Home Books Articles BiographyJournal PEN Contacts

In Conversation with Marian Botsford Fraser

Marian Botsford FraserQ: Why did you write this book?

MBF: I have been single since 1991, and have given a great deal of thought to the issues that I and my many single women friends face, issues like celibacy and illness and hormone replacement therapy and financial uncertainty and growing old. Several years ago, I was asked to review a book about single women called The Improvised Woman, by Marcelle Clements, an American journalist. I was struck by how totally American the perspective of that book was, and also that it was almost exclusively about white, middle-class, reasonably affluent women. I wanted to write about all kinds of single women and also research how single women experience their lives differently, depending on where they live. So the book is a journey through my own choices and experiences, and a journey across the country meeting a diverse range of Canadian single women.

Q: How has single life changed for women during the last century?

MBF: The situation has changed dramatically, especially in the last forty or fifty years. Like their European forebears, women in Canada were much affected by social, cultural and religious pressure to marry. The laws and institutions of Canada are built on the model of a nuclear family. Women who did not marry were considered eccentric at best, pathetic or problematic at worst. Until after the Second World War, it was difficult for women to be independent financially, unless they were highly educated professionals or of independent means. Even the economic and personal freedoms that women gained during wartime were taken from them in the post-war years, when men returned and were given preference in the workplace.

But with the social change that began in the 1960s, being single was a choice that women could make. Changes in educational opportunities, birth control technology and law, divorce, adoption and welfare legislation and social attitudes to marriage and single parenting have changed the context. While there are still deep-seated, unconscious expectations that everyone wants to and will marry and have children, it is possible to choose to be single, or to marry much later in life. Women no longer need men for security or status; they have their own careers and condos and can even have children on their own if they so desire. The "new" single woman is part of profound shifts in the configuration of the family.

Q: What surprised you most in your encounters with other single women?

MBF: What surprised me were little things, subtle, secret things:

How many single women - of all ages - neglect to practice safe sex, because to demand that a partner wear a condom might mean no sex at all;

How many women have experimented with their sexuality, moved back and forth from being strictly heterosexual to being bisexual;

How comfortable women are with a fluid notion of sexuality, in themselves and other women. It is not shocking or shameful, although most women who do so are discreet about it;

How women who will not settle for a bad or dull marriage will settle for a secret relationship;

How completely open women were when I asked them very direct questions about their lives, and how empowering it was for them to learn that other women felt or did the same things they did.

Q: How do you think society will respond to the "new" single woman and to the circumstances of women generally in the future?

A: We are at a point in our development as a society where there is genuine reconsideration of the role and composition of the family. In practice, families are fluid, dynamic clusters of people who love and care for one another over time. When people define their own families, they include women who do not marry and ex-husbands, and children born to single mothers, and the children of lesbian couples and the natural grandparents of children put up for adoption. This is the reality, but our laws on taxation and social benefits and official definitions of marriage are out-of-step with how people lead their lives. And, according to many of the women I spoke to, women are further ahead in their thinking about such things than men. Older men at least cling to traditional, rigid ideas of marriage. This is a period of flux, as children grow up with different ideas about what a family might look like. The legislative and legal framework will change, but gradually.

It is not that society will make things easier for women, single or otherwise, but that women will gradually change the practices and institutions of society.

More from Solitaire