There has been a surge in recent years of books that focus on the female lived experience, or perhaps the feminist experience. Journalists are synthesizing for a popular audience what historians have long known: Free women make their way in the world, availing themselves of new technologies and economic opportunities as they go. Girls—they’re just like us!
Rebecca Traister’s new book, All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, is the best of the bunch. Taken in the aggregate, it is a political, legal, economic, social, sexual, and cultural history of the unattached American woman. The book comes at an opportune time; in 2016, for the first time in history, a majority of female voters are projected to be unmarried. This is because, as of 2009, single women—here taken to mean never married, as well as separated, divorced, or widowed—outnumber married women. Twenty-seven is now the median age of first marriage for women (even higher in cities); this is up from the reliably stable twenty to twenty-two that held from 1890 to 1980. “Even more striking,” Traister notes, is the twelve-percentage-point rise in less than a decade of never-married adults under thirty-four: 46 percent. There were 3.9 million more single adult women in 2014 than there were in 2010. Single Ladies is chock-full of such statistics, many of them mind-blowing.
And yet, single women are nothing new. As Traister painstakingly shows, unmarried women have always been a part of, and indeed integral to, the fabric of society. They are newly visible, no longer sequestered or protected by male family members, confined to lives of domesticity. “Single female life is not prescription, but its opposite: liberation.”
A short list of Traister’s early female activists, abolitionists, reformers, artists, suffragettes, even politicians who never married includes: Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul, Jane Addams, Clara Barton, Florence Nightingale, Emily Dickinson, Emily Brontë, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Pauline Hopkins, Willa Cather, Elizabeth Blackwell and her sister Emily, Dorothea Dix, Louisa May Alcott, Catharine Beecher, Mary Lyon, and of course Elizabeth I, England’s “virgin queen.” Not all of these women were truly unattached; but Traister is quick to note “they did not match society’s expectations by entering an institution built around male authority and female obeisance.” Others equally engaged in nation building and public lives, such as Margaret Fuller, Ida B. Wells, Zora Neale Hurston, Angelina Grimké, Georgia O’Keeffe, Sarah Bernhardt, Charlotte Brontë, and Frida Kahlo, enjoyed nontraditional arrangements—“open, childless, brief, or entered into late, after the women had established themselves economically or professionally, and thus could find partners more willing to accept them as peers, not appendages.” And of course there is Gloria Steinem, who, along with Letty Cottin Pogrebin, would found Ms. magazine and introduce the world to the concept of a woman who was neither married nor not-yet-married. (Steinem herself did marry, for a brief period, at the age of sixty-six.) Consciously or not, the single women of today are able to turn to these trailblazers as examples of lives lived well, out of the shadows.
The independent women of Traister’s book go to the gym and to yoga. They dine out, in groups and alone. They go to college, in greater numbers than ever before. They vote—oh, boy, do they vote; in 2012, “almost a quarter of votes were cast by women without husbands.” They live in cities and rural areas, moving as it fits their lifestyles and budgets. They work, sometimes two or three jobs to pay the bills. They’re lonely and exhausted. They get sick; they care for an extended network of friends and family who get sick, too. They date, they marry, they divorce. They have sex, or not. They become parents, by themselves or with partners. There is no monolithic single lady in Traister’s Single Ladies.
Traister calls on an impressive array of primary and secondary sources, historical and contemporary. Personal anecdotes are woven in with journalistic accounts of being single in the city; popular-culture references abound (Dan Quayle and Murphy Brown make an appearance, as does Sex and the City, repeatedly). She interviewed almost 100 women in researching the book; approximately thirty are quoted at length. To a great extent, it is the voices of these single women that carry the book. Her subjects vary geographically as well as by age, race, religion, education, profession, and class. In most respects, this is a diverse, representative study of unmarried women at the beginning of the twenty-first century. And yet we don’t hear from queer women. Indeed, in Single Ladies there is little room given to women who don’t date or eventually marry men. Though Traister acknowledges marriage equality, hers is a treatise couched in heteronormativity. It is not until the end of the appendix, with its utopian list of “policies, and some attitudes, that must be readjusted and readjudicated,” that we get this:
We need to support alternate family structures, including cohabiting friends, people who live on their own and in clusters, people who parent with partners and without. We need to adjust our eyes to a new normal that includes personal and familial configurations that do not look anything like the hetero married units of our past. (emphasis mine)
Even when she opens the door on this topic, she closes it without walking through. After describing a 2012 Barack Obama campaign ad in which a female character, “Julia,” had successfully navigated many significant life stages—birth, college education, career, child of her own—partly by benefitting from government-sponsored programs, and then reminding us that for some people this represents a “hubby state,” Traister says, “The notion that what the powerful, growing population of unmarried American women needs from its government is a husband is of course problematic.” Of course. “It reduces all relationships women have to marital ones,” she continues, “and suggests that they are, by nature, dependent beings, in search of someone—if not a husband then an elected official or a set of public policies—to support them.” Rather than acknowledge the heteronormativity built into the critique of this “hubby state,” Traister reifies it, offering up “husbands” rather than “wives” or the gender-neutral “partners,” which she deploys elsewhere.
Traister’s book is undergirded by the assumption that women are “independent” insofar as they are not currently married: marriage, one’s relationship to it, is the book’s primary scaffolding. It takes as inspiration for its title Beyoncé’s 2008 track “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” a song that is both female party anthem and paean for male-female coupledom. The speaker addresses a man, an ex, and suggests that if he is jealous or dissatisfied with her single status, he “should’ve put a ring on it,” or proposed marriage.
In her midforties and never married, Kate Bolick is a model of Traister’s single ladies. In fact, Bolick’s 2011 Atlantic cover story, “All the Single Ladies,” arguably kickstarted this microgenre of reporting on single-female life. Born in 1972 and 1975 respectively, Bolick and Traister are contemporaries. They both aim to make sense of the world they were born into—its successes and its shortcomings. Out in paperback in April, Bolick’s Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, deliberately titled so as to promote independence and self-sufficiency, is both a memoir and a project of literary reclamation through sleuthing and cultural history.
Throughout graduate school and early adulthood, largely spurred by the loss of her mother to cancer, Bolick obsessively pursues the work of five “awakeners”: Maeve Brennan, Neith Boyce, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edith Wharton, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. All female writers, either never married, divorced when such a thing was so uncommon as to be scandalous, or participants in open marriages that afforded them the freedom and luxury to seek satisfying professional and personal accomplishments. Save a reference here or there, there is no overlap with Traister’s Single Ladies. Taken together, the two enhance our understanding of the single experience in America.
The five enjoyed varying degrees of commercial success and acclaim in their own lifetimes, publishing widely across genres. Brennan became a staff writer for the New Yorker in 1949, writing a column as “The Long-Winded Lady” for decades before turning to fiction. For Bolick, she was “the first woman I’d ever read who wrote about herself not in relation to someone else—whether lover, husband, parent, child.” Later a novelist and playwright, Boyce was first a columnist as well, for Vogue; “The Bachelor Girl” debuted in 1898, introducing readers to the ways of the New Woman. Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Millay wrote satirical essays for Vanity Fair, though under the pen name Nancy Boyd. As with Boyce, this regular magazine work allowed her to support herself and enabled her to live alone for the first time.
The first book Wharton published was a home-decorating manual at the age of thirty-five, and it was coauthored with a man. She would then go on to become a best-selling novelist and memoirist, who just so happened to have a facility for domestic setting. Rounding out the group Bolick refers to as her “secret coven” is Gilman, the novelist, lecturer, essayist, artist—credentialed in the first class of the Rhode Island School of Design (1878). All of Bolick’s awakeners were diarists and correspondents, keeping fastidious track of their days and writing to their mothers, sisters, friends, husbands, children. They left records of their thoughts and desires, and “the[ir] voices…called out across the decades. Along with filling in for my mother as intimate interlocutors, they were showing me how to think beyond the marriage plot.”
The real triumph of Spinster is not, as Bolick herself embodies, the existence of the single woman. Traister proves the strength of this demographic and drives home its increasing power—economically, socially, sexually, politically. In the end, Bolick detects a “false binary”:
The choice between being married versus being single doesn’t even belong here in the twenty-first century.
The question now is something else entirely: Are women people yet? By which I mean: Are we finally ready for a young woman to set out on the long road of her life as a human being who inhabits but isn’t limited by her gender? We’ve been evolving toward this new question ever since America was founded, albeit excruciatingly slowly and with many stops and starts along the way. Until the answer is an undeniable yes, a girl can’t actually grow up like a boy, free to consider the long scope of her life as her own distinct self.
I have a friend whose now-deceased father was a well-respected writer. If she chose to, she could certainly supplement her income by doing what she calls “playing the professional daughter,” accepting offers to speak about his legacy and participate in panels honoring his work. But being the daughter of [insert famous person here] is not an achievement; neither is being the wife of [insert famous person here]. And, as Traister tells us, not being the wife of anyone at all is no longer an achievement, either.
I recently had to confirm some personal information at a doctor’s office. We went over my full name, address, and birth date, and then when she reached marital status on the form, the nurse said, “And you’re divorced?” I confirmed this fact as I had the others. “And you want to remain that way?” On my medical record, she meant. Could it really be that simple? I wondered, more than six years after my divorce had been finalized, and almost eight years after I had moved out. Have medical release forms and other legal documents evolved to the point where “single,” “married,” “divorced,” and “widowed” weren’t the only options? And then I remembered the more important, more infuriating question: Why was I—was anyone—being asked to select one of these options at all, to define myself relative to my marital status? Can’t I just opt out?