In many ways, the women are very different: One is a doctor, another a hairdresser, the third is on welfare. But they have at least two things in common.
They are black.
And they are alone.
Barbara, 45, thinks her marital chances may have died in a distant land. "I think my husband may be pushing up daisies in Vietnam," she says of the place where 7,000 black American soldiers lost their lives.
Geneva, 31, sometimes blames herself: "You sit back and think 'What's wrong with me that I can't find a good guy?' "
And LaShane, 23, says others too often take what should be hers: "I feel like I'm being cheated," she says of black men who marry non-black women.
Once, she thought she'd marry young, and live happily ever after. But finding a mate, LaShane says, "is turning out to be the most difficult thing for me to achieve."
With a strong desire to marry within their race, and with violence, incarceration, unemployment and other social factors reducing the number of available black men, many black women say they are competing for too few men. And that perceived dearth of marriageable black men has stirred an emotional debate that has reverberated from church workshops to cocktail parties, from popular literature to stage and screen.
Terry McMillan's novel "Waiting to Exhale" struck a nerve with those who claimed they saw themselves in the travails of four black women trying to forge relationships with black men. One of the most provocative scenes in Spike Lee's film, "Jungle Fever," showed black women lamenting the scarcity of potential partners. And in the theater production, "Diary of Black Men," a character boasts that he doesn't need to settle with one woman when black men are in such demand.
Many black men, however, say some black women focus on superficial qualities in potential mates, thus ignoring substantial numbers of quality bachelors.
Workshops with such titles as "Surviving the Search for Mr. Right" and "Living in the Spirit of Being Single" are being conducted at black women's conferences nationwide and have heightened a spirited debate.
Yet, despite such discourse, many say not enough serious discussion has been devoted to the decline in black marriage. They emphasize that solutions are critical to avoid a devastating impact on the black community for generations.
"This has nothing short of earthshaking implications for black women, men and children," says Ronald Mincy, senior research associate with the Urban Institute. "No one it seems has the courage to put this on the table and say, 'Listen, we have to deal with this.' . . . We're not effectively coping with this decline in marriage for what it means for the future of our community."
At stake, he and others say, is not just women's personal happiness, but the economic ascent of black America, potentially stymied by shrinking dual-income households. A growing number of women are raising children alone, and children who see no marital relationships in their homes may be less inclined as adults to make such a commitment.
The numbers show that black women under 35 are at least twice as likely as their white and Latina counterparts to have never married. And marriage rates have dropped much farther in the past two decades among blacks than any other American ethnic group surveyed. (No figures were available for Asian-Americans.)
For many black women, the fall-out is deeply personal, with emotions ranging from hopelessness to resignation. Some have opted to cross age and racial boundaries; others simply prepare to live their lives alone.
Says Eleanor Hinton Hoytt, national programs director for the National Council of Negro Women: "I think these are very desperate times for black women."
Not everyone agrees there is a shortage of eligible black men. Some say such a notion has been exploited by those who focus on negatives within the black community. Others claim it is African-American men themselves who sometimes exaggerate the ratio of females to males, using their perceived scarcity to create power over women.
Regardless, the numbers document the shrinking pool of available black men.
At first glance, statistics appear to favor black women. For every 1,000 black females born in 1990, there were 29 more black males, according to U. S. Bureau of Health Statistics.
But from that point, the black male's survival odds diminish.
Black males have a slightly higher infant mortality rate than females, and homicide is the leading cause of death for African-American boys ages 15 to 19. One in four black men in their 20s are behind bars, on probation or on parole.
Black men age 20 and older faced a 13.3% national unemployment rate last December--more than twice that of white males in the same group. Some will be crippled by substance abuse and others will choose a mate of another ethnicity--or their own gender. And some will simply choose not to marry at all.
Such myriad factors severely decrease the number of black men able and willing to marry and support families, many experts say. Thus, fewer black women will marry, and the number of households headed by black females will increase as some women choose to have children without a spouse.
No husband or second income means a life of poverty for many single mothers. Nearly 80% of poor black families are headed by black women with no spouse in the home, while 51.2% of all black households headed by women are living below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Ultimately, the declining marriage rate spawns economic repercussions that have an impact on the entire black community, researchers say.
"The defining feature of the black middle-class is marriage," says Mincy, explaining that dual-income households are essential for the community's economic status to rise.
"Having to meet the expenses of life, and having little money to put away, inhibits our ability to own businesses, to buy property. . . . One reason the black community has so little wealth is we haven't pooled our incomes despite the fact black women have been working for as long as we can remember."
What Might Have Been
Lady Cage has struggled alone. And she has little sympathy for divorced women who complain they cannot find new mates when many, like her, have never walked down the aisle.
An aspiring businesswoman in her 30s, Cage won't give her age, but acknowledges that in some men's eyes, she's no longer young.
Searching, but not desperate, Cage sometimes ponders what might have been: Kind and loving guys she let go because they didn't fulfill fantasy; marriage proposals in college that she declined.
"Maybe I should have jumped then," she says, laughing. Sometimes "you do regret it." But Cage has not given up hope. She now dates men she once might not have considered. And in the meantime, a job, volunteer work and an exercise routine fill her days.
"I'd rather have a husband and a family," she admits. "But you don't dwell on it. It'll happen. Even with this dwindling pool, it will happen."
Middle- to upper-income black women may be less adversely affected than their lower-income counterparts, but experts say both groups wind up drawing from the same shrunken pool.
And that competition, many women say, makes some single black men less willing to settle down with one woman.
"When you talk to guys, a lot feel there's so many black women out here looking for a black man, they don't have to act right," says Lynda Lucas, a 37-year-old divorcee who last December joined a black dating service. "If you don't want them, Mary down the hall (does), and (she'll) do whatever to keep him."
Audrey Chapman tells of moving from Connecticut to Washington: "In Washington the rumor is 7 (females) to 1 (male). I said, 'People are crazy. There are men all over the place.' But a guy would say that to give himself leverage."
A relationship counselor, Chapman says she understands why some black males trumpet such numbers, regardless of the truth. "I think black men are always seeking some kind of power in this society, and the (people) they seek it with (are) black women," she explains. "They don't have power anywhere else."
Fantasy and Reality
To be sure, there are single women who enjoy their independence and have no desire to pursue the stuff of fairy-tales and TV sitcoms.
Yet, many women want to marry, no matter their color. "We mirror the larger society," says Barbara Miles, editor of Chocolate Singles, a lifestyle magazine for unmarried blacks. "We raise little girls from the cradle to start picking out their wedding gowns. . . . If they don't live out the fantasy, they get very frustrated."
For a growing number of Americans, the fantasy is simply not reality. From 1970 to 1991, the percentage of married adults nationally dropped from 72 to 61, according to the Census Bureau. The percentages dropped from 73 to 64 for whites and from 62 to 61 for Latinos.
But blacks had the biggest decline--from 64% in 1970 to 44% in 1991.
In some age groups, the number of never-married black women is more than twice that of their white and Latina counterparts. Last year, 41% of black women age 34 and younger had never married, compared to 15% of whites and 20% of Latinas, according to federal statistics.
While noting the effects that violence, incarceration, and unemployment have on limiting the pool of available black men, some experts say the declining marriage rate in the black community simply mirrors the overall decline of matrimony in the U. S. Professionals postponing marriage while pursuing careers, and the growing acceptance of being single also contribute to the decline, they say. Mincy adds that some men may be reluctant to marry women who already have children.
Others, however, contend that some black women limit their own chances at marriage by wanting their potential mates to meet unrealistic expectations.
"(They) look for too much in the wrong areas," Chapman says. "By the time we define who this man needs to be, they have eliminated the majority of black men. They want a black Donald Trump, and you can count on one hand the number of men who fit that description."
The charge that black women want too much is fiercely debated--by men who claim they are hard-working and available, but often ignored; by women who say they simply want a man who will love and respect them; by professionals who defend their desire to marry a man with similar education and income.
"A lot of women should stop relying on TV to tell them what a good black male should be," says 24-year-old Andre Barrington, owner of "Black Obsessions," a L. A.-based video-dating agency. Despite the diminishing pool, he says, "there are (still) quality men out there" eager to marry black women.
A 33-year-old police dispatcher, who did not want his name used, says he's one: "It makes me angry. A lot of guys who do street maintenance are single, a lot of garbage men are single. The guy could be a an honest man, but (many women) don't want a man who cleans the streets. It hurts."
He is now looking via Barrington's agency. "I very much want a black woman," he says. "But if I can't get a black woman to be with me, what do you think I'm going to do? Turn to another race."
A generation ago, researchers say, expectations for spouses were different. "Our parents were looking for just a good man or good woman, someone who was consistent, dependable, hard working," says counselor Chapman.
Integration helped change that, she says, giving blacks "the illusion that if we acquired what the broader (white) society had then we'd be making it. Everything would be as wonderful for us as it was for them. What we didn't realize was it wasn't wonderful for them either. They were also having problems in their marriages and their families."
But many black women say they just want a "BMW"--a black man working--who will love them and treat them well.
Some professional women have turned from seeking men of similar backgrounds and are considering blue-collar men. But they fear rejection because the men may feel threatened by their income or status.
"When you reach a certain level of education and income, you automatically narrow your prospects," says Barbara, the 45-year-old physician who did not want to give her last name. "Regardless of what color a man is, if you're making twice as much money, he's going to be intimidated."
She would like to marry and have a child, Barbara says, but she will not settle for less: "Some women settle for someone who doesn't have the same realm of exposure, or social values. The fact they have an M.R.S. is enough. . . . But that's not fine for me."
While some women have immersed themselves in work and other activities, others have become more proactive--seeking black men from other countries or crossing age, class and racial boundaries to find a mate.
Magazine editor Miles lauds both approaches, adding that less than a decade ago she saw much more desperation among women in unhealthy relationships.
"There was this tenacity to hold on at all costs," she says. "The fear was that if you didn't, you'd end up alone. (Now) I see the panic subsiding . . . because being not married doesn't necessarily mean being without male companionship. . . . There are fewer taboos."
Miles notes that many women buying personal ads in her magazine no longer specify only black men.
Though black men are involved in more than 70% of marriages between blacks and whites, the number of black women doing likewise has slowly increased.
Three years ago, Kymberly Jean, 29, opened "Opposites Attract," a dating service that matches different ethnicities. Jean, who dates men of other races, says half her clients are black, including a broad spectrum of women who often consider dating non-blacks as a last resort.
"They're frustrated," she says. "When the women come to me, the main reason they give is 'I'm sick of brothers.' It's not because they're attracted to white men.' "
Lynda Lucas, 37, remembers dateless New Year's Eves, when other women's boyfriends kissed her at midnight. She dreads people constantly asking why an attractive woman such as her is not romantically involved, and she longs for a family.
"I've got a career but I don't have anybody to share it with," says Lucas, who has been divorced 10 years. "It's a lot of weekends alone, a lot of holidays alone. You (wonder) what's wrong."
Such loneliness, says NCNW's Hoytt, leads some to date men already involved with other women.
The idea of man-sharing is controversial, with many black women saying they refuse to knowingly participate in such relationships. But Hoytt, a divorcee who has been single for nearly 13 years, did.
"It was a compromise," she says of that now-ended relationship. "I'd rather it not (have been) that way. . . . It was (just) a result of things just being the way they are."
There are efforts to turn things around. Besides dating services, forums in cities such as Los Angeles and Washington have joined black men and women to discuss strengthening relationships.
Many also speak of an effort by black professionals to mentor poor children, hoping that positive role models can minimize the hopelessness, violence, and crime that stunt the lives of so many young black men.
Still, some say it will take more.
"The solution is to create meaningful, legitimate employment and ownership opportunities for young black men living in our poorest neighborhoods," says Samuel L. Myers, a human relations and social justice professor at the University of Minnesota. "With that, people will have a vision for a future--violent crime will fall, homicides will be reduced, incarceration will become less of a problem and these guys will be ready to assume their roles" as husbands and fathers.
Meanwhile, some black women have found happiness within themselves.
"We do survive without men," says Claudette Sims, of Houston, a motivational speaker and author who has never married. "We would like to have that family, that nice, special person.
"But I think we understand that if we have to go it alone, we will."