Saturday, March 5, 2016

‘All the Single Ladies,’ by Rebecca Traister (book review) - Note for a lecture, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United"

By GILLIAN B. WHITE MARCH 1, 2016, New York Times

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“Throughout America’s history, the start of adult life for women — whatever
else it might have been destined to include — had been typically marked by
marriage,” Rebecca Traister writes in her new book, “All the Single Ladies:
Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation.” “Since the late
19th century, the median age of first marriage for women had fluctuated
between 20 and 22. This had been the shape, pattern and definition of female

The fact, then, that the median age for a woman’s first marriage has risen
to 27 is a momentous turn of events. American women who eventually marry
are now left with nearly a decade of single adulthood to forge their own paths
professionally, romantically and socially. And this current period feels
markedly different from prior moments when decisions to abstain from or
delay marriage were intentional actions of feminist protest. Singlehood is no
longer as restrictive for women as it once was. Women can work, they can
borrow money, they can vote, buy houses, start businesses, travel the world
and have children without ever formally attaching themselves to a man.

But in an era that Traister, borrowing a phrase from Susan B. Anthony,
calls the “epoch of single women,” how do women view their own trajectory,
and have society and cultural expectations caught up to what the statistics
show is actually happening? Traister is certainly not the first writer to delve
into these questions, but she skillfully advances the conversation with this
book. A mix of interviews and historical analysis, “All the Single Ladies” is a
well­researched, deeply informative examination of women’s bids for
independence, spanning centuries. The material can threaten to be
overwhelming at times, but Traister provides a thoughtful culling of history to
help bridge the gap between, on the one hand, glib depictions of single
womanhood largely focused on sexual escapades and, on the other, grave
warnings that female independence will unravel the very fabric of the country.
In this follow­up of sorts to her first book, “Big Girls Don’t Cry” — an inquiry
into the changing political landscape for young women, occasioned by the
2008 election — Traister brings a welcome balance of critique and personal
reflection to a conversation that is often characterized more by advocacy and
moral policing than honest discovery.

Traister, for her part, assures readers that deciding to wed or not to wed
isn’t the central premise of the book; she is more interested in the relatively
new phenomenon of women having a choice in the matter at all. “The
revolution is in the expansion of options,” she writes, “the lifting of the
imperative that for centuries hustled nearly all (non­enslaved) women,
regardless of their individual desires, ambitions, circumstances or the quality
of available matches, down a single highway toward early heterosexual
marriage and motherhood.”

Traister explores the role of single women throughout modern history,
discussing the unmarried women who worked as abolitionists, fought for
voting rights, wrote literary classics, kept the country running during times of
war and even, like Queen Elizabeth I, ran countries themselves. She notes that
unmarried women have been some of the most successful writers, activists and
thinkers. They have also been ostracized, ridiculed and forced into unfulfilling
unions that, in some cases, eventually silenced them. Traister quotes from the
letters of Charlotte Brontë, who — after acquiescing to a marriage at the age of
38 in order to provide financial security for her father — wrote about the union
with some trepidation: “It is a solemn and strange and perilous thing for a
woman to become a wife.”

These difficult marriages have their counterparts in the fictional world. ­
Traister recalls how much she “hated” when her favorite heroines wed because
it often meant the end to their wild adventures. At the same time, women who
remained single for too long were almost never enviable characters,
succumbing instead to the sad fates of Miss Havisham and Lily Bart.

Single women, Traister argues, have been deemed confusing and even
threatening to the established order. Conservatives have long feared that if
women became more independent, “men would become less central to
economic security, social standing, sexual life and, as it turned out, to
parenthood.” When single women have outspokenly opposed powerful men,
their marital status has made them targets for judgment. They get pilloried
like Anita Hill and Sandra Fluke.

Traister brings some intimate knowledge to the conversation, having lived
“14 independent years” after college until she married at the age of 35. She
draws upon her own experience to illustrate some of the more meaningful
freedoms (a measure of control, for instance, over one’s own space and time)
as well as the complex considerations associated with being an unmarried
woman. Wrestling with the question of whether she would have children if she
remained single, Traister came to a decision at 30: “I would plan to have a
baby on my own. . . . Even beginning to consider this scenario was incredibly

Readers don’t have to rely solely on Traister’s experience; “All the Single
Ladies” includes numerous accounts from dozens of women navigating big
questions about work, marriage and children, in addition to everyday
challenges involving money and loneliness. She talks to young women trying
to earn college degrees after having children, and she talks to feminist icons
like Gloria Steinem. She finds women who live in big cities and women who
live in small towns, where remaining single after your early 20s is virtually
unheard of.

At a time when tethering yourself to another person is an option but not a
requirement, Traister highlights the many ways in which women have sought
connection outside the confines of heterosexual marriage. She notes how these
less traditional relationships can help create new and fulfilling iterations of
community and family, and she wonders whether such arrangements will ever
be as institutionally recognized as marriage, which remains one of the easiest
and most straightforward routes to providing loved ones with access to assets,
health care and other benefits largely reserved for spouses.

Perhaps one of the most important aspects of Traister’s narrative is her
acknowledgment that the experiences of single women are far from identical.
Race, location, sexual orientation, gender identity and economic class can have
a profound impact on how women experience their single status. For some ­
women, marriage was historically prohibited or, conversely, required: Slave
owners, for instance, could force their slaves to marry, or they could refuse to ­
allow it. And though they had more autonomy than black women, white
women who didn’t marry were often at the mercy of their brothers, fathers or
brothers­in­law. For generations, women’s economic fortunes were tied to
men; marriage offered the best — and sometimes the only — chance of
financial security.

“In 2009,” Traister writes, “the proportion of American women who were
married dropped below 50 percent.” The systems and traditions of the
country, however, aren’t built to celebrate or even accommodate this growing
cohort of unmarried women, and so “All the Single Ladies” is arriving just in
time. This is an informative and thought­provoking book for anyone — not just
the single ladies — who wants to gain a greater understanding of this pivotal
moment in the history of the United States.

Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation
By Rebecca Traister
339 pp. Simon and  Schuster. $27.
Gillian B. White is an editor at The Atlantic.
A version of this review appears in print on March

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