I’ve spent the last several decades of my life arguing for the dignity and value of single people. I’ve been trying to make the case that the mere fact of being married does automatically not make anyone a better person. No one should feel defensive about being single, not even about being single their entire life.
I’ve made special efforts to remind people in power to use inclusive language. Expressing your concern about “working families” is not using inclusive language. Attending to the well-being of couples and families during a pandemic is not inclusive caring.
Sometimes it feels futile. Especially when people who should know better, people who have inclusive values in so many other ways, continue to stigmatize and marginalize people who are single. And when they do the same to people who do not have kids. (It should be obvious that the two groups are not the same – many single people have kids and many couples do not — but they are often conflated.)
But then, on July 23, 2020, something remarkable happened. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-14) stood up on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives and said this:
“Having a daughter does not make a man decent. Having a wife does not make a decent man. Treating people with dignity and respect makes a decent man.”
There it is. Without explicitly using words such as singlism, matrimania, or marital status discrimination, AOC, as she is commonly called, decried all of those biases and prejudices and injustices. You are not decent just because you are married, she declared.
Her statement is now part of the Congressional Record. Her speech, in whole or in part, has been viewed many millions of times. Already, only a few days later, it has been discussed in just about every major publication, often under triumphant headlines such as this one in the Washington Post: “AOC’s speech about Ted Yoho’s ‘apology’ was a comeback for the ages.”
The incident started two days earlier, when Florida Representative Ted Yoho, on the steps of the Capitol, called Ocasio-Cortez “disgusting” and “out of [her] freaking mind.” Then he added that she was a “f—ing b-tch.”
A reporter heard the exchange and wrote about it. That set off round one. Representative Yoho was getting excoriated, so he went to the House floor to defend himself. It did not go well. “Having been married for 45 years with two daughters, I’m very cognizant of language,” was just one of the many unconvincing, untrue, and irrelevant excuses he tried out.
AOC wasn’t having it:
“You can be a powerful man and accost women. You can have daughters and accost women, without remorse. You can be married and accost women. You can take photos, and project an image to the world of being a family man, and accost women, without remorse, and with a sense of impunity.”
Many brilliant essays have already been written about the sexism, the misogyny, and the hiding behind marriage and family of people such as Yoho. They mention that it has been going on forever and that women are expected to just suck it up.
But this wasn’t just about sexism and it wasn’t just about women. It is about singlism and matrimania and the many ways that many married people – both men and women – see themselves as superior just because they are married. It is also about the many people who agree with them, including, it pains me to say, even some people who are single. The supposed superiority of married people is an ideology, not just any old belief. It is a worldview; people are invested in it. “Get married, and you, too, will be superior,” is an alluring lie.
The AOC event isn’t just about crude insults or hurt feelings or “mere” prejudices, either. On that very floor of the House of Representatives, and in the Senate, more than 1,000 laws have been passed that reward and protect and privilege only people who are legally married. The costs to people who are not married are enormous. Federal laws and other policies and practices result in massive financial disadvantages, unequal opportunities to care for others and be cared for by others, discrimination in the housing market and health care system, and much more.
I hope AOC recognizes those issues, too. I hope she implores her colleagues to address them, with the same passion and eloquence that she mustered in her pushback to Representative Yoho.