Women see less need for ol’ ball and chain

Women see less need for ol' ball and chain

C.W. Nevius
Sunday, January 28, 2007

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Are husbands becoming obsolete? You have to wonder. A recent New York Times study, based on 2005 census results, found that for the first time in American history there are more women living without husbands (51 percent) than with them.

To which many men must reply: Uh-oh. After all, how many times did they tell us to put down the toilet seat and pick up our socks? Could it be that a hubby is — like the big, smelly dog that keeps chewing up shoes — turning out to be more trouble than he's worth?

"We are definitely looking to have a fulfilling relationship,'' says 35-year-old Gia Colosi, an Intel executive and president of the San Francisco Spinsters, a philanthropic and social club of about 175 college-educated single women. "But at the same time, if it didn't happen it wouldn't be the end of the world."

In case you haven't noticed, that's becoming a prevailing view. Stephanie Coontz, author of the award-winning "Marriage, A History,'' has said, "There is no going back to a world where … marriage is the institution that organizes people's lives."

Take the case of San Francisco hair and makeup artist Teresa Callen. A single mother, she says she left a lousy marriage 12 years ago and admits she ran smack into all the expectations of a traditional role.

"I was scared, really scared,'' says Callen, now 44. "I thought I couldn't do it alone. I got engaged to someone else right away, but I couldn't go through with it."

Instead, Callen looked around and realized that she had lots of options. She went back to school, got a degree and carved out a life. Coontz says the new trends for women — college education, financial independence and less pressure from society — have changed the rules. One of the most important changes, she says, is knowing that you don't have to depend on your husband for a living and "if it doesn't work out, you could leave."

But that's just the tip of the husband-free trend. According to a New York Times analysis of census data, not only are women marrying later, they also are less likely to remarry right away if widowed or divorced.

So why aren't there an equal number of men living without wives? Only 46.6 percent of men do. The reasons: Men don't live as long as women, and widowed women are more likely not to remarry and live happily alone.

So it was no coincidence when a 2006 study by the National Association of Realtors found that 22 percent of home-buyers were single women. Not only is that an all-time high — single men were at 9 percent, by the way — unmarried women also purchase 40 percent of condominiums.

"It's a different generation,'' says San Mateo's Lorri Lee Lown, the founder of Velo Girls, a women's cycling club. "My mother couldn't have bought a house by herself. But I can.''

Erika Lodge, a 25-year-old investment banker and member of the Spinsters, says: "The financial freedom is the biggest component in this. Everyone has definitely noticed that things are changing with women in general.''

And what do the single men think of this? Well, as politically correct males in the 21st century, they know what they are expected to say.

"I think if you talked to most guys in my age group,'' says John Gartland, 34, who is president of the San Francisco Bachelors, "they would say they want a dynamic, independent, successful woman.''

But Gartland's friend and fellow member of the Bachelors, Eric Noland, is honest enough to admit that dating an extremely successful woman might take some adjusting.

"It wouldn't be threatening,'' says Noland, a financial planner for Williams-Sonoma, "but if I met someone who was high-powered, there might be some feelings of inadequacy. I think that's a very male reaction.''

There's the rub. Women have clearly changed, but some of them say men aren't keeping up.

Lown may be the model for the new single woman. Forty-one and never married, she worked in the corporate world until she took up biking after a long layoff. She loved the exercise and experience, but not dealing with the men's cycling clubs.

"Men compete with each other,'' says Lown, who has a master's degree in gender relations. "And they also compete with the women. Women don't want someone to be rude and give them smack talk going up a hill. They want encouragement.''

That wasn't likely to come from the men, so Lown started Velo Girls, for serious female cyclists, in 2002. The club now has more than 1,300 members and last year organized 299 rides, only a few of which included men.

"I had no idea it would take off like this,'' Lown says. "It was a huge surprise.''

The interesting part is the demographic. Lown says about 60 percent of club members are between the ages of 30 and 55, "rather affluent, college-educated, and with lots of free time available.'' That's because, in many cases, they aren't married. Nor are they clamoring to invite some men along.

"This is definitely not a place to meet singles,'' Lown says. "A lot of women say, 'This is my ride, not my boyfriend's or my husband's.' "

Not that they haven't tried it. Lown runs a few "singles'' rides each year, and the last one was the whole new male-female disconnect in a nutshell.

"I don't know how many times I had to tell the guys to chill out,'' says Lown, a competitive cyclist who has no problem keeping up with the men. "I finally had to tell them, 'Look, if you are trying to meet women, ride with them. Don't show off. Don't go crazy. That's not impressing anyone.' ''

OK then, men say, what are we supposed to be doing?

"That's the million-dollar question,'' says Noland, 33. "It's becoming more of a challenge. As guys, we are going to have to come up with some other measures of success for our relationships."

Are guys getting the message? Oh, who cares, women say. They are moving on regardless.

Consider Sheila Moon, a San Francisco fashion designer, who is a single woman in her 40s.

Moon worked in the fashion industry for years, doing "contemporary sportswear, suity-stuff." But four years ago, she saw this trend of "encouraging women to enter activities that are usually more male-dominated," and decided to design a line of women-only cycling clothes.

Today, Moon's designs can be found in stores in 23 states, from Florida to Oregon. The average person might be surprised to hear that women make up a higher dollar value of the bike retail market than men. Lown jokes that the reason is that a "man will buy a bike, a pair of shorts and a shirt. A woman will buy a bike and 10 outfits.''

Now, just to make it clear, there wasn't a person we talked to who wasn't interested in a solid, long-term relationship.

"Deep down, people want some sort of a partner,'' says Gartland. "Most people still get married.''

"And women do have the biological clock,'' says Colosi. "I think a lot of us still hear about our parents wanting grandchildren.''

That, Gartland hopes, is a guy's ace in the hole.

"We will really know we are obsolete if the birthrate keeps dropping," he says. "We still have that one useful reason to be married."

C.W. Nevius' column appears regularly. His blog and podcast can be found at sfgate.com. E-mail him at cwnevius@sfchronicle.com.

Women see less need for ol' ball and chain

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