Breaking the singles mould and burying the "old maid" myth
By Marko Leppänen
It's just how it is. A normal adult woman is assumed to be a spouse and a mother. Either that, or there's something wrong somewhere.
Arja Mäkinen wasn't going to swallow this old categorisation without a few hard bites. She set about a study of the experiences of spouseless and childless women - "those double mould-breakers" - and of how they feel about themselves and their position.
The subject is to become a thesis paper for the Department of Social Policy and Social Work at the University of Tampere.
This woman of 41, who was a punk rocker in her teens, admits she has an iconoclastic streak. "I'm stubborn", she laughs. "I don't fit into the more traditional roles and pigeonholes."
The still widespread sense of unease around single women of a certain age is already indicated to Mäkinen by the fact that the Finnish language has no non-pejorative terms with which to describe them. To the wiseacres, "old maid" has always had an irresistible sweetness about it, for all the possibly bitter undertones.
But alongside the classical "unlit candle" of the old maid, Mäkinen raises three new stereotypes of the single woman: the irresponsible and commitment-phobic "city single" familiar from a certain TV series, the traumatised "deer in the headlights" type, and the suspiciously-uninterested-in-males "maybe she's a dyke, who knows" model.
"Even if being a lesbian is not of itself a negative thing, a heterosexual woman can experience the unwarranted lesbian reputation as a very uncomfortable burden to lug around", comments the researcher.
Sexual activity can itself lead to pointing fingers.
"The city single is semi-automatically assumed to have a new partner in bed every night. And for some reason, there is the fear out there that they are really only interested in chasing married men, so they are homebreakers, too."
Not having a family is seldom a conscious decision, made on principle.
"The usual way it goes is that ‘I'm (or I am going to be) without a family right now'. When this decision is strung together enough times one after another, then not being in a family situation becomes the default state."
The more educated a woman is, the more likely it is she will be living alone. Typical single men, on the other hand, tend to be less well-educated, and are also often assumed to be those prone to marginalisation.
"And that's another stereotype that ought to be picked open. That your man living alone is bound to be some kind of loser, probably a drinker, and dumb. Even if there are so many different kinds of single men out there", comments Mäkinen.
What about the workplace then? That's another thing. Is it as Mäkinen suggests, that singles are not necessarily seen as being as "responsible" employees as those with families, and yet at the same time they are expected - presumably because of their situation - to "live for their work"?
And if someone in the office has to go, are they the ones who get the boot first?
As the election carnival dances on, it would be refreshing to see a politician who comes out and declares something on behalf of the singles, rather than repeating the stock "families with children" mantra.
But the truth of it is that a woman at least is socially prohibited from being indifferent towards children, claims Mäkinen.
"I know women who are secretly delighted about their not having kids, but they deliberately let others believe that it is a source of anguish to them. It makes life easier all round."
Mäkinen, who lives in Jyväskylä, is a social worker by profession, but for the duration of her thesis writing, she has taken leave of absence. She is also single herself.
So, I suppose we have to enquire: was this your own choice or was it dictated by life, the universe and everything?
"I have not decided to live without a family, and then again I haven't taken a stand that it should never end up this way", she replies diplomatically.
The freedom to come and go as one pleases is to Mäkinen's taste, but she always tries to make room for friends in her calendar. "That old saying about ‘friends are a single's family', it holds true in my case."
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 8.3.2007, International Women's Day