Book Review: 'All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation' by Rebecca Traister
Review by Susan Grigsby Rebecca Traister’s new book, All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, opens with an examination of the treatment of Anita Hill by the Senate Judiciary Committee during the hearings on the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Rather than refute any of her charges of what came to be known as sexual harassment, the conservatives on the committee and in the media attacked Ms Hill. It was suggested that she suffered from erotomaniaor had certain “proclivities” (according to William Safire, this word, used by Senator Alan Simpson, was “a code word for homosexuality”).
As Hill would later write of her experience, “Much was made in the press of the fact that I was single, though the relevance of my marital status to the question of sexual harassment was never articulated.”
The relevance of her single status was how it distinguished her from established expectations of femininity. Hill had no husband to vouch for her virtue, no children to affirm her worth, as women’s worth had been historically understood. Her singleness, Hill felt at the time, allowed her detractors to place her “as far outside the norms of proper behavior as they could.” Members of the Judiciary, she wrote, “could not understand why I was not attached to certain institutions, notably marriage,” and were thus left to surmise that she was single “because I was unmarriageable or opposed to marriage, the fantasizing spinster or the man-hater.”
It turns out that her marital status did not, in fact, place her “outside the norms of proper behavior.” Rather, it placed her right smack dab in the middle of what was becoming a national movement away from marriage as the mark of adulthood for American women.
Today, only one in five Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 is married. In 1960, 60 percent of Americans in that age group were married.
I was an anomaly in my generation, putting off marriage until I was 32—well after most of my friends had wed, and 10 years past the median age of first marriage for women of my generation. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t usually a man in my life, and occasionally more than one, but rather that I simply did not want to marry. I was busy having a career that I loved and enjoying my life. According to Rebecca Traister, I would comfortably be in the majority of women today. And reading her latest book, All the Single Ladies, I feel that I would have been in very good company indeed.
She credits a couple of Supreme Court decisions that helped women achieve the freedom to live unmarried, or to postpone marriage: 1972’s Eisenstadt v. Baird, which struck down a law prohibiting birth control sales to unmarried people (1965’s Griswold v. Connecticut only allowed birth control for married couples) and Roe v. Wade which legalized abortion in 1973. Once women had control of their reproductive life, they were free to pursue interests outside of married life. And they did. In addition, the Equal Opportunity Act of 1973 allowed women the right to obtain credit in their own names.
The second wave feminist movement told us we could have it all. Betty Friedan’s book, The Feminine Mystique, encouraged women to look for fulfillment outside of the home, but within the traditional bounds of marriage. Thirty years later, women decided to avoid or postpone marriage instead.
Abstention from or delay of marriage may have been a conscious choice for some women in the 1970s and 1980s, but it has now simply become a mass behavior. The most radical of feminist ideas— the disestablishment of marriage— has, terrifyingly for many conservatives, been so widely embraced as to have become habit, drained of its political intent, but ever more potent insofar as it has refashioned the course of average female life.
There is a chapter devoted to the close friendships that women form in the absence of early marriage. The strong bonds based in shared pleasures, advice given and taken, and a meeting of minds and hearts can endure for years. The end of such a friendship can be as devastating as the breakup of a marriage.
Ms Traister draws on statistical data, the works of historical figures, and interviews with more than 100 women to assemble a narrative of how single women live today. Reaching back into history, she skillfully makes the point that single women have always changed their society. After the westward expansion and the Civil War left many women without husbands, they became involved in political and social reform movements, freed as they were from the burden of homemaking and child raising. Single women were abolitionists and suffragettes. They campaigned against lynching. They pioneered in the fields of nursing and medicine, and they established colleges for women.
When you consider how diverse single women are today, this book is a remarkable achievement in presenting the viewpoints of so many different women. All the Single Ladies looks at women who choose to pursue challenging and fulfilling careers instead of marriage, and at women who choose to pursue work because they must eat. Nor does she limit this to white heterosexual females: Her examination of marriage includes women of all colors and social classes, as well as sexual preferences.
The journey toward legal marriage for gays and lesbians may seem at odds with what looks like a flight from marriage by heterosexuals. But in fact, they are part of the same project: a dismantling of the institution as it once existed— as a rigidly patrolled means by which one sex could exert legal, economic, and sexual power over another— and a reimagining of it as a flexible union to be entered, ideally, on equal terms.
Reimagining marriage is what gives this book its uplifting sense of optimism. And what she proposes, on a political level, gives it a sense of urgency: Equal pay, a higher federal minimum wage, national healthcare with special emphasis on reproductive health, repeal of the Hyde Amendment, more housing for single people, paid family leave, and federally subsidized or fully funded day care. And while Hillary Clinton has been fighting for these things for a lifetime, she has been, so far, unable to reach these young single women who have flocked to the progressive message of Bernie Sanders. As Rebecca Traister writes in The Cut:
To some feminists, there is bitter irony in the fact that Sanders, a 74-year-old white man from Vermont who has committed himself for decades to fighting economic inequality but who has not put himself at the center of fights for things like paid sick days or family leave, has become the symbol of a move toward a social-democratic model of government that would better serve America’s independent women. That unmarried women are not rallying around Clinton, who not so long ago was one of the most visible symbols of threateningly powerful womanhood in America and who has devoted a significant chunk of her career to issues of early-childhood education and health-care reform, is somewhat baffling. But remember, this is not a symbolically motivated movement. Single women may not be looking for a feminist hero; they may just want their affordable college, higher wages, and paid sick days.
And yet, according to Traister, Hillary Clinton has paid a heavy price for being a wife. Yes, she used it to launch her own political career, but she has been blamed for all of the policy failures of her husband’s administration, including the 1994 crime bill.
The blame for the fates of black men has also long been laid at the feet of single mothers, whom politicians from Daniel Patrick Moynihan to Mitt Romney to Jeb Bush have singled out as having upended the American family, creating social chaos and lawlessness. Yet the men who wrote, signed, and voted for this legislation — Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry, Joe Biden, even Sanders, who voted for the crime bill — have not been made to pay for it politically. The person who is currently being asked to answer for it all is the woman who spent those years as a (too) supportive wife, who spoke volubly and troublingly in defense of her husband’s legislation, but played no official role in enacting it.
Let’s hope that the Clinton campaign will find a way to reach out to these women, who are unlikely to vote for any Republican candidate. The problem is that although a majority of women voters will be unmarried in 2016, only 40 percent were registered to vote in the last presidential election.
Editor's note: This review was originally published in The London School of Economics Review of Books, and has been reposted with permission. It is available under Creative Commons and the original page can be found here.