She has come up with an answer in her new book The Improvised Woman: Single Women Reinventing Single Life. "We are an undefined constituency," she says of the estimated 43 million unmarried women living in the U.S. today, up from 38 million in the early '90s. "Most of the rules that we have of how to live, how to act, apply to marriage. It's as if when you fall out of marriage, you fall out of the grid." But after talking with more than 100 single women between the ages of 20 and 95, she found that "now we have lots of choices," she says. "And looking for a husband isn't everyone's first priority."
It's not high on Clements's list. Born in Paris, she moved to New York City with her parents, Leon Kleinwecksler, a businessman, and Chaja, a former opera singer, when she was 10. A writer since her mid-20s, Clements was married briefly at age 19 to fellow Bard College student John Clements. She now shares a toy-and book-filled Manhattan apartment with her 4-year-old adopted son, Luc, and also cares for her 92-year-old mother, who lives nearby. As for Clements's social life, she says, "I'm not all that interested in dates per se. But I'm always interested in an adventure that involves another human being. I'm like most of the women in my book: I'm basically going by the seat of my pants." Correspondent Natasha Stoynoff talked with Clements about this new breed of single women.
Why has the Improvised Woman come about?
There are so few rules for single women. The old stereotypes are dying. And once you jettison the wallflower, the bitch, the ditz and the earth mother, you have to make up new rules as you go along.
Why has the number of single women increased so dramatically?
One reason is because they can be single. Many women no longer need men to survive financially. Also, there used to be a certain kind of woman who got married and a certain kind who didn't. And there was a big difference between the two. That's no longer true. Some women marry late. Some marry early, divorce, live alone a long time, then remarry. All these variations are becoming more common.
Has society's view of single women changed?
Single women have always been thought of as either unfeminine or desexualized or as oversexualized tarts or whores. The old idea was that being single was a fate you came to when you had no choice. These days it's often a conscious choice to be single. According to a recent New York Times-CBS News poll, 73 percent of teenage girls felt it was not necessary to be married in order to be happy. That's an unbelievable change!
Still, there have been Improvised Women in the past.
Yes, there are celebrated improvising pioneers, like George Sand and Jane Austen. Some of them have been really influential, like Eleanor Roosevelt, once she was widowed, or Oprah Winfrey. Mary Tyler Moore's TV character Mary Richards comes to mind for a lot of people when they think of single women. She was attractive and cheerful. That was a big breakthrough at the time. Women like Michelle Pfeiffer, Rosie O'Donnell and Diane Keaton, who have adopted children on their own, have made it easier for other women. Most families have at least one Improvised Woman. Women often talked about a great-aunt who never married or a grandmother, widowed early, who was a role model.
Many of the women you interviewed talked about how much better they do without a man. Why?
Often, after they get married, something happens. They start to compress. It's hard to say if it's hormonal or cultural, but women don't give themselves time and space of their own. One of my subjects said, "People ask me how I manage with a job and two children and no husband. I tell them, it's because I don't have a husband. It was much harder when I had a husband." Of course there are still women who feel exactly the opposite of this. And I think there are now many women who actually feel both. They want to be with someone, but they also want to be themselves.
Some women you interviewed had never been without a man in their lives. How did they react to being alone for the first time?
Some think it's temporary and that they'll get right back into a relationship. One woman told me she was surprised to suddenly realize she'd been single for 17 years. She said, "I thought that this was a phase, and then it turned out to be my life." Many are apprehensive and scared, while a few are tremendously relieved right from the start.
What's the hardest part about being single?
Many women, even those who were in terrible marriages, are devastated when their marriages end. That's because they're losing a fantasy. There's nothing more poignant than the death of hope. Some feel intense loneliness. Women with children are often scared on their children's behalf and have a hard time of it on a practical basis. But that's starting to change.
What do they eventually find that they like best?
The solitude, which turns out to be a form of freedom. Many of them may feel lonely, but it's as if there's much more room for exploration and expansion. After the anxiety of being alone subsides, there is a realization that you're okay. Women describe sitting alone in the living room and there's a sigh of relief. It's a pretty exhilarating moment.
Is romance a thing of the past?
Some women want romance and are still trying to get it. Others have given up. Some wind up getting it serially. And, thank goodness, there are still many surprises.
What did your Improvised Women consider an ideal relationship to be?
No one mentioned a traditional marriage. And no one mentioned just going out and having a lot of affairs with a lot of attractive men. They want the advantages of a love affair—companionship, sex and intimacy—without the claustrophobia. Some wanted apartments in the same house, others wanted to spend a couple of nights a week together. Still others wanted to get married but spend half the year apart.
Are these women saying they don't need men anymore?
I don't think women need men in the same way they once did but in other ways. If we're not dependent on men for survival, we can be dependent on men for more of a dialogue or companionship that's free from compulsion. Women can be with someone because they choose to be. Women are discovering that being on their own doesn't have to close down their possibilities. It can open them up.