All the Sin­gle Ladies:

Un­mar­ried Women and the Rise of an In­de­pen­dent Na­tion by Re­becca Trais­ter, Si­mon & Schus­ter, 339 pages

Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS - — Molly Boyle

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.”

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