Some books are not just books, they are events. Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation is among them. As I began writing this review, the book had been out for less than a week, and already it had been reviewed in the New York Times and many other major newspapers and magazines. Excerpts have already been published, and dozens of writers who were inspired by the book have written articles on the topic.
The attention is warranted. All the Single Ladies is a carefully researched and compellingly argued case for the significance of single women not just in 21st century America but in centuries past. Traister calls them “free women” and she is referring not just to those women who live single for life, but to women who live single for important parts of their lives. We know there are enough of such women today that the age at which women first marry (among those who do marry) has climbed to 27, but the single-woman demographic has been significant at other times, too.
When substantial numbers of women live outside the constraints of marriage, they do great things. Many of the most significant progressive victories in the US were powered in no small part by the efforts of single women. They include, for example, the abolition of slavery, the achievement of women’s right to vote, the invention of birth control, the founding of women’s colleges and colleges for African Americans, the beginnings of the labor movement, and victories for civil rights, LGBT rights, and women’s rights.
All the Single Ladies is even more than what it promises in the subtitle, which is to make the case for the role of unmarried women in “the rise of an independent nation.” Drawing from more than 100 interviews with single women, including a few famous ones such as Gloria Steinem and Anita Hill, as well as from her own life story, Traister has a lot to say about what it is like to live single in America. So, the book is also a journalistic account of single life. It is all of these other things, too:
- It is a manifesto on the value of single life.
- It is a rewriting of the story of single women and single mothers, from weak victims flailing around in a state of chaos to strong agents creating their own meaningful and rational life paths.
- It is a thoughtful, fact-based, compelling answer to all the pundits, political leaders, political wannabes and all the other shamers who insist that marriage is the answer to poverty and so many other social problems.
- It is that rare single-women narrative that acknowledges something significant: when it comes to important trends and accomplishments, often it was poor women, working class women, and women of color who got there first.
- It is a decimation of the popular right-wing formula for success (graduate from high school, get married, have kids, and stay married).
- It is a reclaiming of the value of the many pursuits that can make single life so meaningful, such as work, friendship, and solitude.
- It is a powerful pinprick, bursting the bubbles of all sorts of moral panics (OMG, college kids these days are hooking up! OMG, single women are prioritizing their education and their careers! OMG, women are having babies without having husbands! OMG, women are not having babies, and that spells the end of America! OMG, women are not having babies soon enough, and their eggs are going to dry up!).
- It is a fresh, feminist take on so many kerfuffles, media obsessions, and significant historical moments, from Anita Hill’s testimony about Clarence Thomas to the case of the Central Park jogger to Rush Limbaugh’s calling Sandra Fluke a slut.
- It is a rewriting of history that brings single women out from the margins and into their rightful place at the center of social progress.
I have a special interest in All the Single Ladies because I have been thinking, researching, teaching, and writing about single life for nearly two decades. In fact, my first book, Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After, was first published in 2006.
In Traister’s robustly positive take on single life and her perspective on marriage that avoids being matrimaniacal, All the Single Ladies fits very nicely in the tradition of Singled Out and other books before it, such as Kay Trimberger’s The New Single Woman and Jaclyn Geller’s Here Comes the Bride: Women, Weddings, and the Marriage Mystique. However, I wish Traister had acknowledged more clearly her intellectual predecessors.
I have a few other reservations as well. For example, in a chapter on friendship, Traister writes one of the most beautiful odes to female friendship I have ever read, insisting that it is not some sorry substitute for romantic relationships but the real thing. Maybe even better than romantic relationships. But then she admits that after she got married, she demoted her friends. She didn’t have the same time for them anymore.
The chapter on work was another example. In Singled Out, I mocked the scare stories lobbed at single women telling them that their work won’t love them back. Traister does, too, and notes that actually, if you are lucky enough to have the right kind of work, your work will love you back. But then she adds this:
“The fact is, being married to your job for some portion or all of your life, even if it does in some way inhibit romantic prospects, is not necessarily a terrible fate, provided you are lucky enough to enjoy your work, or the money you earn at it, or the respect it garners you, or the people you do it with.”
Not necessarily a terrible fate? I think that may well be the faintest praise imaginable.
My reservations, though, are small stuff relative to my overwhelmingly enthusiastic appraisal of All the Single Ladies. This is one of those rare books that have the potential to make a real difference. It could wake up some political leaders to a powerful, but mostly overlooked, constituency. It could change the media narratives, from fluffy trend pieces and regressive pity-the-poor-single-person embarrassments, to much more serious stuff. And maybe it will create momentum toward accomplishing some of the goals Traister outlines in the Appendix. One of my favorites is this:
“We need to support alternative family structures, including cohabiting friends, people who live on their own and in clusters, people who parent with partners and without.”
In the course of research for my own How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, I have found that fewer than 20 percent of American households are nuclear family households. It is time to take seriously all of the many ways that single women – and single men, and everyone else – actually live. All the Single Ladies is a superb contribution to what I hope will be a new social movement.
All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation
Simon & Schuster, March 2016
Hardcover, 352 pages