Who Needs a Husband?

More women are deciding that marriage is not inevitable, that they can lead a fulfilling life as a single. It's an empowering choice, but for many not an easy one

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Jodie Hannaman grew up in Houston, a city as fond of formal weddings as of barbecues and rodeos. So it was saying something at Duschene Academy, her Roman Catholic girls' school, that Hannaman was chosen as Most Likely to Be Married First. But her teenage fantasies of buttercream frosting and silky bridesmaids dresses first began to crack with her high school sweetheart. He dated her for more than a decade before she finally got tired of waiting for a marriage proposal that was never going to come. There were other men after that, but it was Hannaman who repeatedly decided against a life built for two. Marriage, it began to dawn on her, wasn't an end in itself but rather something she wanted only if she found the right guy.

Now Hannaman, 32, spends 60 hours a week in her job as project manager for Chase Bank of Texas in Houston, in an office decorated with art-museum magnets and Cathy cartoons. She extends her business trips into the weekends for solo mini-vacations, enjoys the social whirl of the Junior League volunteer circuit, and has started looking for a house. While she would love a great romance that would lead to marriage, she no longer feels she has to apologize for being single. "I've finally matured enough to acknowledge that there's more to life than being married," she says. "I'd like to get married and have kids, but something in the past few years has changed. I'm happier being single."

Hannaman might seem to have little in common with the four lead characters on TV's Sex and the City, single women who live the supafly life and discard men quicker than last season's bag and shoes--and look damn good doing it. Her sex life isn't nearly as colorful, for one thing. All of them, nevertheless, are part of a major societal shift: single women, once treated as virtual outcasts, have moved to the center of our social and cultural life. Unattached females--wisecracking, gutsy gals, not pathetic saps--are the heroine du jour in fiction, from Melissa Bank's collection of stories, The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing, to Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary, the publishing juggernaut that has spawned one sequel and will soon be a movie. The single woman is TV's It Girl as well, not just on Sex and the City, the smash HBO series in the midst of its third buzz-producing season, but also on a growing number of network shows focused on strong, career-minded single women, such as Judging Amy and Providence.

The single woman has come into her own. Not too long ago, she would live a temporary existence: a rented apartment shared with a girlfriend or two and a job she could easily ditch. Adult life--a house, a car, travel, children--only came with a husband. Well, gone are the days. Forty-three million women are currently single--more than 40% of all adult females, up from about 30% in 1960. (The ranks of single men have grown at roughly the same rate.) If you separate out women of the most marriageable age, the numbers are even more head snapping: in 1963, 83% of women 25 to 55 were married; by 1997 that figure had dropped to 65%. "Are you kidding? An 18% to 20% point change? This is huge," says Linda Waite, a sociologist at the University of Chicago.

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