Why Single Women Are More Powerful in America Than Ever Before
Writer Rebecca Traister's soon-to-be-seminal book explores the role of unmarried women in America, analyzing how when the number of single women in America rises, direct social change occurs.
Journalist Rebecca Traister's new book All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation was published this week, but the book already feels like it has the potential to become a seminal text on female identity in the West.
In roughly 350 digestible pages (or, in her recent book excerpt-turned-cover-story for 'New York'), Traister will convince readers that the 2016 election will come down to a maybe-surprising demographic, and then make you feel foolish for ever thinking otherwise. As the title suggests, we're talking about unmarried women in America, a group that is growing at an exponential rate. "Wherever you find increasing numbers of single women in history, you find change," writes Traister.
"The expansion of the population of unmarried women across classes signals a social and political rupture as profound as the invention of birth control, as the sexual revolution, as the abolition of slavery," the author explains. In other words, if history is any indication, we should expect dramatic change in America now, and Traister details why through a mixture of historical analysis, heavy research, personal anecdotes, and interviews with academics, social scientists, and both non-famous and prominent single women, such as Anita Hill and Gloria Steinem.
While rates of unmarried women are at a new high (single women outnumbered married women for the first time in 2009, and today only 20 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 are wed), they aren't a new phenomenon, and, historically, whenever women were given options beyond early heterosexual marriage, significant societal change followed. Most of the women who led the fights for abolition and suffrage, against lynching, and for secondary education, were unmarried—as were the women who pioneered new fields such as nursing and medicine.
All the Single Ladies also dispels myths about unmarried women, from Newsweek's infamous claim in 1986 that single women at age 40 were more likely to be killed by terrorists than get married, to the notion that women have achieved true equality in the 21st century. A New York Magazine writer-at-large and ELLE contributing editor, Traister expertly paints a modern portrait of American life and how we got here, with an intersectional approach that accounts for class, race, and sexual orientation. Even more impressive is how Traister pushes a feminist agenda without the book ever feeling like it has an agenda, or that it's pointing the finger at the reader to make him or her feel guilty. VICE talked to Traister about All the Single Ladies over the phone and through email in light of its release.
VICE: What was your initial goal in writing All the Single Ladies and how did it change or evolve during the research process?
Traister: My initial idea was that the book would be mostly contemporary journalism—mostly the interviews with single women, across ages, backgrounds, races, religions—about their experiences of being single. As I started researching, I became much more interested in the history of single women in America, and how profoundly they'd shaped the set of possibilities now open to today's single women.
What were some of the most interesting experiences you had during the research process?
I think that coming across some of the published commentary of the 19th and early 20th centuries—from Susan B. Anthony's Homes of Single Women speech, to a 1904 newspaper column railing against the inequities of marriage, published by a "Bachelor Maid"—opened my eyes about how long these issues and questions and tensions have been in play, and how out in the open they've been. I still think of questioning marriage's primacy as a contemporary and rebellious act, but women have been doing it for centuries in really bold, funny, resonant ways.
Also, learning the stories of women who came up with ingenious ways of expressing their ambivalence about marriage, from Amelia Earhart, who wrote this incredibly ambivalent letter to her husband on their wedding day, to Lucy Stone, who published a proclamation of her ambivalence about marriage and its gender inequities and had the pastor at her wedding read it out loud. It's just so bracing and remarkable learning about women who have done remarkable things to evade the traps that marriage historically set for them.
You make the point that most American women, across all racial and ethnic groups, do eventually marry; they are just marrying later. How is late marriage benefitting women and society on the whole?
It gets us a lot close to egalitarian marriage. I think the bigger patterns means that men and women live independently in the world, often alongside each other as colleagues, peers, and friends. By the time they join in marriage, you wind up with a far greater likelihood that they both know how to do their laundry and use a drill and have some economic stability. So when they do [get married], the pattern of responsibility won't fall on these old patriarchal lines that cut men off from being domestically involved.
But we are constantly fed the narrative that high-achieving, successful women—particularly black women—will have a harder time finding a mate, when in reality, these high-achieving women are most likely to marry. Why is that?
That's a very old trope. We've had women be dependent on men in this country and if there is this shift, it can be destabilizing. As a result, we send a lot of messages that it's a very bad thing. The message that you're going to "independent" your way to singlehood, especially to black women, is designed, consciously or not, to herd women back into more traditional emotional and legal setups. The point is to make you doubt the things you're doing independently, whether it's going to graduate school or having a baby on your own. The message is: get back.
Staying single or marrying late can be hugely empowering for women, but what are some of the challenges these women experience, particularly poor women and women of color?
Single women and single mothers, in particular, are much more likely to live at or below the poverty line than their married counterparts and single life in working class and low income communities is intensely hard. We have such a low minimum wage and no kinds of protections like paid leave or high-quality subsidized day care. We have a criminal justice system that incarcerates and kills black men at such higher rates.
There are all kinds of systemic things that make life, including married and family life and childfree life, dramatically more challenging and difficult for low-income women and men. The idea that marrying someone, anyone, is going to help—and conservatives push this all the time—is wrong. One of the most economically devastating things in life is divorce. The solution is not marriage. Rather, we should be providing paid leave, a higher minimum wage, subsidized day care, a better health system, and lifting some of the limits on reproductive freedom. Marriage by itself does not address what is so grindingly difficult [about being poor] and may exacerbate it.
The message that you're going to "independent" your way to singlehood is designed to herd women back into more traditional emotional and legal setups...The message is: get back.
As people are marrying later in life, a trend we're seeing in many parts around the globe, do you think we are evolving out of marriage, especially as women gain economic and sexual equality?
I think we're evolving out of it as a norm and an expectation, and evolving into a world in which there are a number of romantic, sexual, and familial configurations, and that hetero marriage will be one among them. I also think we're evolving very, very slowly into an era in which marriage, and hetero partnership in general, becomes more egalitarian. As Susan B. Anthony predicted 150 years ago, part of that evolution is going through a stage in which women stop marrying men in the numbers that they used to.
Later marriage means lower divorce rates. After doing the research, how do you feel about your own "late" marriage at 35?
It's so funny that my marriage is 'late' by any historical standard; in New York City, I was amongst the first of my friends to marry. The fact that I fell in love with this guy is the most shocking part of my life, more than that I'm married. I just feel immensely lucky to have been unmarried when I met my husband. I had a lot of opportunities in front of me because I come from a fairly privileged population where I went to college and had the ability to pursue a career that I loved writing about subjects I loved living in a city I loved. This is how privilege accrues and expands for people.
In the book, you cite sociologist Bella DePaulo, who says there are more than 1,000 laws that benefit married people over singles. Now that we have marriage equality in the US, do you think "single equality" will be next?
I hope so. Bella DePaulo is absolutely indispensable on the variety of penalties paid by Americans who live outside of marriage. And I would love to see a move toward "single equality," which I think we get closer to by pushing for a lot of social policy fixes like the ones I outline in my appendix [such as stronger equal pay protections, a higher minimum wage, government-subsidized or funded daycare programs, and paid family leave for women and men, among other policies].
Do you expect any backlash toward the book? How do you hope the book ages?
I don't think that there's been much controversy yet, but I do expect conservatives to push back at my insistence that marriage is not the cure for poverty. And I expect some backlash from people who see this as a glorification of single life over married life, which it's not meant to be. I hope that the book ages as one of the many documents that chronicles the massive social, economic, sexual shifts women have made over their centuries of living in and pushing toward a more equal set of opportunities in America.
In 2012, unmarried women—who are more politically engaged than their married counterparts—made up 23% of the electorate. What role will they play in 2016?
They could play a totally determinate roll if they vote in the numbers that are possible. There are a lot of structural impediments to single women voting whether it's voting times curtailed, the hours polls are open, places to register or having to get special IDs to bring to voting places. These are things that take time that plenty of single parents and women do not have. Finally the Democratic platform is dealing with some of the fixes that single people need. Nobody talked about the Hyde Amendment until Hillary Clinton did in this election; no one has made paid leave central to a campaign—all these things are relatively new. Unmarried women could be determinative this election, but so much depends on their ability and enthusiasm to vote.
'All the Single Ladies' is out now on Simon & Schuster. Purchase a copy here.
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