Sometimes, when I joke about how weddings are a big deal because they constitute a woman’s inclusion into the human race after being sponsored in by a man, I think to myself, “Amanda, perhaps you’re engaging in hyperbole. For while it’s creepy that so many people obsess over weddings and marriage, surely even conservatives don’t think unmarried women are subhuman, do they?”
And should I find myself in a moment of doubt like this, I find that reading Maureen Dowd reminds me that I was probably holding back a little. Dowd is full of faux concern about Elena Kagan being single, er, unmarried. The latter word is more applicable, because Dowd thinks it’s more pathetic.
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.
And this is the theme throughout the piece. Being unmarried is simply a matter of being unchosen. It’s inconceivable to Dowd that a woman would be unmarried because she chose to be—that’s a man’s prerogative. To read Dowd, you’d think that you’re no one if a man doesn’t pick you, and no amount of intelligence or accomplishment will ever change that. All men at all points in time are superior to all women, because they hold the power to pick us, and we’re just passive waiting machines who hope that someone—anyone—will let us in. She creates a loophole for lesbians, but you can tell her heart’s not in it. She also creates an exception for
herself Samantha, a fictional character on “Sex and the City”. If you’re skinny enough, you get to be “single” instead of “unmarried”. And if you think I’m exaggerating, she really does say this:
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.
She plays like she’s railing at the unfairness of this, but it’s clear she delights in it even as she fears it. That’s why she devotes a column in the NY Times to the proposition that it doesn’t matter if someone is a dean at Harvard Law, the solicitor general, and a Supreme Court justice—nothing matters but that white wedding dress. And she’s not letting go of myths about how success is undesirable, no matter how much evidence runs against this belief.
It’s a disturbing echo of those Harvard Business School students who said on “60 Minutes” a few years ago that they had hid the fact that they went to Harvard from guys they met because it was the kiss of death with men who were threatened by more successful women. “The H-bomb,” they called it.
Again, the more educated a woman is the more likely she is to get married and stay married. But Dowd will reject this, because the false narrative is too delicious. She defines the only real success for a woman as being married, and therefore delights in the delicious irony that professional success prevents women from getting the only success that counts. Except it’s not true, either that the only thing that counts is male approval or that being successful prevents men from wanting you.
What is really perverse about all this is Dowd’s absolute insistence that the only two possibilities when a woman is single at age 50 are that a) she’s a lesbian and b) no one picked her. Male approval is such a precious commodity that it’s assumed women will take all comers, because how else are we supposed to be inducted into the human race? You can’t say no to a man. She’s not even playing Lori Gottlieb’s game and accusing women of being too picky. The idea that you wouldn’t jump at any offer from any man is inconceivable to Dowd, at least if she’s determined that you’re dumpy.
Her disingenuous final paragraph really puts the cherry on the mean girl sundae:
Why is there this underlying assumption that Kagan has missed the boat?
I don’t know. It probably has something to do with you perpetuating the narrative. If you don’t like the story of how women can conquer mountains but are nothing without a man, then stop telling that story.