* The Right to Remain Single
I celebrate the new civil right of same-sex marriage! Finally, gay couples can legally “have and hold” each other forever, protect their estates and create their own lineages through which they can bequeath their legacies.
And on this Independence Day weekend, I also rejoice in my right as a women to not marry and to live a life of independence and sovereignty, with the freedom to love many people, share my assets with whomever I please, and focus on developing my fullest potential as a human being.
While single status for women isn’t anything new, it’s only in recent decades that it’s been possible for single women of the Western World to survive without great hardship, and in other parts of the world, living an independent life is but a dream.
As recently as my mother’s generation, women were expected to marry, serve her husband and bear children, and few were bred for anything else. Most women married young and for life. Divorce was an unbearable stigma that kept them in partnerships that left them unfulfilled and joyless. I thank Goddess every day that I was born at the time and place that I was.
Love is natural, but marriage is a man-made creation that has evolved through history. A brief glance into history will help you see that marriage isn’t a romantic union that we’re programmed to idealize. It’s one of property, politics, and progeny, and for many women, it was (and is) the end of their own personhood.
The Neolithic era (approximately 7000 BCE to 3000 BCE) and for eons prior, women were honored as equals by men. Goddesses, including virgin deities, were revered in nearly every culture, (virgin meant independent or sovereign’, and not necessarily sexually pure). Societies were egalitarian; women and men worked equally and cooperatively to thrive. Women mated with whomever they wanted, and the identity of a child’s father was unimportant. Property was passed through women, thus the family structure was matrilineal. Independent women held high the positions in society as priestesses, shaman, managers, land-holders, artists, warriors and so much more. There is no evidence of marriage between mortal woman and man, however, in the sacred ritual of hieros gamos, the marriage of goddess and god was enacted with the priestess and king (and was basically an act of sexual union) to assure abundance of the land. But this marriage was symbolic, and not a permanent, legal union.
Things began to change for women during the Bronze Age (approximately 2700 BCE to 1200 BCE), when men began to dominate the world. Dynastic and monarchic societies, ruled by men, began to appear. Paternal bloodlines became important, as wealth and power were passed down to sons. Women began to be perceived as the inferior gender, whose primary function was to produce heirs, preferably sons. Focus was placed on the sons, who were the primary recipients of education, property, and power. The union of kingdoms through marriage often increased wealth and power of both families, and ensured purity of bloodline for future heirs. Nuptial contracts between women and men were formed, not for love, but for power and property. Women had no say in her partner selection, and often the groom was chosen before she could even talk. Often the groom was decades older than she. Luckily for women, these societies were polytheistic and worshipped many different goddesses and gods, so women continued to worship their favored deities.
In Classical Greece (500-336 BC), women never lived a life of independence. Spinsterhood was considered a terrible fate, yet marriage wasn’t that attractive, either. Again, love did not factor into marriage, rather it was a union to strengthen the community. A girl was the responsibility of her father or male guardian until she was married, and if a woman from a poor family didn’t marry, often she became a prostitute to support herself. Fathers selected the husbands and the mothers had no say in the matter. Girls were married at a very young age, as early as age 13, to men in their thirties. Sometimes girls met their husbands for the first time on their wedding day. It was not uncommon for first cousins and step-siblings to betroth, mostly to keep property within the family. There was no formal schooling for girls outside of the home, and they were mostly taught how to perform household duties. Once married, women lived in a secluded area of the house, were allowed no social life and were barely allowed to go outdoors, except to fetch water. They took care of the house and bore children, while the husbands enjoyed courtesans and concubines. At least the women had their goddesses to worship for comfort.
The Greek culture exemplified the plight of woman in nearly all societies around the globe.
Monotheism, the workshop of one male god began to arise around the 8th Century BCE, and the first evidence of written scriptures of the Hebrew Bible appeared around 2nd Century BCE, followed by the Christian Bible (around 4th Century AD) and Islamic Quran (around 7th Century AD). With these texts, patriarchy was solidified into religious law; it was no longer just a political concept. Goddess cultures around the world were destroyed and those who worshipped goddesses were killed, because God ordered it. All sacred texts made it clear that woman was (is) the secondary sex, whose primary role was (is) to serve her husband and multiply. Girls were property of the father until they married, and could even be sold off as slaves. Sexuality outside of marriage was (is) considered a mortal sin. Divorce was frowned upon by the religious fathers. Women were not allowed to participate in church activities, much less work outside of the home. Marriage became a religious pact made legal only when officiated by a church or temple authority. Women married because there were few other choices. Without employable skills, property, or even an opinion, women relied on men to survive. They often endured horrific and abusive marriages because there was no other option.
Ironically, single, independent women were shunned, and brilliant women destroyed, because they were considered heretics of the Church, as was the case of Hypatia, (4th Century AD) a brilliant teacher of mathematics and astronomy of Alexandria. She turned down marriage proposals to live independently, and was brutally murdered by a group of Christian monks, intolerant of her self-reliance. And don’t get me started on the Crusades, sanctioned by the Roman Catholic Church, which in some cases targeted single women (1300s to 1700s). That’s a separate article.
Love and romance didn’t factor into marriage until probably the time of the Troubadours during the Middle Ages (1110 – 1350), a group of mostly men whose poetry and songs espoused courtly love, and positive views of women. Perhaps this movement was used as a marketing tool to make marriage more palatable.
Thankfully, the feminist movements of the 19th and 20th Centuries opened the door of equal rights to women, and began to transform Western civilization into one in which a woman can choose to live independently. The demand for equal rights began in England and the United States in the mid-1800s with the Woman’s Suffrage Movement. “Suffragettes” organized and spoke in public, unheard of at the time and despite heavy opposition from men, to demand the right to work and vote. In 1919, women of the USA won the right for women to vote, and the 1920 presidential election was their first. Women began to enter the workforce.
During the Women’s Liberation Movement in the United States during the 1960s, the voices of a few brave and powerful women, demanding equal opportunity, equal pay and equal justice, spread like wild fire via mass media, and positive social changes for women occurred at unprecedented speed. Women grabbed at emerging opportunities to become self-reliant and independent. Marriage was no longer a necessity. Birth control enabled sexual freedom. Divorce became an acceptable option, without fear of disgrace.
Many of today’s Western woman exercise our rights and our freedoms. We’re waiting longer to marry, if we choose to marry at all. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Committed, points out that married women are more likely to suffer from depression than single women, and as we begin to emerge from the cloud of old programming, it is easy to understand why.
Many women around the world still suffer under outmoded patriarchal traditions with no freedom in sight. Forced to marry, often at very young ages to strangers chosen by the parents, and with little education, no rights and few options, they are reminders of the great strides we women of the Western world have made and continue to make.
So, today, as a single women in the United States, I express tremendous gratitude for my life. I proudly choose and celebrate independence, because I can!!
The Living Goddesses, Marija Gimbutas
Women in Ancient Greece, Sue Blundell