That first line of “The Last Unmarried Person in America”—“The great marriage boom of ’84 began shortly after Congress passed the historic National Family Security Act”—is such good science fiction that it took me several beats to realize it was in fact made up. Then Ellen Willis expands on it, noting that the Act abolishes divorce, prosecutes single people as vagrants, requires applicants for civil service jobs to sign a monogamy oath, and my personal favorite, makes the interstate sale of quiche a federal offense.
This America has finally made “a reality of what had then been an impossible dream: universal marriage.” Gays who take an oath for a sexless marriage can marry, and young couples insist that their marriage has nothing to do with the NFSA but is instead about their love; they assure the narrator that their desire to commit is spontaneous. They tell the story of the cute proposal: the guy told his wife-to-be that she could stop sewing scarlet S’s on her clothes and start sewing buttons onto her husband’s shirts.
Willis wrote this in 1981, a time I think of as not particularly marriage-friendly, mostly due to the fact that my own parents, along with seemingly ever other Baby Boomer couple in California that was part of my grammar school orbit, divorced in the early ‘80s.
But even beyond this admittedly weak anecdotal evidence, 1981 was so not 2011.
I mean, what would Ellen Willis have made of prom proposals? The royal wedding (both the British one and Kim Kardashian’s)? The actual legalization of gay marriage? The Sarah Jessica Parker oeuvre? Vera Wang’s career? The Bridezilla series? Cupcakes?
In her essay, Willis introduces us to a heroine, Ruby Tuesday, the last unmarried person in America (“I’m as single as the day I was born”), a pansexual rimming enthusiast who makes her own quiche. She wonders why she would change her home, a subway car, which is just the way she likes it, to have some guy move in. She seduces everyone she meets, including the narrator.
Yesterday I read Kate Bolick’s excellent Atlantic story on single women, along with seemingly everyone else I know. I thought of this essay while I was reading it and decided Ellen Willis probably would have been relieved and a little proud to know that there are so many unmarried women in America these days that we need cover stories to help us figure out who we are and why we got there.
The story doesn’t give a lot in the way of answers, which is part of why it’s so good—I hate those prescriptive single woman stories that tell you to settle—but by the end of it Bolick seems to hint at a utopian vision of women banding together, living together, being each other’s support systems. I managed to complain about this, later last night, while having drinks with my friend Lucy.
I can appreciate the girlworld that Bolick is getting at, but I could feel myself resisting it. I don’t want my unmarried life to look like a women-only college dorm. It seems too much like a convent. I realized that it’s the Willis’s parable’s heroine I can’t get out of my head. To be an unmarried woman in the America of 2011 should feel a little more purposeful, and little more lawless, a little more fun—a la Ruby Tuesday, in her subway car, offering passerby a taste of forbidden quiche.