Unmarried: The Tempest in Tampa

Unmarried: Rose Ferlita has put her political ambition first and foremost, while her opponent is a dedicated family man with two children -- Ferlita is an unmarried woman with a suspect commitment to family values.

So reads a mailer that's making news in the Tampa mayoral run-off. Accusations and denials are flying about the mailer's origin or whether it was actually sent out. But regardless of who's to blame, the bottom line is that this line of attack on Ms. Ferlita's marital status is considered a powerful and persuasive and legitimate political tactic.

This tempest in Tampa is just the example of the stigmatization still faced by single, divorced and widowed women, even in 2011. This is a bias that is widely held according to a study released by Pew in February, which found 68 percent of those surveyed said that single women raising a child without a male partner was bad for society.

America is changing. Unmarried women make up the fastest-growing large demographic group and now comprise nearly one quarter of the U.S. population. One out of every two American women is now unmarried, and unmarried women are raising one quarter of all American children under 18 years old. Two-parent families may be the ideal, but we need to recognize -- not stigmatize -- the lives of the women who are making it on their own and supporting their children and families.

Unmarried women are changing this country in so many ways -- from the housing market to the workforce to the ballot box. Look no further than Colorado. In the Colorado Senate race, the marriage gap was 22 points, according to Project New West and America Votes data. Unmarried women voted for Democrat Michael Bennet over Republican Ken Buck 59 percent to 36 percent, compared with the narrower support for Bennet among married women, 47 percent to 46 percent. If unmarried women had voted as married women, Buck would have been sworn in as senator.

While unmarried women are a force demographically, politically and economically, they still face challenges. According to a White House report, and earlier research by Women's Voices. Women Vote and the Center for American Progress, unmarried women have been hit harder by the economic downturn than their married counterparts. They are struggling to put food on the table and roofs over their heads and the heads of their children. They are more likely to be unemployed, uninsured and have lower incomes than married women.

Rather than demonizing these women, we should be working to understand their needs, come up with policies that address their concerns, and educating and engaging them in the political conversation. Using scare tactics and dog-whistle language is a silly diversion; it ignores the reality of the changing face of America and the future of our society and democracy.