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Book review

From spinsters to single ladies: the revolution of unmarried women

By Brigit Katz on March 2, 2016

In 1986, Newsweek ran a now-infamous article declaring that single women over the age of 40 had a better chance of getting murdered by a terrorist than snagging a husband. It was an outrageous (and erroneous) comparison, but nevertheless telling. Whether it had intended to or not, Newsweek was framing singledom as a wretched fate, comparable to death by homicide.

That sort of thinking has defined attitudes towards unmarried women for much of history, but we may very well be living through the dawn of a new era. All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, an invigorating and exhaustively researched book by journalist Rebecca Traister, paints America’s single women as a vibrant demographic that is bursting forth from the sidelines to change the landscape of our society and culture.

The book is part contemporary survey, part social history. Traister’s narrative traces the status of single women from the early colonial period—when unmarried women over the age of 23 were branded as spinsters and regarded with intense suspicion—to the 21st century, when radios happily blast the anthemic Beyoncé single that inspired the book’s title. Throughout, All the Single Ladies is a celebration of women who have bucked conservative norms, or simply embraced progressive ones, to lead self-determined lives.

Rebecca Traister. (Eliza Brown)
Rebecca Traister. (Eliza Brown)

Traister began working on the book in 2010, one year after the proportion of married women in America dropped below 50 percent for the first time in history. Women were marrying later, too: the number of unmarried adults under the age of 34 had shot up by 46 percent. In her introduction, Traister writes that she had at first intended for All the Single Ladies to be a work of contemporary journalism, “an account of how generations of single women living at the turn of the twenty-first century were, by delaying or abstaining from marriage, reshaping the nations’ politics and families.” But Traister soon discovered that this new movement of unmarried women follows in the footsteps of single ladies from centuries past, who devoted themselves to their work, to their art, to changing the nation.

The inaugural chapters of All the Single Ladies proffer lively anecdotes about history’s never-married women, such as Little Women author Louisa May Alcott (who argued that “liberty is a better husband than love to many of us”) and famed suffragette Susan B. Anthony. Traister pays particular attention to female reformers of centuries past, arguing convincingly that single women have been potent agents of the abolitionist, civil rights, gay rights, and of course, feminist movements. Without husbands and children, these single women had time to devote to social reform. Or as Traister puts it: “Women, perhaps especially those who have lived untethered from the energy-sucking and identity-sapping institution of marriage in its older forms, have helped to drive social progress of this country since its founding.”

The book asserts that the 21st century wave of unmarried women continues to be a galvanizing force. “Single women helped put Barack Obama in the White House,” Traister writes. “They voted for him 67 to 31 percent, while married women voted for Romney.” One of the central conceits of All the Single Ladies posits that as women continue to marry late or not at all, core policies that govern life in America—childcare, family leave, pay equity—will bend to accommodate them out of necessity. “We are a new republic, with a new category of citizen,” Traister writes. “If we are to flourish, we must make room for free women, must adjust our economic and social systems, the ones that are built around the presumption that no woman counts unless she is married.”

Though All The Single Ladies delights in these sweeping tides of change, much of the book is devoted to exalting the little joys of independent living. Remaining unmarried into adulthood, Traister argues, gives women time and opportunity to find fulfillment in their careers, make money, have sex with multiple partners, build meaningful relationships with female friends. One of the more charming threads of the book’s narrative follows the deeply involved friendship of two women named Amina and Ann. When Ann moves to a different city, Amina is devastated. “I went and got coffee at seven in the morning, and I was hysterical,” she says. “It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.” Now, Amina and Ann host a podcast about long-distance friendship.

An impressive range of voices are sprinkled throughout All the Single Ladies: Gloria Steinem, Anita Hill, Tina Fey, everyday women like Amina and Ann, even Elizabeth I of England. And yet, in spite of its breadth, the book can feel frustratingly narrow. The majority of Traister’s interviews were conducted with college-educated, reasonably well-off, city-dwelling women. The voices of women who do not share these life experiences are by and large confined to a single chapter at the end of the narrative.

This could have been a major failing, were it not for the fact that when Traister tackles topics of race and class, she does so with keen insight. “For many women, the pursuit of work and money has far less to do with fulfillment, excitement, or identity than it does with subsistence,” she writes. “And for many single women, scraping by is as hard as it has ever been.” Women earn, on average, 78 cents to men’s dollar. Living without a partner can mean getting by with less money, raising children on a single income, or having no choice but to work while sick.

And as Traister acutely notes, poor women of color have been working and remaining single long before doing so became an emblem of emancipation. These women took jobs because they needed the money, and did not marry because marriage conferred few benefits of wealth and status. White women who co-opted those behaviors were deemed pioneers. “[W]hen, in the mid-sixties, white women busted out of their domestic sarcophagi and marched back into workforces in which poor and black women have never stopped toiling … that was when the revolution of Second Wave feminism was upon us,” Traister writes.

Yet All the Single Ladies doesn’t dwell too long on the pratfalls of life as an unmarried woman. Traister’s assessment of the demographic is overwhelmingly celebratory, even giddy. And it’s hard not to share in her excitement, because the rise of America’s single ladies heralds a seismic shift for women in all walks of life. Women can now marry when they choose, live as they want. More than ever before, they are recognized as legitimate beings independent of their status as mothers and wives. “[T]he vast increase in the number of single women is to be celebrated not because singleness is in and of itself a better or more desirable state than coupledom,” Traister writes. “The revolution is in the expansion of options … Single female life is not a prescription, but its opposite: liberation.”