Bookshelf: All the Single Ladies

Traister coverBy the time I finished reading the introduction to journalist Rebecca Traister’s new tour de force, All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, I had highlighted so much that I started to wonder if highlighting was a meaningless activity. Every paragraph offered something I wanted to remember and return to—a funny line, a surprising statistic, a bold argument. I grew impatient with reading the electronic review copy I’d received on my iPad, wishing I had a physical book so I could flip back and forth more easily. I finished the book, read something else for a few days, and then picked up All the Single Ladies again and started over; my second time through yielded even more highlights. When I sat down to type up my notes in preparation for writing this review, I wound up with four pages of them—and that’s the short, summarized, only-makes-sense-to-me version.

In other words, there is a lot of material in this book. So much that I could easily see it becoming too much, but Traister is a skilled writer and handles everything—data, history, personal anecdotes, policy prescriptions—with a surety and succinctness that I envy. All the Single Ladies isn’t a quick read, but it’s never a slog; it simply demands that its readers pay attention.

It would be difficult not to pay attention, though, to a book this interesting and bold. Traister’s primary argument is that the growing numbers of single women in the United States today are fundamentally reshaping our society, our politics, and our understanding of adulthood. And while this may seem like a decidedly contemporary phenomenon, Traister looks into American history and finds that single women have often played leading roles in other social movements: abolition, labor rights, and, of course, voting rights.

Those previous cohorts of activist single women were small and unquestionably living contrary to societal norms. They’re interesting to read about, and All the Single Ladies is definitely better off for its chapter about them, but that chapter feels like it’s mostly a set-up for what follows: a full-bore charge into examining the experiences of single adult women of all stripes living in the United States today.

Traister begins with one incontrovertible fact about single American women today: there are a lot of them (including me). Starting in the 1990s, the median age for first marriage spiked from its century-old historical norm between 20 and 22 years to the current 27 (and it’s often much higher in urban areas). Marriage traditionally marked the beginning of adulthood—the point at which a woman was no longer a child—but now, more and more American women are living significant portions of their adult years as single women. Some, of course, are in relationships but not married, and many move in and out of relationships over the years; “single” here generally refers to legal marital status. But large numbers of adult American women are spending a decade-plus of their lives single in every sense of the term.

Many of those women will eventually marry—demographers estimate, Traister notes, that 80 percent of Americans will marry at some point in their lives. And many women in their later twenties and early thirties might feel pressure (from family, friends, or perceived societal expectations) to hurry up and get married sooner rather than later. But they don’t have to. They may not want to. More than ever before, they will not become social outcasts—Miss Havishams or Hester Prynnes—if they never do, although, Traister acknowledges, being single can be “a source of frustration and economic hardship for many.” Unlike generations preceding ours, we have choices, which Traister writes is a tremendous change in American society:

… the vast increase in the number of single women is to be celebrated not because singleness is in and of itself a better or more desirable state than coupledom. The revolution is in the expansion of options, the lifting of the imperative that for centuries hustled nearly all (non-enslaved) women, regardless of their individual desires, ambitions, circumstances, or the quality of available matches, down a single highway toward early heterosexual marriage and motherhood.

So what are American women doing with their single years? Well, many of them are getting educated and getting jobs, becoming world travelers, developing their own hobbies, and, in short, becoming autonomous people who know themselves. They’re also developing strong, often intense, friendships with other single women, which at times can take the place of romantic relationships in terms of offering companionship, security, and advice. Female friendships, Traister argues, are more important than many of us realize:

Among the largely unacknowledged truths of female life is that women’s primary, foundational, formative relationships are as likely to be with each other as they are with the men we’ve been told since childhood are supposed to be the people who complete us.

Having good friendships, Traister thinks, can lead to a woman making better romantic choices in the long run: if those friendships offer her security and satisfaction, she’s less likely to jump at the opportunity to spend time with a potential romantic partner about whom she just has lukewarm feelings. I don’t entirely agree with this formulation, as I can think of plenty of people (and I won’t exclude myself from this group) who have great friends but have nevertheless found themselves in doomed romantic relationships. I do think that good friends can help steer us away from relationships with poor prospects—maybe not overtly (as friends are often hesitant to say “I just don’t like you with him/her” outright), but in serving as a sounding board when a woman wants to talk through her feelings or doubts about a partner. In other words: sometimes you don’t admit, even to yourself, how bad a situation is until you talk about it out loud and see the expression on a trusted friend’s face.

Independence, self-confidence, strong friendships, the freedom to choose your own adventure: Traister views these as the positive aspects of singledom as an adult. She doesn’t shy away from the negatives, however, which can include economic insecurity, loneliness and social exclusion (for women who live in communities where there’s more pressure to marry), and being entirely responsible for making things happen in your life. (That last one is why cities are often especially attractive to single women: you can basically outsource all the domestic responsibilities—cleaning, grocery shopping, laundry—that a partner would help with.) Being single can be hard. Being single and poor is even harder.

The women whom Traister interviews for All the Single Ladies are a diverse bunch, as she deliberately sought to include “geographic, religious, economic, and racial experiences” (although there is a slight geographical bias toward informants based in New York, where Traister lives). Our image of single women often defaults to white—just think of pop culture, where the most famous examples are Bridget Jones and Carrie Bradshaw. But Traister pays equal attention to women of color, both fictional (characters in Living Single and Waiting to Exhale) and her real-life informants. Traister points out that the post-World War II year saw African American women reverse their long trend of marrying earlier and in higher numbers than their white counterparts, as government policies that pushed white families into suburban domesticity excluded black families. For black women, marriage made less and less economic sense, Traister argues: “There simply weren’t the same incentives to marrying early or at all; there were fewer places to safely put down roots and fewer resources with which to nourish them.” Yet that dis-incentivized behavior was also pathologized, most notoriously in the Department of Labor’s 1965 Moynihan Report, which argued that the high rate of single motherhood in the African American community—not government programs that excluded blacks—was the cause of economic hardship.

It might seem a little odd that Traister—a married mother of two who lives in Brooklyn—is so enthusiastic about singledom. In the hands of a lesser author, the message of All the Single Ladies could become patronizing: “I made it through being single and you can too! Don’t give up!” But Traister doesn’t present singlehood as a state that needs to be endured while searching for The One. As she explains,

… unmarried life is not a practice round or a staging ground or a suspension of real life. There is nothing automatically adolescent about moving through the world largely on one’s own—working, earning, spending, loving, screwing up, and having sex outside traditional marriage.

Unmarried life is just … life.

There’s more to All the Single Ladies. So much more. As I write a book review, I highlight the points and quotes in my notes that I’ve used in the review, keeping track of what I’ve said and what I still want to cover. Usually I wind up with about 75 percent of the notes highlighted, with the remaining 25 percent discarded along the way because those items didn’t fit or didn’t seem as important as they had before. This time? I’ve highlighted less than 50 percent of the points in my notes, and I’m tempted to go back and add many more paragraphs to this already long review so I can discuss some topics that haven’t made it in. But I still won’t do Traister’s impressive work justice. So instead, I’ll conclude with something I very rarely say this directly in reviews: read this book. At least twice. As soon as possible. And make sure you have plenty of highlighters handy.

Help this single lady support herself by purchasing your copy of All the Single Ladies via this Amazon Associates link. Thanks! ~Maura

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