All the Single Women: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation

Erin Capina, 127 YinD

Beyoncé wrote a song about them. Politicians spend an excessive amount of time wringing their hands over them. Who am I talking about? Single women. For the first time in America’s history single women outnumber married women. Journalist Rebecca Traister’s new book, All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and Rise of an Independent Nation, examines this new reality.

Traister’s new book is a mix of historical analysis backed by heavy research, personal anecdotes, and interviews with social scientists, academics, and ordinary, as well as, prominent single women. She begins by reminding the reader that while the rates of unmarried women in America might be at an all-time high, single women are not, in fact, a new phenomenon. Single women have existed for centuries, but because of societal and economic forces that kept women dependent on men, it is only recently that single women have existed in such large numbers. Despite societal messages that continue to tell women that the ultimate female fulfillment lies in marriage, Traister rightly points out that throughout the years single women have been able to carve out lives for themselves and find ambitions and passions that fulfill them as much as any marriage would. Author Louisa May Alcott once said “liberty is a better husband than love for many of us” and “the loss of liberty, happiness, and self-respect is poorly repaid by the barren honor of being called ‘Mrs.’ Instead of ‘Miss,’” arguing that the limits marriage places on women stunts their ability to live independent, fulfilling lives. Indeed, many of the women who led social movements such as suffrage, abolition, anti-lynching, and secondary education, as well as those who were pioneers in fields such as nursing and medicine, accomplished these things when they were single. Other instances where single women were powerful figures in social change include the passage of the 14th, 15th, 18th, and 19th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. These historical examples go to show that when women are given alternative options to heterosexual marriage they will not only take advantage of those options, but positive societal changes will often follow.

Traister does not limit her scope to women who do not wish to marry. She shows that the experience of single women runs the gamut of women who never want to marry, previously married women who never want to remarry, reluctantly married women, women who want to delay marriage until they are older, women unsure if they want to marry at all, and women who wish to marry at some point but are perfectly fine with living their independent lives in case marriage never happens for them. Traister also includes, though she could certainly have included more of these women, the experiences and voices of poor women and women of color, showing how their experiences as single women both differ and align with the experiences of affluent, single, white women.  single-ladies-beyonce-1

All the Single Women is not an argument against marriage, rather it is an argument for choice. Traister points out that the majority of women across all racial and ethnic backgrounds do eventually marry, and she acknowledges that living life as a single woman is not always easy. There are challenges in life that could arguably be made easier if one had another person to share the burden with, but she argues that the choice to wed is as equally important as the choice of whom to wed because having the ability to choose singlehood over marriage, or vice versa, moves women closer to equal sets of opportunity and moves America towards a more progressive era. To that end Traister ends her book with a list of policies and attitudes that need to be readjusted to accommodate this new reality where more and more single American women harness their sexual and professional agency to shape the lives they want.

“As Anita Hill told me in 2013, the real fear of politicians and society about the increase in numbers of single women is the growing recognition that if women had sexual and professional agency, it would force us, as Hill said, “to think about women’s work experiences differently, about the hours and days in the workplace, about the economic implications, the cultural and political implications” of women being full adults in the world.”  

-excerpt from All the Single Women

Traister’s book does not break any revolutionary ground. Any single woman reading it would probably recognize most of the modern aspects of singlehood Traister highlights since she has most likely lived it herself, but it does a wonderful job of chronicling the history of single women in America and how these women profoundly shaped the possibilities and opportunities available to women today. As a book aimed at the general public, All the Single Ladies gathers the historical and modern history of single women in America and adds detailed analysis, buttressed by interviews from experts and single women themselves, making for an enjoyable and informative read. Overall I enjoyed Traister’s newest book as I found myself, a single woman, able to relate to many of the thoughts and circumstances presented, and I felt that I could put the decisions I have made about life, career, and romance in a larger historical context.

As we enter this new epoch where single women are becoming a powerful force in their own right it is, as Traister puts it, “an invitation to wrestle with a whole new set of expectations about what female maturity entails, now that it not shaped and defined by early marriage.” For the first time in America’s history a wedding is not the end of our story.

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