Chicago Tribune
December 20, 2000
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Tribune Staff Writer
December 20, 2000

Mary Ellen Sullivan has been married, and she has been single.

When she was married, briefly in her late 20s, she got divorced.

When she was single, she got a round-the-world plane ticket, and spent five months using it, including taking a bicycling trip through China. Two years later, she spent two winter months in paradise, a.k.a. South America and Tahiti. After that it was Africa, for two months every year, three years in a row.

She'll take Tahiti over matrimony.

"I realized that I wasn't really the marrying type," said Sullivan, 41, a freelance writer who lives on the North Side. "I'm very independent. I just had too many things I wanted to do."

If she were a man, Sullivan would be considered a confirmed bachelor. Happily unmarried women have no agreed-upon equivalent term, but they do have company.

"I don't feel the tug of having to pay attention to somebody else and meet their needs," said Tina Chen, 44, who was divorced 12 years ago and has no particular interest in remarrying.

"I'm having a very full and fulfilling life, responding to my children, . . . my career, political work, women's issues work, charitable work," said Chen, a partner in the law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom in Chicago. "I don't have to negotiate with somebody else where I spend my time, or where I spend my money, or how I set my priorities."

"I can't imagine it any other way," said Tina Horowitz, 35, a research coordinator at the Wharton Financial Institution Center in Philadelphia, who has never been married.

"I crave my solitude," she said. "I can't imagine another person living in my space. . . . People used to ask me, 'When are you going to get married?' and it always sounded weird to me. Why would I get married? It would be the equivalent of saying to me, 'Everyone should have three goats in their house.' "

More than 43 million single women live in the U.S., and their share of the female population is growing rapidly. Between 1960 and 1990, the percentage of women who were married decreased from 66 percent to 55 percent, according to U.S. census data.

The decrease in marriage has been particularly steep among women considered to be of prime marriage age. In 1960, 85 percent of women ages 25 through 55 were married; by 1998, that figure had fallen to 68 percent.

"It's a huge trend," said Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University.

University of Chicago sociologist Linda Waite's new book, "The Case for Marriage," examined in WomanNews last week, reports that married women are statistically better off than single ones in terms of health, wealth, happiness and sex life.

Yet there are single women who are happy to be single. Whitehead has found, while interviewing single women across the country for a book, some 10 to 15 percent expressing no interest in marrying. And after she probed to see whether their expressions of happiness were really just rational izations of their situations, she concluded that they were not.

"A small but significant percentage say, `This isn't accidental. . . . It's really something I chose.' At some point, they realized that this is the right way for them," Whitehead said.

Gail Krogstad, 47, volunteer coordinator at the North Shore Senior Center in Wilmette, realized it after she and her husband separated a year ago. "I enjoy being alone," said Krogstad, who lives in Niles. "I have a number of things I want to do in my life; and one is not to remarry."

"It's not about being anti-male. I like men. I adore men. But I'm happier when I'm outside a relationship," said Regena English, a 35-year-old divorced Houston woman who in 1998 created a newsletter for happily unmarried women called Leather Spinsters (leather as in tough, English explained). This month, she will send the newsletter to 213,000 women subscribers. There also is a Web site (

Janice Baylis, 72, a retired schoolteacher who lives in Seal Beach, Calif., is one of them. Divorced for 15 years after a 30-year marriage, she revels in her single life. "I have so much independence," she said. "I have a couple of male friends, but at the end of the day, they go away. Men make much better friends than husbands. Once you're married to them, they seem to think that you're their property."

The thought of answering to someone else is anathema to Natalie Carpenter, 42, managing broker of a real estate office in the South Side's Chatham neighborhood.

"My counterparts who are married are always hiding things from their husbands; if they want to buy a fur coat, they can't just go out and buy a fur coat," said Carpenter, who was married for 17 years and has been divorced for four.

"I even had one friend who bought a computer and carried it in her trunk for a month before she could bring it in the house. She had to tell him she was saving up for it."

For some happily unmarried women, being single has brought the time and freedom to achieve professional success.

"It allowed me to focus on my career," said Linda Calafiore, 48, who founded the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago 17 years ago and recently sold it. "There are tradeoffs; wining and dining and dancing are not always possible on Saturday night," she said. "But I think, professionally and emotionally, it's made me a stronger person. It's made me totally self-reliant. I'm really not afraid of anything.

"I think I would like to be married at some point in my life," she said, but "I'm not pining over it."

Mary Ellen Sullivan would not like to be married. Being single has freed her for a strikingly independent way of traveling, she said.

"I sort of just show up in a country," she said. "I book my flight and my first night or two in a hotel, and then I don't have any other reservations. I just sort of let it happen. I always meet people who invite me to stay in their homes, who travel with me, or who live there and want to show me the country. Or there are some places where I don't meet anybody, and then . . . I just have a week on a beach somewhere to think, walk, read or write or whatever.

"That's a life I just couldn't have imagined when I was younger, and certainly not existing with being married," she said.

For Eileen Mackevich, 60, president and executive producer of the Chicago Humanities Festival, being single has freed her to indulge in "all the selfish things."

"If you don't want dinner, you don't have to cook it," said Mackevich, who has been divorced since 1969. "If you want to stay in bed all the day, you can. If you are a real newspaper junkie like I am, you can load up the bed with them.

"And I think, more than anything, it keeps you on your toes," she added. "You're always thinking in a future kind of way: Whom would I like to take to the theater, with whom would I like to have dinner, whom haven't I seen in a while whom I might cheer up?"

The latter, she added, is the unselfish part about being single: Unencumbered by a spouse, she is free to spend time with someone who may be lonely.

"I have the best of all possible worlds," she said. "I have men in my life that I like; I have wonderful children; I have wonderful grandchildren.

"I believe in marriage," she said. "[But] there are some people who are very good at marriage, and some who are not. I'm a good candidate to be a friend, a lover, a companion, but not that kind of steady diet. I fortunately discovered what I was good at, and marriage isn't one of them."

Women who find themselves widowed or divorced often blossom on their own, as long as they have financial stability, said Pamela Stone, author of "A Woman's Guide to Living Alone: 10 Ways to Survive Grief and Be Happy" (Taylor Publishing, $15.95).

"There were so many women who told me they loved to be able to get up when they wanted . . . [and] stay up in the wee hours and knit or sew or read," she said. "One woman painted T-shirts till 3 in the morning as Christmas presents, and was heading toward a craft business.

"It's like metamorphosis. I think we've never really known how much freedom and joy there is in being single."

Still, happily single women sometimes have a hard time convincing others that they are genuinely happy.

"People begin to believe me about a year after they meet me," Horowitz remarked. "The typical thing is, `She hasn't met the right one,' or `She's a secret lesbian.' That's fine--I have friends who are--but I don't have those feelings, either. Or people have all kinds of psychoanalytic explanations and say that I'll change my mind."

Sullivan's determination not to marry perplexed a number of men she dated. "At a certain point, men thought they would change my mind," she said. "It ended several relationships."

However, she met a man as independent and uninterested in marriage and children as she is. They have been seeing each other for four years, but have no intention of either marrying or living together. "I need space," she said. "More than even time alone, I need space. You don't get that when you have a family."

Are single women lonely?

"There's really three days of the year I feel lonely: Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Eve," said Lisa Sewell, 39, assistant director of the Utah Arts Festival in Salt Lake City and a Leather Spinsters subscriber. "Yet when I talk to my married friends, they're like, `Oh, if I could just be home alone.' It's easier for me to go find people to hang with than for my married friends to be alone."

Don't single and childless women miss the pleasures of doting on a younger generation?

Calafiore has taken her nephews, 13 and 11, to London, Paris, Tuscany and Rome. Sullivan will take the 13-year-old daughter of a dear friend to Europe this summer.

So what does the existence of happily unmarried women mean for Linda Waite's contention that married women are better off?

Not a thing, said Waite, adding that she examined not just happiness but measures like health and financial security. And even in looking at happiness, she said the existence of some happy singles does not refute the fact that marriage is statistically more beneficial. "For both men and women, on average, married women are happier with life in general," she said. "That doesn't mean that for any individual, that that person would be happier married. I am sure there are people who would be happier single than married."

For her part, Sullivan is looking forward to her trip to Paris and Prague with her 13-year-old companion, and waiting for the next foreign country to call to her. "It's a nice life, I have to say," she said.


`Marriage is a great institution, but I'm not ready for an institution.'

--Mae West

`Marriage is the grave or tomb of wit.'

--Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle

`A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.'

--Gloria Steinem, who recently married for the first time at age 66

St.Mary Publishing Company of Houston See what Miss English had to say in the
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