It can be a pretty discouraging task – trying to take on the stereotyping, stigmatizing, and discrimination against single people that I call singlism. Plenty of people think it doesn’t even exist, despite the copious evidence and the fact that discrimination against people who are not married is written right into our laws. Just in the federal statutes, there are more than 1,000 instances. Even when people can be persuaded that singlism exists, too many of them dismiss it as insignificant. Who cares if single people do not have the same rights, protections, or benefits as married people, they ask. Let them get married!
On the November 23, 2014 episode of Madame Secretary (“Collateral Damage”), a CBS primetime television show, singlism got taken seriously. A woman who had been a Foreign Service officer her entire life was assigned to Angola. She wanted a post in Europe. She brought her complaint to the Chief of Staff, who at first told her, essentially, to suck it up. She said that the officer was the only person with the relevant skills and experiences to work in Angola. The officer was having none of it – she said she knew why she was given the assignment no one else wanted: because she was a 50-something year old who was single and had no kids.
The officer made her case. She recited the names of the other Foreign Service officers who did have the requisite skills and experiences. All of them also had a spouse and kids. The officer said she wanted the same thing the others wanted – a chance to spend some holidays with her family. (That was another high point – she did not buy into the presumption that if you don’t have a spouse or kids, you don’t have a family.)
The Chief of Staff relented. Maybe she had a bolt of self-insight – she, too, was single. She did, though, need to get the reassignment to Portugal approved by the Secretary of State – the “Madame Secretary” of the title of the show, played by Tea Leoni. Madame Secretary agreed without hesitation.
For me, it was an unabashedly joyful moment. On primetime TV, a character made the case that she was experiencing singlism and that it profoundly affected her life in an unfair way. What’s more, her point was acknowledged and acted upon, by one of the most powerful persons in the world.
Now if only some of the most powerful persons in the real world would do the same.
Note: Thanks to Roxanne Lopetrone and Karen Reed for their similarly enthusiastic notes about this important television moment. Karen posted the link to the segment from Madame Secretary on the Facebook page for National Singles Day. You can also find it here (sound will come on).