All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation
“It is this kind of insight . . . that makes [Traister’s] important work a significant addition to the literature of sociology and women’s studies.”
Judging from Rebecca Traister’s articles for New York Magazine and other publications as well as her TV appearances, she is an amicable woman as well as an astute social critic and feminist analyst. These attributes are certainly apparent in her second book, All the Single Ladies, which explores the history, context, and impact of unmarried women in America.
There are more of them than one might expect, and they are not an entirely new phenomenon. While in 2009 the proportion of American women who were married dropped below 50 percent (by choice or through divorce or widowhood) and the median age of first marriages rose to 27, many women before modern-day feminists elected to remain unmarried if they had the means.
England’s first Queen Elizabeth refused to marry despite several proposals, stating that her choice of a husband was the kingdom of England. “I will have here but one mistress and no master,” she declared, adding that she would rather be “beggar-woman and single, rather than queen and married.”
Queen Elizabeth I was sufficiently privileged to make that choice as were many other women that followed. What is notable about most of them, however, is that they had an enormous impact on their life and times, and they contributed to social change in ways that married women, bound by hearth and home—and expectations about womanhood promulgated largely by domineering husbands—never could. Traister’s chapter on these women is reason enough to read this compelling narrative.
But it is the discussion of modern realities for women of all ages, classes, races, and gender identifications, and the social and political implications of their new reality that makes this book timely and important.
Traister admits that she didn’t realize what she was onto when she started the book. Initially she intended it to be “an account of how generations of single women living at the turn of the 21st century were . . . reshaping the nation’s politics and families.”
What she discovered was that there was a significant historical precedent and that as Susan B. Anthony had noted, “As young women become educated . . . thereby learning the sweetness of independent bread, it [would] be more and more impossible for them to accept the marriage limitation.” Anthony had, in fact, predicted “an epoch of single women.”
Now, says Traister, “the independence of women is a crucial tool in their long struggle toward a more just and equitable position in the world.”
The relevance of the story Traister tells could not be more timely as the likelihood of American’s first woman president looms large. As she points out in her Introduction, “Taken together, these shifts, by many measures, embody the worst nightmare of social conservatives: a complete rethinking of who women are and who men are and, therefore, also of what family is and who holds dominion within it and outside it. The expanded presence of women as independent entities means a redistribution of all kinds of power, including electoral power that has, until recently, been wielded mostly by men.”
One of the most interesting chapters in the book—and they are all fascinating in important ways—is For Poorer: Single Women and Sexism, Racism and Poverty. In the subsection called The Price of Motherhood, Traister points out, for example, that conservatives like Phyllis Schafly love to blame single mothers for all the ills of the world without understanding the “complicated interplay between economic disadvantage, greater independence for women, and increasingly diverse models for family structure.”
So conservative messages get boiled down to misleading notions and assumptions, including the big one in which single mothers are accused of generating and perpetuating poverty when, in fact, it’s the set of “economically rigged” systems—which these women must navigate—that are largely responsible for their economic circumstances.
It is this kind of insight, along with anecdotes Traister includes in every chapter in order to put a human, sometimes famous, and occasionally personal face on the issue she’s addressing, that makes her important work a significant addition to the literature of sociology and women’s studies.
A selected bibliography and a set of “policies and attitudes that must be readjusted and re-adjudicated as the swelling number of unmarried American women move forward into the world,” are added bonuses. Clearly this book belongs right up there with those by Gloria Steinem, Gail Collins, and other feminist writers who shine a light on contemporary life as few others can.