Unmarried women are such a diverse group that we can be hard to characterize and therefore hard to understand. We encompass varying races and sexualities. Some of us intend to marry, others have no plans to do so. We include college students, childless executives, politicians and poor single mothers.
That wide spectrum of experience and circumstance doesn’t stop anyone and everyone from making blanket statements about us, in ways that are often inaccurate and patronizing. Right-wing talk-radio hosts paint us as sex-crazed for daring to demand affordable birth control, and single mothers are blamed for wreaking social havoc. Cultural critics and “Princeton Moms” tell us to quit being so picky and settle down already, while economists warn that the surplus of educated, successful women in cities is the reason our latest Tinder match ghosted mid-convo.
Finally — finally! — there’s a book that doesn’t judge single women or tell us we’re doing it all wrong. Journalist Rebecca Traister gets us. She sees modern women’s skepticism of marriage not as a new phenomenon but as part of a centuries-old search for independence.
Throughout American history, she finds, many women who remained single did so not because they were spinsters who couldn’t find partners (many of them had long-term romantic relationships), but because they were more passionate about their interests than they were about tying themselves to a specific person: They devoted themselves to art or science, to social and political progress. By establishing full lives without being yoked to a partner, and by having children on their own and nurturing intimate female friendships, today’s single women, Traister argues, are remaking the definition of family — and are strengthening marriage by demanding more from it when and if they do tie the knot.
The title of her new book, “All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation,” may feel outdated. (It’s been almost a decade since Beyoncé told us to put our hands up and do our own little thing.) But Traister’s message is intensely of this moment — when about 80 percent of Americans ages 18 to 29 are unmarried; when single women make up about a quarter of the electorate; and when about half the first-time births in this country are to unmarried women.
“For young women, for the first time, it is as normal to be unmarried as it is to be married, even if it doesn’t always feel that way,” Traister writes.
It doesn’t always feel that way. Even though marriage rates have plummeted, the culture at large hasn’t caught up. Just listen to any stump speech catering to “families,” not “individuals” — or any wedding toast implying that a solo person is incomplete until they’ve met their match.
One way of understanding today’s single woman, Traister argues, is to look to her earlier incarnations. “Women, it turns out, have been fighting their own battle for independence, against politicians, preachers, and the popular press, since our founding,” Traister writes. “Women living singly in America over the past two centuries have been partly responsible for the social and economic upheavals that have made the possibility of independent life for today’s single women so much more plausible.”
Freedom from slavery. The freedom to get an education, to vote and to plan our families. All sought by women in the 1800s to mid-20th century who used their freedom from wifely and child-care duties to fight for social or political change.
Susan B. Anthony felt the injustice of marriage intensely, telling journalist Nellie Bly, “I never felt I could give up my life of freedom to become a man’s housekeeper,” and she devoted her life to fighting for women’s right to vote and for the abolition of slavery (a cause that drew many women, married or not). Dorothea Dix, an early activist for the mentally ill, also remained unmarried, as did Catharine Beecher and Mary Lyon, who advocated for women’s education. Emma Goldman, a fierce critic of marriage, mentored the married Margaret Sanger, who ushered in modern forms of contraception. Civil-rights and women’s rights activist Dorothy Height — who, among other things, ran the National Council of Negro Women and was an organizer for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington — never married. Feminist icon Gloria Steinem didn’t marry until her 60s.
In those women’s days, it was much harder, if not impossible, to live a life of political, economic or social importance while married and caring for children. That is no longer so starkly the case, but Traister sees today’s bright prospects for unmarried women as directly tied to American women’s earlier battles. “This is the epoch of single women,” Traister writes, “made possible by the single women who preceded it.”
More recently, it’s single or late-marrying women in politics, Traister writes in a New York Magazine essay adapted from her book, who’ve been vocal advocates for issues directly affecting women, such as reproductive rights or more expansive paid-family-leave policies.
In addition to tracing the history of single women, Traister looks deeply into what it means to be single today. She interviewed about 100 women between 2010 and 2015, and it’s their experiences — plus details from Traister’s life — that make the book feel personal and relatable.
Traister wasn’t single herself while writing the book. But having spent 14 of her post-college years as an unmarried adult making her way in the world — working, dating, not dating, pondering having a kid on her own if the right partner didn’t surface — before tying the knot at 35, she understands both sides of the single-married divide. (Thankfully without being smug about it, either.)
In her interviews, readers meet college students who say that marrying in their early or mid-20s would ruin their lives, 30- and 40-something urbanites who find themselves fulfilled by vibrant city life, and unmarried mothers who don’t see any reason to get hitched. For example, a woman identified only as Pamela, who
had her first child at age 17 and is still with her daughter’s father, tells Traister, “I always knew that marriage would not keep a man around,” adding that she doesn’t see people getting married that often — and when they do, divorce often follows.
Traister points out that poor single mothers in communities where large proportions of men are unemployed or incarcerated may face the toughest challenges of any cohort of single women. Forty-two percent of families headed by single mothers, for example, live in poverty. But marriage, which conservatives like to tout as a cure-all, wouldn’t necessarily solve the problem. “The reasons that many women remain unmarried,” she writes, “even when they are in romantic relationships, often with the fathers of their children — aren’t random, rash, or illogical.”
Traister recognizes the nuance of single life — that today’s unmarried women are, on a whole, not clones of the desperate Bridget Jones or the promiscuous Samantha Jones. Her assessment of single women’s sex lives is so balanced and ordinary-sounding that it becomes extraordinary in a world where Tinder is supposedly bringing a dating apocalypse: Unmarried women’s lives, she writes, might include periods of casual sex or occasional anxiety about finding a mate, but most women aren’t defined by either condition. What Traister finds interesting about single women and sex is the diversity of their choices. Many, she notes, “have periods of promiscuity, periods of monogamy, and periods of chastity, all within a 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.”
Spending more of their lives without a dedicated romantic partner means that unmarried women have more time and energy to devote to their female friendships, relationships that can be as nourishing as romances, and sometimes even more so. In Traister’s chapter on the strength of women’s friendships, she describes the first meeting of now-besties Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow with all the frisson of a rom-com meet-cute. Ann and Amina notice each other across the room at a party; they don’t talk much that night but later connect on Facebook. They’re now what could only be described as soul mates.
“Though their connection wasn’t sexual, the process of falling for each other was almost romantic,” Traister notes. With Amina, Ann said, she found “the thing I always wanted but didn’t get from relationships with men: pushing me to be better without seeming like they were constantly disappointed in me. . . . All these things people say they turn to a partner for, I turn to Amina for.”
Even with sustaining relationships like these, single life isn’t without loneliness, exhaustion and fear, truths Traister acknowledges but doesn’t dwell on. Often these tougher moments, she says, exist right alongside the positive parts of being unmarried: Being solo allows you to have complete control over your life but can also be tiresome and difficult. “Living independently, even with the means to take care of oneself economically,” Traister writes, “can be physically and emotionally depleting.”
My only wish, in the interviews from single women, is that they had included a view of older single life — of women in their 50s, 60s and beyond, those who’d grown up in a time when marriage was more compulsory and are now choosing more independent lives. For those over 65, divorce is growing, while in younger age groups it’s holding steady or declining. Some dispatches from gay single life and older unmarried women might have made this already wide-ranging book feel even more inclusive.
Though women are delaying marriage, they’re not eschewing it altogether. Traister notes that most Americans will marry or commit seriously to a partner for the majority of their lives.
In delaying marriage, women “have made it more conceivable to riff on it, to do it later, to do it differently, to do it better,” Traister writes. And “by demanding more from men and from marriage, it’s single women who have perhaps played as large a part as anyone in saving marriage in America.”
So we’re not ruining marriage or the family, you see. We’re simply improving and redefining it, as women have been doing for hundreds of years.
I’ll swipe right on that message any day.