No matter what women’s lives looked like up until this moment, we are currently experiencing the most extreme version of them.
Oh, you wanted to get married and have babies and a full and enriching career as well? Great. But did you want to be locked in a house (or in many cases an apartment) with a partner, and children, responsible for schooling and cleaning and cooking and working 24 hours a day, with no remittance, for the foreseeable future?
Oh, you wanted to not get married and not have children; in fact, you liked being alone, thrived on the freedom that came with it, and faced its responsibilities as best you could. But did you want to be alone, all the time, in your small studio (perhaps one bedroom) with no one to touch or see and only the approximation of human contact via screens for the foreseeable future?
There’s a big difference between living alone, even when that’s your preferred lifestyle, and being alone all the time, through a pandemic, no less. Isolation is considered an extreme form of punishment for a reason. I wrote a book about the ways in which being on my own was both unexpectedly difficult and surprisingly, wonderfully exhilarating, and even so, I find myself unprepared for the intensity of this moment.
And what about those who are alone but not by choice? The recently divorced or widowed. Perhaps you broke up with a significant other at the end of the Before Times. Perhaps you were just getting somewhere with that Bumble date that, miracle of miracles, went amazingly well. Perhaps you were hoping to soon have children, and now that that’s been put on pause, you are just waiting, hoping that when this ends your body will still be a viable place for that to happen. Or that your finances will still be in a secure enough place you will be able to give a child a home.
Maybe you are just alone, and you’ve never felt strongly about it one way or another, largely because being “alone” in the Before Times actually meant having lots of people in your life who were available to you when you wanted other people around.
Whatever the situation, alone is hard. And when you’re a woman, navigating it—not just the enduring of it, but the social and cultural pressure of it—is even more complicated. A woman living alone is a perilous thing. Any child can tell you this.
In “Rapunzel,” a beautiful maiden is locked in a tower in the woods with no stairs or door. Her only access to the outside world is her long hair, which she lets down so that the witch who imprisoned her, and later the prince who will rescue her, can climb up. In “Hansel and Gretel,” the witch lives alone in the woods in a house made of sugar and gingerbread (a diet I can currently relate to), waiting to eat the little children who happen upon her. The grandmother in “Little Red Riding Hood” also lives alone in the woods, a lifestyle choice that results in her being eaten by a wolf. Even Frozen’s progressive Elsa, demonstrating the paradox of many modern independent women, who discover they are “a bit too much”—must retreat to her ice castle alone after her powers prove too much for her, and those around her, to handle.
In our stories, women on their own are either vulnerable creatures waiting to be saved or somehow suspect for their presumed magical abilities—namely, the ability or even desire to live without men.
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