Written by Rebecca Traister
Audiobook read by Candace Thaxton
Published by Simon and Schuster on March 1st 2016
Genres: History, Social Science, Women's Studies
A nuanced investigation into the sexual, economic, and emotional lives of women in America, this “singularly triumphant work” (Los Angeles Times) by Rebecca Traister “the most brilliant voice on feminism in the country” (Anne Lamott) is “sure to be vigorously discussed” (Booklist, starred review).
In 2009, the award-winning journalist Rebecca Traister started All the Single Ladies—a book she thought would be a work of contemporary journalism—about the twenty-first century phenomenon of the American single woman. It was the year the proportion of American women who were married dropped below fifty percent; and the median age of first marriages, which had remained between twenty and twenty-two years old for nearly a century (1890–1980), had risen dramatically to twenty-seven.
But over the course of her vast research and more than a hundred interviews with academics and social scientists and prominent single women, Traister discovered a startling truth: the phenomenon of the single woman in America is not a new one. And historically, when women were given options beyond early heterosexual marriage, the results were massive social change—temperance, abolition, secondary education, and more.
Today, only twenty percent of Americans are wed by age twenty-nine, compared to nearly sixty percent in 1960. The Population Reference Bureau calls it a “dramatic reversal.” All the Single Ladies is a remarkable portrait of contemporary American life and how we got here, through the lens of the single American woman. Covering class, race, sexual orientation, and filled with vivid anecdotes from fascinating contemporary and historical figures, All the Single Ladies is destined to be a classic work of social history and journalism. Exhaustively researched, brilliantly balanced, and told with Traister’s signature wit and insight, this book should be shelved alongside Gail Collins’s When Everything Changed.
My interest in reading Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation might seem curious in light of the fact that I have barely even been a “single lady”…and that fact is, in itself, also curious.
I am just about the last person anyone–least of all myself–would have expected to have spent most of her adult life as a married woman. I come from a family where later marriage isn’t that uncommon; both of my parents were over thirty when they married, and so were my dad’s parents. I barely dated in high school, and I really didn’t picture myself in any sort of long-term relationship until well after college; and as a young feminist in the time when passage of the Equal Right Amendment still seemed possible, I wasn’t sure that such a relationship would even need to take the form of a “marriage.” But our lives don’t always follow the paths we picture for them. Getting pregnant and married–in that order–at 19 changed the direction of mine, and having that marriage end 18 years later found me single and living on my own for the very first time in my life. Four and a half years after my divorce, I married for the second time, and we’re looking forward to celebrating our tenth wedding anniversary on October 21 of this year.
Interestingly enough, there’s almost as much discussion of marriage in All the Single Ladies as there is of singlehood…and I suppose there has to be, really. We live in a culture that categorizes adults based on whether they’re single or married, and makes certain assumptions about the progression from one state of being to the other. It’s not quite as simple as there being two kinds of people, married and not-married–the “not-married” contingent includes the formerly married, the almost-married, and the partnered-but-not-legally-joined as well as the never-married–but sometimes it looks like it might as well be.
Traister weaves personal anecdotes from modern unmarried women throughout All the Single Ladies, returning to several of her subjects within different contexts. Many of the women portrayed here fit the image one might expect from a book like this–college-educated, childless, professionals aged somewhere between twenty and fifty; that is, they resemble the author (before she stopped being one of the single ladies). However, I give Traister credit for getting beyond her own demographic and including the voices of single mothers, college students. seniors, and women from a broader range of economic and cultural backgrounds–she really has made the effort to consider all the single ladies.
I applaud the book’s efforts to be inclusive, but I appreciated its examinations of both the high and low points of American women’s history even more–the anecdotes were engaging and illustrative, but the context is what makes All the Single Ladies important reading. Some of the facts weren’t unfamiliar to me, thanks to other reading I’ve done in the “contemporary women’s studies” vein, but Traister is applying a very particular lens to them here, exploring the ways in which women whose energies haven’t been occupied by the nuclear family–sometimes by chance (or lack of it), but often by choice–have contributed to change and progress for the family of humankind.
I’ve always been out of step in some way or another, and the relatively short amount of my adult life that I’ve spent unmarried makes me more of an anomaly as longer periods of single life become the norm. Americans are marrying later and later–or not marrying at all, or forming families outside the framework of traditional marriage. I’m not sure it would surprise me if none of my kids ever get married; it also wouldn’t surprise me if they have interesting, fulfilling adult lives, married or single.
“I always hated it when my heroines got married. As a child, I remember staring at the cover of The First Four Years, willing myself to feel pleased — as I knew I was meant to — that Laura Ingalls had wed Almanzo ‘Manly’ Wilder and given birth to baby Rose. I understood that despite the hail storms, diphtheria outbreaks, and other agrarian misery that Wilder chronicled in the last of her Little House books, Laura’s marriage and motherhood were supposed to be read as a happy ending. Yet, to me, it felt unhappy, as if Laura were over. And, in many ways, she was.
“The images on the covers of previous Little House books, drawn by Garth Williams in the editions I owned, had been of Laura in motion, front and center: gamboling down a hillside, riding a horse barefoot, having a snowball fight. Here she was, stationary and solidly shod, beside her husband; the baby she held in her arms was the most lively figure in the scene. Laura’s story was coming to a close. The tale that was worth telling about her was finished once she married.
?It was supposed to be romantic, but it felt bleak. Paths that were once wide and dotted with naughty friends and conspiratorial sisters and malevolent cousins, with scrapes and adventures and hopes and passions, had narrowed and now seemed to lead only to the tending of dull husbands and the rearing of insipid children to whom the stories soon would be turned over, in pallid follow-ups like Jo’s Boys and Anne of Ingleside. My dismay, of course, was partially symptomatic of the form. Coming-of-age-tales, bildungsroman, come to their tautological ends when their subjects reach adulthood. But embedded in the structure of both literature and life was the reality that for women, adulthood — and with it, the end of the story — was marriage.
“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 currents of narrative possibility at their backs. It was often at just the moment that their educations were complete and their childhood ambitions coming into focus that these troublesome, funny girls were suddenly contained, subsumed, and reduced by domesticity. Later, I would learn that Shakespeare’s comedies ended with wedlock and his tragedies with death, making marriage death’s narrative equivalent and supporting my childhood hunch about its ability to shut down a story.
“Weren’t there any interesting fictional women out there who didn’t get married as soon as they became grown-ups, I wondered, even as a kid.”