All the Single Ladies:
Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation by Rebecca Traister, Simon & Schuster, 339 pages
In the 1970s, Gloria Steinem famously said, “We are becoming the men we wanted to marry,” but to read Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies is to realize that these days, we are becoming the women who neither need nor care to marry, period. From an exploration of unmarried women who were historically instrumental to the abolition, suffrage, temperance, and labor movements to present- day interviews with social scientists, academics, and single ladies, Traister argues that female independence is tied to massive positive social change. Only 20 percent of Americans are wed by age twenty-nine today, compared to nearly 60 percent in 1960, and Traister maintains that the benefits of such upheaval are myriad for unmarried women, with broad implications for the more progressive society under construction.
In an 1877 speech on “The Homes of Single Women,” Susan B. Anthony seemed to anticipate our age of education, advancement, and increasing singlehood, predicting, “As young women become educated in the industries of the world, thereby learning the sweetness of independent bread, it will be more and more impossible for them to accept the … marriage limitation,” which would lead “inevitably, to an epoch of single women.” Here we are in
that epoch, Traister’s book proudly proclaims, and we’re better for it.
All the Single Ladies tracks the rising political and social power of unmarried women, from their demonization by conservative politicians in the 1980s and ’ 90s to their growing impact on electoral politics and the traditional definition of family. It’s hard to imagine today’s media or Senate treating Anita Hill with t he disrespect she received dur i ng her 1991 sex ual harassment testimony against Supreme Cour t - nominee Clarence Thomas. Pundits focused on her singlehood as a marker of instability, and senators freely speculated on, as Hill puts it, “Why I, a thirtyfive- year- old Black woman, had chosen to pursue a career and to remain single — an irrelevant shift of focus that contributed to the conclusion that I was not to be believed.” According to Traister, Hill’s testimony was a watershed moment, among many, that contributed to a widespread cultural transformation, as the term “sexual harassment” entered the popular lexicon and the sight of one African-American woman being grilled by a panel of white men illustrated the need for a major shift in America’s representative politics (In 1991, there were only two women serving in the Senate; today, there are 20).
Traister cites convincing statistics that show that unlike Hillary Clinton, who refused Bill Clinton’s proposals three times before she said yes — and then postponed her own political career for several decades — young women are delaying or eschewing marriage across class lines, and their earnings and career satisfaction suggest they are reaping the rewards. In the words of a 2013 Pew report, “today’s young women are the first in modern history to start their work lives at near parity with men. In 2012, among workers ages twenty-five to thirty-four, women’s hourly earnings were 93 percent of those of men.” The numbers of unmarried people are rising, too, in proportion to this positive economic trend; as Traister writes, “Between 2000 and 2009, the percentage of never-married adults in that same age bracket rose from 34 percent to 46 percent.” One researcher who was used to the trend of non-marriage or l ate marriage occurring mostly with t he very poor or t he very privileged was surprised to find that more women in the middle classes are al so choosing not to marry, making it clear that regardless of income level, the decision to forgo marriage is becoming common across the board.
The author’s i nter views with happily single women are the most persuasive aspect of her treatise, as she chronicles successful women who have chosen cities as their most rewarding relationships (with their built-in support systems of laundromats, tailors, neighbors to help with child care, cultural offerings, roommates who split rents, and available food at any hour) — who fight the stereotype of the selfish single woman by statistically being much more likely to offer practical help to their parents than married women, and who find meaningful, unconditional love in their strong relationships with female friends.
On the subject of loneliness, Traister reminds us that there are most likely so many unmarried women today because of the simple fact that for centuries, when marriage was practically compulsory, plenty of women were utterly unhappy. As journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates observes, “Human beings are pretty logical and generally savvy about identifying their interests. Despite what we’ve heard, women tend to be human beings and if they are less likely to marry today, it is probably that they have decided that marriage doesn’t advance their interests as much as it once did.”