Book Review: “All the Single Ladies” — Essential Reading

All the Single Ladies is well-researched and clearly-structured, a judicious blend of personal witness, investigative journalism, and careful culling of feminist history, social science studies, and government statistics.

All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation by Rebecca Traister. Simon & Schuster, 352 pages, $27.


By Helen Epstein

“I did not set out to write a book that relies almost entirely on the words, scholarship, stories, and insights of women,” Rebecca Traister writes in an introductory note to her engaging new book, All the Single Ladies, “But though they have been at the center of many female lives for many generations, men are not, as it turns out, at the center of the story I have laid out here.”

The center of Traister’s story is an energetic and heterogeneous group of young American women of the 21st century, whose personal and professional lives are upending centuries of human behavior.

The author does not globally romanticize the lives of “single ladies.” She points out in her introduction that almost 50 per cent of the 3.3 million Americans now earning minimum wage or below are unmarried women; that more than half of American unmarried mothers with children under the age of six live below the poverty line; and that many single women across classes, religious groups, and geographic areas would prefer to be married. What Traister argues, however, is that their numbers are growing by the year. There were 3.9 million more single adult women in 2014 than there were in 2010. “These women are not waiting for their real lives to start,” Traister writes. “They are living their lives and those lives include as many variations as there are women.”

All the Single Ladies, the title of a song by Beyoncé, is well-researched and clearly-structured, a judicious blend of personal witness, investigative journalism, and careful culling of feminist history, social science studies, and government statistics.

Just three of the stats that jumped out at me:

— from 1890 to 1980, the median age of first marriage for American women fluctuated between 20 and 22. Today, the median age is 27 and much higher in many major American cities

— in 2009, for the first time in American history, the number of single women outnumbered married women, and their number is growing

— in 1960, nearly 60 percent of all Americans were married by age 29; today in what the Population Reference Bureau calls “a dramatic reversal,” only 20 percent are

Traister notes that she herself exemplifies the trend toward later marriage: she married at the age of 35. Throughout her book, she leavens the numbers with anecdotes from her own and her mother’s lives and the lives of contemporary women, some famous (Anita Hill, Gloria Steinem), some obscure. With the help of her researcher, Rhaina Cohen, she casts a wide investigative net and has learned from the mistakes and omissions of previous authors to pay attention not only to race but class.

Her sample includes about 100 women. They are, by Traister’s careful selection, voluntarily and involuntarily single; rich, middle-class, and poor; lesbian and heterosexual; African-American, Asian, Native American, Latino and Caucasian; in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s. They include Kitty Curtis, a 26-year-old, white, hair stylist in New Jersey; 45-year-old Chinese immigrant seamstress Ada Li in New York City; Kristina, a 35-year-old architectural lawyer in North Dakota; and Molly, a 37-year-old Mormon raised in Utah, who married in her twenties and is now a divorced public defender. Surprisingly, most appear under their real names, and agreed to have Traister follow their single status over several years.

She asks them a variety of questions: about their family traditions, their professional, romantic and sexual lives, their friendships, and their expectations, tracking the role of popular culture phenomena -– books, magazines, movies, TV shows — that influenced them as girls and young women.

As a small child, Rebecca disliked seeing her literary heroines getting married. “Marriage, it seemed to me, walled my favorite fictional women off from the worlds in which they had once run free, or, if not free, then at least forward, with current of narrative possibility at their backs….My mother, a Shakespeare professor, would note wistfully to me that some of the Bard’s feistiest and most loquacious heroines, including Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, ceased to have any lines after their dramatically conclusive marriage alliances.”

In real life, however, many powerful women did not marry and delivered great lines. Queen Elizabeth, on the other hand, is reported to have said, “If I am to disclose to you what I should prefer if I follow the inclination of my nature, it is this: beggar-woman and single, rather than queen and married.” Traister relies on decades of feminist scholarship to highlight other women’s takes on marriage and what used to be stigmatized as spinsterhood, through war and peace, economic booms and busts, politically progressive and conservative eras in the U.S.

She includes piquant quotes from women such as Amelia Earhart (“You must know again my reluctance to marry, my feeling thereby that I shatter chance in work which means most to me”), Susan B. Anthony (“When I was young, if a girl married poor, she became a housekeeper and a drudge. If she married wealth, she became a pet and a doll.”), and Oprah Winfrey, whose best friend Gayle King “was the kind of kid who, in seventh grade home ec class was writing down her name and the names of her children…I was having daydreams about how I could be Martin Luther King.”

Friendship as profound a bond as marriage is a theme that runs through All the Single Ladies. It plays as crucial role a role for Traister’s historical examples as for 21st century single women. Guinea-born digital strategist Aminatou Sow and Iowa-born journalist Ann Friedman, for example, met in D.C. when they were single women in their twenties, and now live (one with a partner) in California. Susana Morris, African-American university professor in Alabama, left New England for grad school in Atlanta because: “There was just something about being in a city of fierce, single black women.”

Traister reminds us of the many technological advances, such as streetlights that improved public safety and made it easier for working women to navigate cities alone. I enjoyed her short digressions into substreams of social history such as housing for single women. A century before Craig’s List, when between a third and a half of working men over age fifteen in New York City were unmarried, many lived on their own in apartment houses and in clubs, while women enjoyed no such possibility. As a female professional class began to develop, however, housing for them was needed and Traister describes these early residences such as the Martha Washington Hotel, built in 1903, and the Trowmart Inn, built in 1906, that predated the Barbizon Residence for Professional Women built in 1927. The author also cites recent developments, such as anti-discrimination and consumer credit laws enabling single women to buy and rent domiciles on their own. These are as important as the reproductive rights single women take for granted today, even though unmarried women’s access to contraception was only legalized in 1972. I would have liked to read more about religion and cultural tradition in the lives of single women, and additional material about how massive change in education (the move to co-ed high schools, dorms, and colleges; the opening up of professional schools to women) has enabled “single ladies.”

Author Rebecca Traister. Photo: Eliza Brown

Author Rebecca Traister. Photo: Eliza Brown.

Sex and motherhood get their own chapters. As far as sex goes, virginity or celibacy had displaced homosexuality as “the love that dares not speak its name.” Some single ladies have multiple partners; some have none. “Many, like Kristina, have periods of promiscuity, periods of monogamy, and periods of chastity, all within the span of a decade or two – a decade or two that, a few generations ago, would most likely have been largely given over to married sex with one partner.” While single women are often assumed to lead the kinds of active sexual lives portrayed in the television series Sex and the City and Cosmo magazine, Traister writes that, “the interesting part isn’t necessarily the fact of the sex; it’s the increasing variety of sexual paths open to women, the diversity of choices made by different women, or sometimes by an individual woman, over the course of her adulthood. “And it’s not all juicy. Sex, after all, comprises the great and the abysmal: bad sex and violent sex and sex from which you contract a disease,” Traister writes. “The waggly-eye-browed (often older male) fantasy of single sex as an erotic wonderland rarely takes female discernment or disenchantment – or stretches of inactivity – into account.” She asks her interviewees about internet dating and concludes that it may not be all that different from traditional dating. “Dating, period, is horrible,” says Amina, who cites happy couples who met using the App. “I don’t think there’s anything exclusive to Tinder that makes it worse.”

Are today’s single ladies having children?

Single motherhood has long been a norm for low-income women, Traister points out, but it has now become an acceptable option for privileged women too. Even in North Dakota, Kristina’s doctor – who had had her first child as an unmarried women – encouraged her to “Just do it!”

Because of easy access to contraception and changing social mores, the average age of first-time motherhood in the United States rose from 21.6 in 1970 to 26 in 2013. In addition, the number of women giving birth after age 35 rose by 64% between 1990 and 2008. Here, too, new technologies have played a role: single ladies are making use of in-vitro and egg-freezing as well as changing regulations for adoption.

The evolution of single ladies has become an important factor in American political life as well as everywhere else. Traister keeps us as aware of changing political culture through the years as she does of pop culture. One of the most interesting women she writes about is Anita Hill, whose charges against Clarence Thomas during his Senate confirmation hearings brought major attention to sexual harassment in the workplace and galvanized many women to enter the arena as candidates for political office. Hill is now a professor at Brandeis and, though in a long relationship, explains why she deliberately remains unmarried.

All the Single Ladies is an ambitious book, packed with so many interesting people and ideas that I often wanted to hear far more about each. Although men steal into the narrative (across all classes, the number of stay-at-home fathers in the U.S. has almost doubled in the first decade of the 21st century, for example) Traister does not directly address their role in the rise of this “independent nation” of women. She’s focused on the women themselves, and has written a book that is essential reading.

Helen Epstein, who married at the age of 36, is the author of eight books of non-fiction, available at Plunkett Lake Press.

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