All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women
and the Rise of an Independent Nation
(Simon & Schuster, 2016)
For me, it was the broken granny cart.
I had decided to redecorate my apartment—the very word “redecorate” signaling a burgeoning adulthood, a sense that I would put down roots in the form of new paint and sturdy bookcases. Which led to my predicament: I was stranded on a corner a few blocks from my house, the aforementioned cart filled with gallons of paint, one wheel twisted off in a horrible approximation of a snapped bone. I had no one to call. A man who’d been loitering nearby approached me: “It’s too heavy, too heavy.” (Gee, thanks.) Otherwise, I was alone.
For feminist writer Rebecca Traister, it was the air conditioning unit that she couldn’t haul home from the store. In Traister’s case, a female cab driver rescued her. In my case, I called an Uber, carried the paint cans upstairs, spent a few minutes wallowing in tears and self-pity, and then painted my one-bedroom, largely single-handedly. Separated by years and neighborhoods, we had both done the heavy lifting alone. We had both experienced that strange mix of empowerment and defeat, frustration and pride that comes with living as a single woman.
Traister tells her A/C story in All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, a forceful, thoroughly researched examination of the single woman. Single Ladies incorporates Traister’s own experience—she married at thirty-five after living independently for fourteen years—but the book goes far beyond memoir, weaving in statistics, polemic, history, “Sex and the City” episodes, and interviews with dozens of women, including Anita Hill and Gloria Steinem. This is not just the story of one woman’s journey but a blueprint and rallying cry for expanding the ways in which women construct their lives. “Single women are upending everything,” she writes. “We are a new republic, with a new category of citizen.”
American women are marrying later and less often. In 2009, the proportion of married women dropped below fifty percent; the median age of first marriage has risen to twenty-seven after hovering around twenty-two for decades. For Traister, these intertwined trends don’t simply imply that more women are carrying their own paint cans. It’s that American society is undergoing a shift on par with the civil rights movement, and that we must implement policies to address this change. “We have to rebuild not just our internalized assumptions about individual freedoms and life paths; we also must revise our social and economic structures to account for, acknowledge, and support women in the same way in which we have supported men for centuries.”
It’s important to note here that Traister’s definition of “single ladies” is elastic. The group includes women without partners, women who do have partners but are not married in an official sense, and even women who, like Traister, marry later in life, spending a chunk of time unpartnered. It also includes Beyoncé—whose hit song provides the title for the book—who started dating Jay Z at age nineteen but purposefully held off on marriage until she was twenty-six. Also worth noting is that Traister is solely concerned with the United States—a shame, given that other countries have done more to ease the problems of unmarried life (universal healthcare, higher minimum wages, and common-law unions are just a few examples).
That said, Single Ladies is the kind of book that makes you want to pump your fist in the air, the kind of book that recasts all your life decisions as worthy political acts (at least for me, a happily untethered creative type living in Brooklyn). Traister’s appraisal of single life is at once lively and cool-headed, fact-filled and laced with emotion and humor. On hookup culture, for example: “It’s true that increasing one’s number of sexual partners almost certainly increases the risk of sexually transmitted disease and of unintended pregnancy. It increases the chance of having your soul stomped on, and of having really bad sex. It also, I should add, increases the odds of finding someone with whom you have terrific sex […]” On conservatives’ fear of women gaining fulfillment from work: “Undergirding that potential for reward is the possibility that men might get pushed out, become accessories, see the space they would otherwise take up in the female life filled instead by wage-earning work. It’s threatening because it’s true.”
She picks apart the stereotypes of singlehood—that single women are selfish, childish, or flawed in some way—while acknowledging the hardships of living alone. “Of course, single people are lonely,” she writes. “Of course. We have all been lonely. For moments, for days, for endless, cold seasons of sequestration.” She tells the story of her friend, Sara, who moves to Boston with a man, leaves him and returns to New York City, decides to have a baby by herself and then suddenly marries an ex-boyfriend. The lesson of this and other women’s stories is not that single life is a better option than marriage: “the revolution is in the expansion of options.”
If the first chapter reads a little like Women’s Studies 101, covering well-trodden criticisms of second wave feminism, the sections on sex, urban living, and motherhood are refreshing. What’s different here—at least compared to other examinations of single women, from Kate Bolick’s Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, to the Hollywood movie How to be Single, to the deluge of magazine think pieces—is that the historical and political are front and center.
For example, she makes the argument that, in many cases, low-income women of color have consciously chosen to have babies on their own, undercutting the bogey woman of the black single mother. In a socio-economic environment where fulfilling careers and good matches are far from a given—there are only fifty-one employed single black men for every 100 single black women; almost a third of black men born in 2001 will spend some time in prison—a baby offers a way to exert control, form lifelong family bonds, and take advantage of resources like parental childcare that may disappear as one gets older. And yet, this choice is only called a feminist act when performed by educated, well-off white women. Indeed, some of the freedoms associated with being a single woman (outsourcing cooking, driving, cleaning, home repairs and so on) come at the expense of low-wage, often immigrant workers.
But some of Traister’s harshest criticism is aimed at politicians who advocate marriage—that “energy-sucking and identity-sapping institution”—as a route out of poverty while declining to support affordable childcare, a living wage, and other policies that could alleviate income inequality. Whether marriage makes a woman richer is unclear. A college-educated woman who delays marriage to her thirties will earn $18,000 more per year than one who gets married in her twenties. After the economic collapse, some husbands became more burden than helpmate. “When (white) men had union-protected jobs at manufacturing plants and could get a good rate on a loan for a three bedroom house and had a pension plan, marrying one of them—especially when women didn’t have these kinds of opportunities—made sense. But when men are struggling and women are more capable than ever of economic, social, sexual and parental independence, marriage doesn’t just become unnecessary; bad versions of it can become burdensome and deleterious to women.” On the other hand, she includes the following breathtaking statistic: “In 2014, the median wealth, defined as the value of one’s assets minus one’s debts, of single black women is $100; for single Latina women it is $120; those figures are compared to $41,500 for single white women. And for married white couples? A startling $167,000.” It could be the case that marriage alleviates poverty and also that it is the wrong choice for some.
Regardless, Traister sees conservatives’ angst about falling marriage rates as completely founded. The difference is that she doesn’t see it as a negative. “The intensity of the resistance to these women is rooted in the (perhaps unconscious) comprehension that their expanded power signals a social and political rupture as profound as the invention of birth control, as the sexual revolution, as the abolition of slavery, as women’s suffrage and the feminist, civil rights, gay rights, and labor movements.”
For me, I see this political rupture happening all around, even if progress is slow and loneliness is real and strangers still assume I’m going to get married and have a baby. I am convinced that we are, indeed, a new republic. I can see it in the women I know, how their strength and self-sufficiency create new ways of organizing their lives and, thus, of organizing society. We can support ourselves financially. We can buy (or redecorate) our own homes. We can form intimate friendships and maintain family bonds in a way that, often, men can’t—or don’t. We can have hobbies. We can have babies. We can set a high bar for the people we date, simply because the things that traditionally came from marriage—companionship, financial stability, children, sex—are now available from other sources.
But I’m not convinced that we see ourselves as a new republic, at least not yet. I’m not convinced that we see our lives as complete without partners, or that we see singlehood as anything more than a phase (and often a negative one). I’m not convinced that we fantasize about our single lives in the same way that little girls imagine their wedding dresses.
And if Traister’s new republic—and its social safety net—is going to gain acceptance, women (and men) must consciously embrace the increasing stretches of their lives they spend alone. We need to prepare to live without partners: to nourish friendships, to sock away money for retirement, to seek out rewarding jobs, to find comfortable living arrangements, to throw lavish fortieth birthday parties at which our married friends return their gratitude for all the wedding and baby gifts. It’s a tall order, perhaps impossible for many. But, as Traister writes, “sometimes, it just feels like making a point, possibly to ourselves, that we don’t have to be romantically attached to enjoy a rewarding, worthy—or even lush—existence.” In short, we have to live well.