Emma Watson Didn’t Invent “Self-Partnership”

Yes, there’s a difference between being single and being self-partnered

Photo: Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images

TThe actor Emma Watson recently declared herself “self-partnered” in a British Vogue interview, after confessing to a deeply relatable freakout on the eve of her 30th birthday. Watson’s declaration has a home in the burgeoning “single positivity” movement (soundtracked by Lizzo) that cheers on women’s efforts to find acceptance and fulfillment outside monogamy.

Most reactions to Watson’s “self-partnering” framed it as a slightly silly term for a personal choice. But it’s more than that. In her Vogue interview, Watson pointed to the “bloody influx of subliminal messaging” — in advertising, media, and society at large — telling women they are incomplete by themselves. This messaging is deliberate and well-entrenched: As much as we like to pretend otherwise, we haven’t yet fully exorcised the patriarchal ghosts that peg a woman’s existence to that of her father or husband. To overtly reject this — to, yes, “self-partner” — is, quietly, a radical act.

The mocking of Emma Watson is just the latest proof that even fame and professional success can’t counter the force of romantic narratives. Since the earliest days of celebrity culture, Hollywood gossip magazines have eagerly reported on the husband and the baby (and the divorce, and the next husband) of stars, if only to reassure readers that glamorous actresses want the same things they do. A single woman, by herself, offers no story. Her economic independence, furthermore, is greeted with skepticism and anxiety. In a famous episode of Sex and the City, Miranda, a high-flying corporate lawyer, has to keep repeating the phrase “just me” while trying to buy an apartment — first to her real-estate broker and then to her mortgage advisor — to insist on her own self-sufficiency. Even in depictions like this, which set out to highlight the injustice, that mantra “just me” lingers in the air. Is it any wonder single women doubt that “me” is enough?

Women who reject marriage aren’t just seen as pitiable. They’re also seen as a threat to capitalism, which has always depended on married mothers taking care of the next generation for free. As the women behind the feminist Wages for Housework campaign argued in the 1970s, capitalism depends on exploiting women’s unpaid domestic and reproductive labor, and gets away with it by insisting that work in the home is not work but a divinely and biologically ordained calling. Women who reject this unequal deal, who want to answer to “just me,” threaten to expose its unfairness to all women. Witch panics, for example, have historically been rooted in anxiety about women who lived alone, making their own money, and embodied an alternative vision of how a woman might build her life. Persecution was a warning against deviating from the script. Single women, widows, and other women on the margins of society were especially targeted.

This attitude was baked into the early American legal system in the form of coverture, which held that marriage literally brought a woman into her husband’s shadow. Instead of a femme sole she became a femme couvert, a “covered woman,” whose property, body, and children belonged to her husband. Legally, her status was equivalent to that of a child or an enslaved person, although in practice she had some legal and social pressure on her side that made it difficult (though not impossible) for her husband to abuse her with impunity.

Well into the 1960s, laws in the U.S. strictly limited the economic freedom of single and married women alike. In most states, a wife had no right to separate legal residence from her husband, and it was extremely difficult to rent or buy property on her own; many states made it illegal for her to retain her maiden name on marriage or revert to it after divorce. Until 1974, banks could refuse to issue credit cards to women without a man to co-sign, and as late as 1979, most states had “head and master” laws on the books that allowed a husband to buy, mortgage, and sell family property without informing his wife.

Women who reject marriage are seen as a threat to capitalism.

The long fight to overturn coverture is entwined with the women’s suffrage movement, which aimed to establish women’s status as citizens in their own right (although it made plenty of compromises with patriarchy and white supremacy along the way). Anti-suffragists argued that women would always vote the same way as their husbands, so granting them their own access to the ballot box was pointless.

The existence of unmarried women would seem like an obvious counterargument to this. Plenty of women active in the suffragist movement, like Susan B. Anthony, were unmarried, or living in discreet partnerships with other women. But they still tended to describe their lives in wifely terms: They proclaimed themselves married to the cause, or to their work, just as nuns were “married” to the church, rather than proudly and happily unmarried — let alone married to themselves. They seemed determined to avoid the stigma of unwomanly self-sufficiency.

After women gained the right to vote in the early 20th century, the women’s rights movement splintered to fight different battles — for easier divorce, for the right to serve on juries, and hold political office, for African American voting rights, and for a constitutional Equal Rights Amendment.

Then, during the Depression, economic necessity pushed a large number of unmarried women into the workforce and delayed marriage. Almost by accident, single women became newly visible in the culture. Many of them wondered if their careers really had to end with marriage, or whether living alone really was as grim and lonely as they’d been raised to expect.

To speak to this new cohort of unmarried women, a Vogue editor named Marjorie Hillis wrote a bestselling self-help book in 1936 called Live Alone and Like It: A Guide for the Extra Woman. Its rather depressing title hid a celebratory ode to the single life as it was lived by its glamorous, 47-year-old author, as well as the anonymous “case studies” in its pages, who had defied social expectation in favor of building their own unique, self-directed, and thoroughly satisfying single lives.

These were women who threw parties, had love affairs, traveled, went to the theater, and had close, sustaining friendships. They enjoyed breakfast in bed, dinner at the best restaurants, and decorated their homes with care and attention. Clearly they had the financial freedom to do so, but their appeal — and Marjorie Hillis’ brisk, inspirational advice — resonated widely. The book was a bestseller, and the “Live-Aloner” entered the cultural vocabulary as an alternative self-identification to “spinster” or “old maid.” It offered an ideal for single women that was not only visible, but aspirational.

But despite the efforts of women like Hillis — and Watson, for that matter — the idea that women could want to be alone still has yet to fully gain acceptance. Proclaiming yourself single by choice, or self-partnered, or a Live-Aloner, is no riskier than standing up in a house of worship and saying you will be coupled forever. But it is more radical. It’s not just a statement of personal preference but a way of being seen, a way of standing up in the light of independence, of declaring oneself, now and forever, a thorn in the side of patriarchy. Who wouldn’t be happy with that?

Writer, critic, curator, cultural historian. Author, THE EXTRA WOMAN (2017). Words at Slate, New Republic, Washington Post & more. www.joannascutts.com

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