All The Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and The Rise of an Independent Nation
By Rebecca Traister
Simon & Schuster
352 pages, $27
By Emily Simon
“Single women are taking up space in a world that was not designed for them.”
That sort of statement – at once radical and obvious – is characteristic of Rebecca Traister: a happily married mother of two who is currently encouraging us to recognize the cultural and political power of single women.
Single women are trending. Their numbers are increasing, and an essay-length version of Traister’s new book “All the Single Ladies” is a cover story this month in New York Magazine, Traister’s current employer. The story focuses in part on the impact single female voters will have on our upcoming presidential election (in short: way more than you probably think).
Elections, and women’s role in them, have long been Traister’s beat. She gained national recognition at Salon magazine, and documented the game-changing 2008 election in her first book, “Big Girls Don’t Cry.” She’s established herself as one of our nation’s foremost Hillary Clinton scholars, and as a breath of fresh air in our increasingly manic pundit culture.
She’s an outspoken feminist usually covering women’s issues … and it tells us everything we need to know that I felt the need to put a “but” after the word “issues” above. Suffice to say, Traister is a writer whose “think pieces” always reveal actual thinking. Her intellectual cred is solid as a rock, and she’s got the cheerful, bulldog unshakability required of women everywhere who are succeeding in traditionally male-dominated fields.
In “All the Single Ladies,” Traister looks at the lives of single women across the globe and throughout history – their impact and their circumstances. She also looks at us looking at them. She gathers and states truths that may have been scattered like shrapnel throughout our consciousness but never before gathered into a whole picture. That picture is offered in these pages in crystal clear high-definition, and the impact is powerful. She has documented “the invention of independent female adulthood.”
First, the facts in evidence: women are encouraged, from all directions, to see marriage as a life goal. Tradition has long dictated that marriage was a woman’s only route to power and respectability. A woman often couldn’t own property, couldn’t get an education or most jobs.
Marriage solved some of her problems but created others. Marital rape was legal in our own country until fairly recently. Women were their husband’s property. If your marriage was a failure, so were you, and it was a life sentence. Many women made good and happy marriages, but this was largely a matter of privilege, opportunity and luck. And for women, any marriage at all was often thought better than none.
Single women have been portrayed and treated as threats to civilization (at worst), and freakish, stunted and immature (at best). In the past decades, more and more women have chafed against this raw deal and worked to make sure their lives aren’t defined by it, but many women throughout history have delayed or resisted marriage and been freer to make the world better as a result.
Simply by laying bare these assumptions and prejudices – dissecting them one by one, kicking their tires and testing their validity – Traister builds her case that how we think women are living now and how they’re ACTUALLY living are not in sync. What we think they should want is not always what they actually do want, and they are increasingly making their real wishes clear. Women’s progress over the last century has changed the world in ways we haven’t totally caught up to yet, and this can be seen best by looking at the lives of single women. Marriage itself is evolving – in Traister’s view, for the better – and women’s changing experiences are leading that evolution.
Traister herself is helping lead a wave of “new-er journalism” that balances the personal voice with old-fashioned fact gathering and objective reporting. Her book is peppered with women’s personal stories and does include her own, which is charming. But even better, while laying out facts, she’ll occasionally allow herself a moment of wry commentary, and when she does, it packs a fist-pumping punch that is all the greater for her scholarly dispassionate build-up.
The book falters a little in two areas. First, its overall trajectory doesn’t really build to a powerful conclusion. Each section in and of itself is solid, but the book as a whole has the feel of rearranged index cards that could have been grouped in any number of ways. The book tells its story in snapshots, and doesn’t have the narrative power of her shorter online pieces.
The second weak spot is Traister’s occasionally strained insistence on the happiness of the single women she interviews and tracks. Happiness is not an easily measurable standard, and one can occasionally feel Traister’s need for her statistical subset to be happy, and her understandable reluctance to insist that they are.
This is no fault of Traister’s: Some single women are happy, others aren’t. Some married women are happy, others aren’t. What we credit for our happiness or blame for our unhappiness is fluid and ever-shifting, and can’t be quantified in a way that supports her thesis. But a reader can feel that she’s on the side of the single women, and considers their rise in numbers and power to be a net good. She gets plenty of support for this from her self-reporting subjects, but can’t use their aggregate emotional state as a data point … the numbers don’t add up because this part of the picture can’t be reduced to numbers.
Traister is most masterfully in her element when dissecting media coverage of single women and revealing its biases. She covers EVERY base – freezing your eggs, hook-up culture, female friendships (their impact on romantic choices, and vice-versa) – all points on a road map to the evolving values, desires, and ultimate life goals of women. Reaction to this is sure to be generational – young people might well respond “duh,” and bring it with them to the next family dinner to read from when asked to justify their lives to the oldsters. Those oldsters might find this book insulting, and revolutionary, but Traister ensures that they cannot successfully counter the arguments it contains.
She discusses a 2012 New York Times article called “Two Classes, Divided By I Do,” contrasting the lives of women in identical job situations, one married and one single. The article stated that all that separated them was “a six-foot-eight inch man named Kevin.” Traister efficiently counters that no, what actually separates them is money. The unmarried woman went back to work too soon after a surgery not because she had no man at home, but because she had no paid sick leave.
Traister keeps going in this vein, relentlessly laying out the unassailable evidence that marriage – among all the other things it is to us – is a social program, and one that the government tries to mandate in order to lighten their burden. We chafe at single women using the government as their “husbands,” while complacently accepting that the government supports “(white) male independence in a variety of ways.”
In the end, Traister does prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that increasing numbers of women are acknowledging these divides, and resisting the crushing pressure to subjugate themselves to a social institution that benefits them personally in less and less quantifiable ways. They’re delaying or avoiding marriage in order to achieve power and security of their own, eventually entering into more equitable – and ironically arguably more truly “romantic” marriages – by choice, without the terror of single life as the cattle prod to drive them. Ultimately, she shows that there is nothing more radical than reclaiming and deriving actual power from a status traditionally used to shame and marginalize you.
This is what single women are doing as we speak.
Traister ultimately reveals her hopes for the future of marriage by quoting the Massachusets Supreme Court, the first ruling in the land legalizing gay marriage: “Civil marriage is at once a deeply personal commitment to another human being and a highly public celebration of the ideals of mutuality, companionship, intimacy, fidelity, and family. … Because it fulfills yearnings for security, safe haven, and connection that express our common humanity, civil marriage is an esteemed institution, and the decision whether and whom to marry is among life’s momentous acts of self-definition.”
To quote Traister herself: “I wound up happily married because I live in an era in I which I could be happily single.”
Emily Simon is a Buffalo-raised freelance writer living in California.