If you are a single woman in America, you have more company than ever before. In 2009, single women — women who had never married or were widowed, divorced, or separated — outnumbered married women for the first time in this country's history. In 1960, 60% of Americans from 18 to 29 were married; today, only 20% are.
This, Rebecca Traister writes in her new book All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, is a very big deal. No longer are unmarried women "spinsters," or "cat ladies," or an aberration: "Independent female adulthood," Traister writes, is the new normal. It's lived by women who are "no longer economically, socially, sexually, or reproductively dependent on or defined by the men they marry" — or don't marry — and who are driving a progressive new political agenda.
Traister relies on extensive research and interviews with over 100 women to chart the rise of single womanhood through history, her account guided by awareness that why and how women experience singleness varies widely according to geography, class, sexuality, gender identity, and race. Rather than making the case that singleness is superior to coupledom, she argues that its spread is both a product and cause of women's expanding power to determine their own destinies — and what could be more exciting than that? Read on for our conversation with Traister about all the single ladies, a group that has often been underestimated and can no longer be ignored.
Why did you decide that now was the the time for this book?
"When I started it five years ago, I felt like there had been no attention paid to this subject. It's not quite true, because there had been other great books that I didn’t know about when I first started — [for example] Betsy Israel’s Bachelor Girl — but I felt that there hadn’t been enough contemporary attention paid to the economic and political and social and sexual aspects of a new, giant population of single women.
"The timing for me corresponded to getting married. Because I was 35 and in the middle of my life, that act just meant something so different for me than it had for, say, my mother, who also had a tremendous career but who married at 21 and did all of the early adult building of a life alongside my father. I hadn’t done the building of a life alongside a man. The thing that sparked the book was a self-interested examination of my own life, and of so many of my contemporaries who also had these independent existences that were full of work and friends and commitments and passions and ambition and achievements and disappointment and failures. All those things had happened to them as individuals outside the bounds of marriage, and that didn't used to be the shape and course of human life. I wanted to take a look at that as a phenomenon across classes and across races."
You describe how single women are on the front lines of the charge for economic and civic protections, including pay equity, paid family leave, and more affordable college. How do women's needs for these protections differ?
"Basically, any social provision that we make is going to disproportionately benefit the people who are in greater economic need. Those people disproportionately tend to be people of color. Wealthy women have always been able to get abortions and birth control, but the vast majority of this country cannot pay to solve the structural problems imposed by a lack of support, by economic inequality, by racial inequality, by gender inequality. There are plenty of more highly paid men and women who don’t have any kind of paid leave, and if we instituted mandated paid leave that would benefit them too, right? However, without the institution of paid leave, many of them can afford to come up with another plan, and that’s not the case for lower-earning women."
I loved your focus in the book on the starring role of friendship in many women’s lives. What message would you give to young women about their own friendships?
"One of the things that I think we lack in this country is an acknowledgment of the validity and seriousness of women’s bonds with each other. Increasingly, other women — and men, in many cases — with whom we’re not romantically or sexually involved are our families. They are the people we live our lives alongside, raise children alongside, go through grief, mourning, growth, parental illness, and loss alongside. They play the roles that historically spouses played, but spouses have all kinds of recognition, from ceremonies to tax benefits, and friends don’t get those same kinds of public, validating acknowledgments. I think that if there’s a message to young people, it’s to take your friendships very seriously, but people already do that; that’s not any kind of wisdom I’m going to impart. I think you have a lot of people taking their friendships very seriously and the world is catching up to that."
How does gay marriage enter into this picture?
"Lots of people say that the move toward gay marriage and recognition of benefits for gay marriage is a reaffirmation of a traditional model and institution, that it’s a socially conservative move back toward marriage. I disagree, because I think it’s part of a disestablishment of marriage as an institution that limits women’s power based on the idea of one gender being dependent on another. The push toward gay marriage explodes those assumptions.
"That said, there are some who argue that by admitting a whole new group of people to an institution of marriage that we legally recognize, we’re reinforcing the ways that single people are left out of the benefits of that institution. I think that that’s a very valid point. What about creating legally recognized next-of-kin relationships, or co-parenting relationships that get some form of legal recognition? Between friends, between nonromantic or nonsexual partners? Or changing some of our laws around housing — there are all kinds of places in the country where there are laws against cohabitation by people who are not married to each other or related by blood. How do we make tax benefits apply to not just people who have entered this one legal institution, marriage?"
You present some pretty compelling reasons for women to delay marriage: Marriage still damages a woman’s professional stature, while her wages drop with every child she bears, for example. Can women take action to avoid these pitfalls in their own lives or are they too big to tackle alone?
"This gets to the heart of a larger question about how to address gender inequality, the question of collective action versus “lean in.” Is it that we need collective legislative and social policy revisions that protect equal pay, or is it that we need to change our own individual negotiating style or approach to workplaces? I have always been of the belief that we need both — and more. One of the things about marriage no longer being the expected model and path is that I think slowly it’s probably improving the institution. You’re seeing a more normalized acceptance of women as independent and equal beings, and that that in turn has benefits for people who were married young, in more traditional patterns. The path and scope of possibilities for adult women is changing so rapidly and so widely that it's becoming increasingly accepted that women are not simply unpaid domestic laborers."
Let’s talk about sex. What role do you think the desire for sexual exploration plays in women’s decisions to delay marriage?
"All of this is about having options. There are always going to be people who are excited about the possibility of variety in their sexual lives and there are going to be people who aren’t excited by that. It’s more about lifting a model that was constrictive to allow for a variety of choices and options and paths to emerge. It’s about room for all different kinds of impulses, tastes, and predilections to be able to find expression so that judgment of you is amplified neither positively not negatively, depending on how you live your life socially.
"We know that that’s a little bit of a dream world. We live in a world in which people are still slut-shamed, in which they are increasingly shamed if they don't have robust romantic lives, which is something that I hear about from young women, the sense that they’re doing feminism “wrong"... Look, I did not come from a conservative background, I was perfectly, theoretically liberated, and I had no sex in college. I lived like a nun half my single life, and that’s even without any kind of religious or moral anxiety! Even my girlfriends who enjoyed non-committed sex a lot more than I did — which is pretty much everybody, because I didn’t enjoy it at all, unfortunately, I wanted to so badly — even those girlfriends had droughts. We fetishize the idea of single female sexuality to a degree that everybody envisions single women hopping in and out of bed."
"We’re not in a land beyond judgment, but one of the things that we’re doing is clearing a map to let people know that there are lots of ways for women to live their sexual and romantic lives. It doesn't have to conform to one model. A single female life doesn’t have to look like any other single female life to be valid."