The following review of All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation by Rebecca Traister appears in the spring 2016 issue of Ms. Subscribe today for more reviews and to read our cover story on Lupita Nyong’o!
Unmarried women have had it rough. Viewed with suspicion and outright hostility throughout history, single ladies—the ones who don’t have or want “a ring on it” (with all due respect to Beyoncé)—have been dubbed spinsters and old maids, accused of frigidity, man-hatred, even witchcraft. Their marital status signified a failure to follow the script that identifies marriage as the marker of female adulthood. Beyond social stigma, women who didn’t marry risked financial hardship. Jane Austen, corresponding with her niece in 1816, wrote, “Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor—which is one very strong argument in favor of matrimony.”
That was then. In recent decades, writes journalist Rebecca Traister, unmarried women have changed American society by transforming the idea that early marriage is necessary and by charting new paths for women. All the Single Ladies, her cultural critique of single women’s changing status, invites us to revise the stories we tell about independent women and to acknowledge their revolutionary potential. “For the first time in American history,” she writes of the early 2000s, “single women … outnumbered married women.” Also for the first time, she reports, “it is as normal for [young women] to be unmarried as it is to be married, even if it doesn’t always feel that way.”
Traister surveys the changes over centuries that led to this moment and tells her own tale of singlehood along with life stories gathered in dozens of interviews. What emerges is a narrative about the profound changes taking place as women become free to map their own destinies without following the obligatory marriage plot.
While crediting feminism with helping to bring about the current array of options for women in terms of career, personal lives and childbearing, Traister rightly emphasizes differences based on race and class privilege. Some women of color and poor women have been husband-less because men are incarcerated or because they don’t want to enter into marriages on unstable financial footing. And politicians who rant against the decline of marriage seem more concerned with the relationships of affluent and powerful women than the well-being of women of color and the poor. Even as Traister celebrates women’s expanded freedom from dependency on men, she doesn’t glamorize singlehood or paint a uniformly rosy picture. “For many women,” she writes, “the pursuit of work and money has far less to do with fulfillment, excitement or identity than it does with subsistence. And, for many single women, scraping by is as hard as it has ever been.”
As single women become a bigger voting bloc, Traister believes we’ll see policies that enhance female independence, such as stronger provisions for equal pay, better protection of reproductive rights, government-funded day care and paid family leave. Responding throughout to conservative pundits who lament the demise of marriage as an institution, she counters that marriage today has a “high symbolic value.” No longer taken for granted as the requisite next step in early adulthood, “it’s something that women and men feel is worth holding out for, being prepared to enter responsibly.” She sees the marriage-equality victory as part of the shift from obligatory traditional gender roles within legal unions, and though she doesn’t spend much time discussing same-sex marriage, she identifies equality as the hallmark of modern marriage.
It’s remarkable that more people aren’t contemplating the growing population of single women, since their electoral power will inevitably change the American family. Traister urges readers “to greet the epoch of single women that’s upon us with open eyes and curious minds.” Doing so can help pave the way to a more egalitarian future and new definitions of happily ever after.