Going solo: the rise of single women in Ireland
Singles are swelling in numbers: the last census indicated there are 392,000 one-person households in Ireland. So why does the idea that singledom is a bold choice for women persist?
From left, Tanya Sweeney, Kelly Kierans, Meredith Gregge and Joanne McNally in St Stephen’s Green, Dublin. Photograph: Dave Meehan
The word “spinster” used to conjure up a vivid and not entirely flattering picture. In rural Ireland in the 20th century, spinsters were something of a social curiosity. Mired in a Catholic culture of self-abnegation where sexual desire and sexuality were repressed, spinsters were often depicted as emotionally barren husks. The great irony was that for most of the last century, Ireland had lower levels of marriage than other western countries.
The new century brought not a white knight on horseback for the spinster, but a redesign on the back of the Celtic Tiger. The spinster became the “singlista”. Where her foresister appeared repressed, Spinster 2.0 was a role model, an exotic libertine in glorious Technicolor. The no-man’s land of singledom wasn’t a fate to be wary or fearful of; it was a lifestyle choice and an aspirational one at that. Her influence became such that women began to fret about not being choosy enough.
It’s hard to fault the lure of this second wave of spinsterhood, with its Latin jazz soundtrack and cocktail umbrellas in its hair. Yet its fabulousness was so bombastic and its message so pearly-toothed that it was bound to burn itself out. So here we are, caught between both enduring tropes. The spinster is due another upcycle.
A decade ago, many single women took their lead from modish sex columnists, girls with a one-track mind who referred to their male playthings with impersonal labels such as Himself, Mr C or the Horseman. Thus began a global sweep of bawdy banter over brunch; cocktail hour with a liberal sprinkling of sex chat. The singletons of the Noughties, freshly anointed with cultural capital, gleefully regaled their peers with tales of misadventure and sexual japes. But no more. We’re reclaiming the term “spinster”.
For the new spinster, unencumbered life is every bit as fabulous, frivolous and filled with possibility. But we’re playing our cards a little closer to our chests. We’re a little more austere about divulging the salty details. Life does not necessarily revolve around needing a man, or even wanting a man. Take it from one who knows (seven years and counting): being long-term single in Ireland isn’t always an unending jamboree of suitors, f*** buddies and ardent paramours. It’s a delicious narrative, but ultimately misleading. Life isn’t so much about bed-hopping as it is about binge-watching box-sets. Anyone who elects to go through seven straight years of the emotional hari-kari of flings and dating and scorching disappointments is either a masochist or a moron. This experience obviously isn’t definitive, but it’s common to most of the “career” singles I know.
Despite the many technologies and portals enabling a relationship connection, we singles are swelling in numbers. The 2011 census indicated that there are now 392,000 one-person households in Ireland. According to market research firm Euromonitor International, the number of people living alone globally is rising fast, from about 153 million in 1996 to 277 million in 2011, an increase of about 80 per cent in 15 years.
And yet the idea that singledom is a bold choice persists. Channelling Mae West or Dorothy Parker, unmarried women often have a pithy soundbite to hand to explain away their solo status. Yet for all our bravado, it’s still grindingly difficult to be a single woman in this country.
Forget the fact that there’s no one offering the balm of solidarity after a trying day on the factory floor of life. The truth is that an insidious streak of singlism still runs through society.
In an ostensible bid to champion cuddly family values, politicians pander to “hardworking families” with tax credits, welfare payments and tax breaks. Singles wind up a shade or two lower on the totem pole. For 2012 and 2013, the personal tax credits for a single person were €1,650; for a married person or civil partner, they were €3,300 (for a widowed person without children, they were €2,190).
Yet the definitions of singledom are becoming more fluid and freeing. Anne Byrne, a sociologist at NUI Galway, is hopeful of a sea change.
“More people are choosing to be single in Ireland,” she says. “Being happy with oneself and making self-determined choices not only enable ‘solo women’ to pursue the creative, practical and relational passions that animate a life, but may also inspire others to question the dominant version of heterosexual marriage, pro-family ideology and the too-narrow perceptions of womanhood in a rapidly changing society.”
“Whom to marry and when will it happen – these two questions define every woman’s existence,” writes Kate Bolick in her book Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own. The book is a paean to those comfortable with their unencumbered status, yet even Bolick acknowledges that we still make assumptions about the agency of women’s life choices.
Some good news: statistics prove that the majority of Irish people find a romantic partner eventually. And in the meantime, the myriad pleasures and possibilities of solo life are there for the taking.
ALL THE SINGLE LADIES: ‘DATING IS AN ENIGMA TO ME’
Joanne McNally Writer and comedian from Dublin. Single for eight years “I think I’m single because originally I was too busy having a good time and didn’t prioritise [being in a relationship]. Some people gravitate towards being in a pair, and that takes work and effort that I had little interest in putting in. I think years ago if you weren’t married it was understood there was something wrong with you. But I won’t take on that stigma myself. I do date, but one-night stands hold no appeal. On some level it’s my decision, but no one believes that. My mum says things like, ‘Men need to feel like they can fit into your life, so don’t do any DIY or anything in front of them’. I was in a relationship previously where we morphed into each other, and I won’t ever do that again. I will never lose myself in another person.”
Meredith Gregge A receptionist from Belfast. Single her whole life
“It isn’t a conscious decision – it just seems to work out that way. I was taught from an early age that you have to work hard in life to succeed. Narrowing my focus to succeed in life maybe cost me a busy social schedule or pursuing the quest for love. Why am I single? It might be that I know what I want and won’t settle for less, or maybe I intimidate men because I say what I think. For me the best thing about being single is my independence. I love taking little trips to do the things I love to do; it sounds selfish but if I don’t treat myself, no one else will. Dating in general is an enigma to me. Recently I’ve experienced being asked out or chatted up by men who are over 65. My other single friend thought this was hilarious until she experienced it herself. It seems that men of a certain age have no inhibitions or fear to pursue something they want.”
Kelly Kierans An actor/drama facilitator from Dublin. Single for five years
“I have been described by some as having a very strong character, which men are attracted to but sometimes scared of. There are times when you ask, ‘Is there something wrong with me?’ Plus there are some things that are so lovely to do with someone you care about that can make activities a little lonely. Even the word ‘spinster’ sounds vulgar for some reason, like it’s something to be ashamed of. I don’t think any woman wants to be branded like that; why can’t we support women who don’t want to marry? Why is dating so hard in Ireland? Well, we have so much to choose from we just cannot make up our minds. But I do have a very best male friend with benefits. I would go a little bit crazy otherwise.”