Singles scholar and Kinneret Lahad is out with a new book, A table for one: A critical reading of singlehood, gender, and time. If her name sounds familiar, that’s because I’ve talked about her ideas before, as, for example, in What’s so bad about waiting? and Who gets spooked by stories of single people dying alone?
I asked Professor Lahad, a gender studies professor at Tel Aviv University, if she would tell us about her book. Happily, she agreed.
1. Bella: What are some of the key ways that notions of time and timing are relevant to the lives of single women?
Kinneret Lahad: There are so many. Each chapter covers different concepts and formulations of time. I was particularly intrigued by the way in which normative prescriptions of temporal orders are constituted. Indeed, many single women are portrayed as pressured by their ticking biological clock, or as surrounded by friends and family members urging them to get married – and the sooner the better. Single women are often asked if they are “still single,” or “Why they are still single?” In the book I closely examine established clichés such as “In the end she will die alone”, “What is she waiting for?”, “She will miss the train!” or that “she is wasting her time”. Thus, I call attention to how terms as Still, Eventually, Ever-After, Waste of Time, Waiting, How Long, When: all form part of the rich vocabulary of time which shape the essence of the single woman as a figure of otherness.
- Bella: You say that single women are stuck dealing with a “triple disenfranchisement” and that leads to “accelerated aging.” Can you explain that?
Kinneret Lahad: My aim here was to re-evaluate the image of the old maid alongside the omnipresence of singlism, sexism and ageism prevalent in current discourses on singlehood. One of my points of departure was to ask Why for example are thirty-plus single women depicted as old, as ageing old maids? as opposed to thirty-plus married mothers that can be represented as ‘young mothers?’. In other words, I wanted to understand the social process that causes single women to “age faster”; and how do single women “age” differently from coupled and married ones?
My analysis of various cultural texts ranging from blogs, films and web-columns indicates that to a certain extent single women “age faster” than married ones, and it is this very symbolic social process that contributes to the stigmatization and devaluation of single women. This demonstrates how we are aged by culture and sheds light on how perceptions of the aging process are determined by singlist, sexist and ageist norms.
- Bella: Your book includes lots of quotes from blog posts and essays written by single women. Sometimes the excerpts show the ways in which single women internalize the stereotypes about them. That was painful to read, but important to understand. In other excerpts, the single women demonstrate great wit and insight. Below is one of my favorite examples, in which “Louise” charts the life-course trajectory of single women:
Ages 18-23: Too young to be looking for something serious
Ages 23-27: She is just too successful.
Ages 27-29: She is too picky, she will end up alone.
Ages 29-32: She is just too lazy. “Would it kill her to go out on the blind date her father set up? So what if he doesn’t know the guy, he knows his parents. It is a good family.”
Ages 32-35: She has given up. What a pity. She used to be so beautiful.
Kinneret Lahad: It’s one of my favorites essays and was a great source of inspiration for me!
- Bella: So much of the language of time, as it is used in discussions of single women, is stigmatizing. I particularly appreciated your ways of rethinking the derogatory expressions in empowering ways. For example, I loved how you took what single women are sometimes told about how they are going to “miss the train” if they don’t hurry up and find someone, and talked instead about how “‘missing the train’ might actually present an opportunity for something else.” Can you share any other examples like that or other ways of resisting stigma?
Kinneret Lahad: There are so many wonderful examples as you yourself show in your studies. One of my favorites is a New York Times cover story about Emma Morano, the oldest woman in Europe that stressed that one contributory factor to her longevity was being single. Morano’s story was published under the suitably catchy headline, “Raw Eggs and No Husband Since ’38 Keep Her Youngat 115”. Such accounts present us with alternative perceptions of temporality, through which women can articulate their own ideas about time and their single status. I see this also a way in which women can reclaim their time and destabilize common-sense life paths and schedules and life-course trajectory. Sadly, such paths are still rarely recognized in mainstream society, and reflect the need to harness conventional hegemonic discourses.
- Bella: If you are willing, please tell us a bit about yourself, including how you got interested in studying single people.
Kinneret Lahad: I am currently a Senior Lecturer in the NCJW Women and Gender Studies Program of Tel-Aviv University, Israel. I am a sociologist and a gender, cultural studies scholar, a single women, a loving aunt and a good friend (I hope). I think what sparked my initial interest in singlehood was my fascination with the idea and gendered ideology of the “ideal family. I am currently involved in various research projects among them are aunthood, friendships, discourses of freezing eggs and “late” motherhood. All these projects in various degrees communicate and attempt to understand the notion of the “good family” and female respectability. More about my work can be found here.
- Bella: In my opinion, singles studies has been far too slow to catch on and there are far too few scholars of single life. How have your colleagues reacted to your interest in this topic? Do you think that singles studies will soon have a larger place in academic curricula?
Kinneret Lahad: Yes, I agree with you, it is still too slow and I am not sure it will take a larger place in academic curricula. To the best of my knowledge I am one of the few scholars or might be the only one (?) who is teaching a course about singlehood from a critical point of view. I think academia is still a very couple-and child oriented culture and this reflects the choice of scholarly topics. However, in the past years there is a growing interest in singlehood in Asia and an impressive body of literature about singlehood in China, Japan and India. See for example this fascinating research project.
- Bella: Is there anything else you would like to tell us about your book or yourself? Any other ideas or advice you would like to share about single life?
Kinneret Lahad: Sometimes, particularly young students in their 20’s ask me: Kinneret, tell us what you think, which life choice is better? What can make us happier? Grant us with security, meaning and sense of belonging?
I don’t think single life is better or worse from couplehood or marriage. What I do object is the hierarchy between singles and non-singles and the ways in which this hierarchy is bestowed with so much power, authority and symbolic violence. The effects of this are horrendous and it breaks my heart to meet and talk with so many single people who have internalized this violence and accept this belief system. This is why singlehood is not only a lived personal experience but as social and a political issue connected to relations of power and social justice.