that — but indeed had found their soulmates. Even raised families.
And yet, the idea lingers. Or continues to reignite: If women are too smart, if they are are too ambitious, if they let themselves get too old, they better watch out. They’ll go from single to unmarried in a heartbeat. And we all know what that means. Fun’s over, girls. Time to start raising kittycats.
The other subtext of this Kagan stuff, of course, is this: you can do anything, even sit on the Supreme Court, but really, what does it matter if you don’t have a guy?