Short Takes: Provocations on Public Feminism, an online-first feature of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, offers brief comments from prominent feminists about a book that has shaped popular conversations about feminist issues.
This forum will also appear in print in the Summer 2017 issue of Signs. All the Single Ladies was published in 2016 by Simon and Schuster.
Rebecca Traister's All the Single Ladies
Surveying the Singles Beat
Ain’t We All Women?
It’s Great to Be Young
Nancy F. Cott
The Urgent Need for a Singles Studies Discipline
Great Stories about Ladies without Partners
Barbara J. Risman
Our Work Is Never Done
Surveying the Singles Beat
In 2000, when I started musing on single women as a historical archetype, I had no idea that this niche preoccupation would someday come to have wide appeal. I was simply curious to know why, here in this new millennium, popular culture took such a dim view of single women, portraying them as either dating-obsessed shopaholics (Carrie Bradshaw) or binge-eating lonely hearts (Bridget Jones). Where had the proudly unmarried New Women of the 1890s gone?
In 2011, while reporting a cover story for The Atlantic about changing marriage trends and the rising single demographic, I discovered an answer: society was still threatened by single women. For the first time in history, unmarried people outnumbered the married, and many were quite happy to be single—which I know because after that article, called “All the Single Ladies” (thank you, Beyoncé), went viral, I heard from quite a few of them, writing to express their gratitude for finally seeing themselves represented in a mainstream magazine. I was also approached by several publishers about expanding the article into a book, and though I believed a book-length journalistic exploration of single women today was necessary and important, it wasn’t one I wanted to write. So I was relieved when, around that time, I first met Rebecca Traister—we’d been invited to speak together on the topic—and learned that she was already on the case, freeing me to take a different, far more idiosyncratic approach to the demographic shift that captivated us both, one that would, I hoped, reach those readers who are inspired to think deeply about their place in the world through the absorbing pull of narrative and the indirect movement of essay rather than the direct address of journalism. (Also, I wanted to discard the role of talking head as quickly as possible.) The result, Spinster, a very personal blend of memoir, biography, reporting, and cultural history that charts my own coming into adulthood at a time when public conversation around singledom was at a low and shows the parallels between single women at the turn of the nineteenth century and the turn of the twentieth, came out last year.
I learned a great deal during my singles research, but the most unexpected discovery was how many books on the topic had already been published, whether humorous, how-to, contemporary and journalistic, or historical and academic. Just a sampling: in 1901 there was Myrtle Reed’s The Spinster Book; the 1930s inspired Marjorie Hillis’s Live Alone and Like It; the 1950s introduced Elaine Dundy’s single-gal chick-lit prototype, The Dud Avocado; the 1960s had Helen Gurley Brown’s famous Sex and the Single Girl; the 1970s saw Marie Edwards and Eleanor Hoover’s The Challenge of Being Single, Margaret Adams’s Single Blessedness, and June Sochen’s The New Woman; the 1980s had Nancy L. Peterson’s Our Lives for Ourselves, Barbara Levy Simon’s Never Married Women, and Lee Virginia Chambers-Schiller’s Liberty, a Better Husband. In the early 2000s, the deluge began: Betsy Israel’s The Bachelor Girl, Naomi Braun Rosenthal’s Spinster Tales and Womanly Possibilities, E. Kay Trimberger’s, The New Single Woman, Eric Klinenberg’s Going Solo, and, most conspicuously, two deeply thoughtful books about the contemporary single condition, along with a library’s worth of papers, blog posts, and articles exploring the subject from an endless variety of angles, by social psychologist Bella DePaulo, all of which led me to designate her, in my Atlantic article, “America’s foremost writer and thinker on the single experience.”
Traister’s contribution to this literature, All the Single Ladies, like a college survey class on the topic, is reasonable and comprehensive, showing the ways in which the single experience can vary according to race, class, geographical region, and sexual orientation. She writes in the introduction that she’d intended for the book to be “mostly contemporary journalism” until her research taught her that “today's unmarried and late married women are walking a road toward independence that was paved by generations of American women who lived singly when it was far harder to do so that it is today” (10), and so she included historical material as well.
Because of this awareness of those who came before, I was surprised that Traister didn't give DePaulo more real estate. Whereas DePaulo’s Singled Out—published in 2006, before mass culture had gotten wind of the news that we were in the midst of a seismic demographic shift—didn’t reach as wide an audience as it deserved, both Traister’s book and mine became best sellers. I wish I could fool myself into thinking this is owing to merit alone, but the truth is, we both had the great good luck of publishing at the exact moment people were ready and hungry to engage in a public conversation. It saddens me to think that readers will walk away not fully realizing that committed thinkers like DePaulo were there first.
This problem of visibility and timing is endemic to the study of single women. Even though I consulted (and cited) E. Kay Trimberger’s 1991 edited book Intimate Warriors in Spinster, I didn’t even know of her 2005 book, The New Single Woman (blurbed by feminist heavyweights Katha Pollitt, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Vivian Gornick), until mine came out and she wrote me an email. My hope and hunch is that the growing numbers of unmarrieds who help make today’s “single” books best sellers will also ensure that the topic stays put, instead of disappearing again beneath the tides of history, even when feminism’s contemporary popularity recedes, as it inevitably will.
|Back to top||Tweet #SignsShortTakes|
Where had the proudly unmarried New Women of the 1890s gone?
Kate Bolick's first book, the best-selling Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, was named a New York Times Notable Book of 2015. A contributing editor for The Atlantic, Bolick is also a freelance writer for The New York Times, Slate, and Vogue, among other publications, and host of “Touchstones at The Mount,” an annual interview series at Edith Wharton’s country estate, in Lenox, MA. She teaches creative nonfiction at New York University, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Ain’t We All Women?
In the canon of feminist theory and writing, there have been few successful efforts at addressing intersectional feminism, a term originally coined by scholar and civil rights activist Kimberlé Crenshaw, without sounding contrived or overly academic. I would argue that this is due in large part to the presumption that institutionalized feminism belongs to white women, and that the inclusion of other races and ethnicities is by invitation or as a favor, rather than a shared narrative. As a black woman and a feminist (although my feminism is less an activist effort and more an obvious existence in that being a woman is quite frankly the easiest part of my identity, and, as such, that I am equal to men is an unassailable truth), I find this exclusion, this tacit hierarchy and blatant erasure, troubling. Enter: All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister.
As I wrote in my formal review of the book for the Los Angeles Times, All the Single Ladies opens with Anita Hill’s story of her testimony against future Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, “and by the end of the first chapter, Traister has effectively cited Eleanor Holmes Norton, Queen Latifah, Terry McMillan and Shirley Chisholm (four black women) alongside Gloria Steinem, Candace Bushnell, Betty Friedan and Sandra Fluke (four white women).” “The story of single women,” writes Traister, “is the story of the country” (36). She continues, “The intensity of resistance to these women is rooted in the (perhaps unconscious) comprehension that their expanded power signals social and political rupture as profound as the invention of birth control, as the sexual revolution, as the abolition of slavery, as women's suffrage and the feminist, civil rights, gay rights, and labor movements” (36).
This is not an invitation for inclusion by a white feminist writer—it is the centering of an inherently inclusive narrative. If writers, journalists, women, and feminists simply tell the truth, it is clear that we have been part of the conversation, the movement, and the change from the very beginning. Throughout the book, Traister’s tone is focused and thoughtful, but never once does it feel as though she is seeking praise or recognition for being racially conversant—for telling the story of women in America as it should be told. In this era of white privilege and white tears, assessed wokeness, and cookies for getting it right, it’s both refreshing and timely for such a book to stand on its own merits of journalistic excellence, intersectional clarity, and cultural sophistication. Because ultimately, the way forward for feminism is both to reject the notion of a uniform vision or experience and to celebrate the range and multitude of voices therein.
The way forward for feminism is both to reject the notion of a uniform vision or experience and to celebrate the range and multitude of voices therein.
Rebecca Carroll is a producer of special projects focusing on race at WNYC/New York Public Radio, among them the critically acclaimed podcast on gentrification in Brooklyn, There Goes the Neighborhood. She is a regular opinion writer at the Guardian US, a critic at large for the Los Angeles Times, and the author of five nonfiction books, including Sugar in the Raw and Saving the Race.
It’s Great to Be Young
Nancy F. Cott
This book is about youth as much as it is about gender or singleness. While the author, Rebecca Traister, says she is discussing “unmarried women,” the heart of the book and most of its pages tell us about unmarried women who are young, in their twenties and early thirties. Really, it tells us about young not-yet-married women. (NB: the Beyoncé song that provides Traister’s title has as its subtitle “put a ring on it.”) The book is about delaying marriage as much as or more than it is about remaining unmarried. The author’s own gladly acknowledged trajectory goes from thriving in singlehood in her twenties and early thirties to finding the right man and marrying. Many (I haven’t counted, but I suspect it is most) of her interviewees and examples from the past either take that path or it is implied that they will.
There’s nothing wrong with writing a book celebrating the coming into existence of an unprecedentedly large cohort of youthful, unmarried women feeling fine about working to support themselves and even losing themselves passionately in that work, finding their support networks in friendships with other women like themselves, trying out sexual relationships with a stream of men (and maybe women), being active in their communities—and eventually marrying, most of them, with their marriage choices and outcomes better than if the period of singlehood hadn’t happened. It’s a welcome message for feminists to hear, in view of far more frequently voiced conservative indictments of women (rarely men, though men are as responsible for current statistics) for not making marriage a priority. Even supposedly statistical social science and news reports on marriage and childbearing patterns often carry a negative valence. Traister credits young women with making choices that are rational and self-advancing, and not surprisingly, gratefulness dominates young unmarried women’s online discussion of the book because it validates, so they say, the way they live now. Traister offers a lengthy, detailed antidote to the more common assertion or implication that young women are hurting themselves most of all (in the long run) by not making marriage a priority.
The book has distinct limits. Its unstated focus on youth and on women delaying marriage (more than never marrying) hampers its results. There are other limits too: heterosexuality is assumed, and while Traister makes good-faith efforts to diversify her informants and her historical examples in terms of racial belonging, and has one chapter devoted to poor single women, her attention remains focused on single women like herself—white, well-educated, savvy enough to advance into worthwhile paid employment and to conclude their youthful singleness by marrying happily. The immense cheeriness of the book’s portrait of single women seems to me unrealistic with respect to older women and poorer women’s lives. I hoped it would consider “single ladies” as a rising social group with distinctive political clout, because “the rise of an independent nation” is in the subtitle. But collectivity is only notional; the approach is wholly individualistic in its historical and contemporary references.
Just as important, the focus on young women and on delay rather than refusal means there is no steady critique here of marriage altogether as a social and state-incentivized system. Traister hasn’t dismantled the myth of marriage as the “happy ending,” though she has illustrated the far more interesting routes to get there that many women today may take, benefiting rather than suffering as a result.
|Back to top||Tweet #SignsShortTakes|
The immense cheeriness of the book’s portrait of single women seems to me unrealistic with respect to older women and poorer women’s lives.
Nancy F. Cott is the Jonathan Trumbull Professor of American History at Harvard University. Her writings range widely over questions concerning women, gender, feminism, marriage, and citizenship in US history and include The Bonds of Womanhood: 'Woman's Sphere' in New England, 1780-1835 (1977); The Grounding of Modern Feminism (1987); and Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation (2000). She is now writing about youthful American journalists abroad during the decades between the two world wars, an era of sexual revolution and global struggle for predominance between democracy, communism, and fascism.
The Urgent Need for a Singles Studies Discipline
In 2007, E. Kay Trimberger, Rachel F. Moran, and I issued a plea in the Chronicle of Higher Education to “Make Room for Singles in Teaching and Research.” At a time when the number of single adults was growing dramatically, the academy was dominated by perspectives rooted in marriage. People who approach their scholarship from a singles perspective have a different way of seeing the world, a different set of questions to pose, and a fresh way of analyzing and understanding the relevant issues. We wanted to see those perspectives gathered and strengthened in a new discipline called “singles studies.”
Now, nearly a decade later, the rise in the number of single people has continued unabated, but so far as I know, there is still no singles studies program anywhere in the world. If we did have a singles studies discipline, the compelling contributions of Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies (which I have effused about elsewhere) would be more likely to be passed along to the next generations of students. If such a tradition had been longstanding, I think Traister might have made an even more powerful case for single women.
There are sections of All the Single Ladies that demonstrate what a sharp, unapologetic perspective can bring to our understanding of single life. Traister’s discussion of single mothers is a great example. In other places here and there, though, the book would have benefited from a robust singles studies tradition.
Consider, for example, the brief section on illness in chapter 5, about single women on their own. Traister opens by repeating pronouncements from Linda J. Waite and Maggie Gallagher’s The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially, a right-wing favorite. She acknowledges the problems with some of the claims in the book but then accepts a modified version of the authors’ case: it is not that garden-variety marriages make people happier and healthier, as Waite and Gallagher contend, but that only good marriages do.
Traister doesn’t seem to think any qualification is needed when it comes to chronic physical illnesses. She believes there is “persuasive evidence that being partnered helps” (144).
If singles studies scholarship had been widely known, it would have been a fairly straightforward matter for Traister to discover that many of the claims about the benefits of marrying in The Case for Marriage had been painstakingly debunked. She might also have learned that there is no compelling case for her qualified conclusion about good marriages, either.
Traister’s faith in the power of being partnered with regard to chronic physical illnesses was based on just one study. With singles studies resources to draw from, she might have known what was problematic about that study and the kinds of conclusions that she and others drew from it. She might also have been familiar with other research suggesting something quite different—for example, that when women face medical crises, the support they receive from their husbands does nothing to calm their anxiety or facilitate their recovery.
In my own work, I have argued that getting married does not make people healthier. Traister believes that it does, at least for those with chronic physical illnesses, and also more generally for those in good marriages. Her discussion is based on the dominant marital perspective of our time, one that looks to marriage itself as the key. Traister seems to think that married people do better because they have “a teammate” (145) and single people do not. (In making the teammate argument, by the way, Traister quotes from Lori Gottlieb’s singles-shaming Atlantic article telling women to settle. Kate Bolick’s more affirmative article about single women in the same publication, with the same title as Traister’s book, gets no mention anywhere.)
With a body of vigorous singles studies scholarship at her fingertips, Traister might have taken her analysis a few steps further and asked the critical question: what about situational and structural considerations?
What is missing from the dominant narrative are all the ways in which marriage is a privileged status. Traister acknowledges that “economically privileged adults—who can afford better health care, better food, and healthier environments in which to live—are those most likely to marry” (144). Marriage, though, adds a vast array of unearned privileges to the ones people bring to it. Traister knows about the hundreds of federal laws that benefit and protect only those who are legally married; she mentions them elsewhere. But if the spouse of a married woman can take time off from work to care for her under the Family and Medical Leave Act while a close friend or relative can’t take time off to care for a single woman, isn’t that relevant to any differences in their health? If tax advantages and other financial perks line the pockets of married people but not single ones, isn’t that a significant consideration, too?
Married people also enjoy social, cultural, and political privileges. In ways large and small, their lives are valued and cherished and celebrated. In the medical system, they are cared for more attentively and their illnesses are treated more aggressively. If a singles perspective were as much a part of our awareness as a feminist perspective already is, Traister probably would not have moved on from her section on illness without acknowledging the panoply of unearned privileges accorded specifically to people who are married and their relevance to any possible differences in health and healing between single women and married women.
Even more fundamentally, if Traister had approached the issue of illness from a singles perspective, she might have questioned the very premise of her explanation for the supposedly better health of married people, that married people have a teammate and single people do not. Maybe she would have noted here what she seems to acknowledge elsewhere in the book, that single people have more friends than married people do and are more connected to friends, family, and neighbors than married people are.
But maybe I’m wrong about that. In several passages in the chapter on women on their own, Traister seems to undervalue friends in ways that would be inconsistent with a strong singles perspective. For example, in the section on illness, she makes the crucial point that “neither marriage nor children guarantee a [positive] outcome” (145). But rather than stopping after that discussion, she undermines it with a quote from Frances, one of the women she interviewed: “‘We’re all alone, no matter,’ Frances agreed, but, noting that I am married and she is not, ‘You’re alone in a different way from my aloneness. I have lots of friends and very deep friendships. But essentially, I’m alone’” (146). The moral seems to be that having lots of friends, even very deep friendships, just doesn’t cut it in comparison to having a spouse. Unlike married women such as the author, we single ladies are truly alone.
Another example comes from the section “Fear.” There, Traister tells the story of a single friend, Ann, who dislocated her shoulder during an exuberant night of dancing. She ends up at a “janky” (143) urgent care center, and the friend she is with has to leave because she has a wedding to drive to in the morning. (It is telling that Ann, the single person in need, gets abandoned in favor of the other friend who is getting married.) Ann cries and cries because she can’t get her dress off by herself. She used to think she was 100 percent happy as a single person and that with the help of her friends, there was nothing she couldn’t do. But now she’s learned her lesson.
Then Traister says exactly what she should: “No marriage or committed romantic partnership would have been a sure prophylactic against Ann’s despair that night” (143). She should have stopped after that. Or better still, she could have added a comparable anecdote about a married woman who thought she could be 100 percent happy as a married person but then had some quirky experience that left her in tears, wishing she were single.
Instead, Traister wraps the section by saying that Ann may have done fine as a single person under different circumstances, but really, “coupledom, at its best, provides the hope—and yes, often the practical reality—of companionship, of a warm body whose job it is to unbutton your dress, or sit with you in the urgent care center when you’re young and have dislodged an arm while dancing at a warehouse or when you’re old. When you’re sick. When you’re dying” (143-44). Traister’s message here is painfully retro: If you are single, you have no companionship, no one to unbutton your dress, no one to sit with you in the urgent care center. You will grow old alone. You will die alone.
Fortunately, most of the rest of All the Single Ladies offers a much more enlightened and affirmative perspective on single women. I think the overall strength of the book makes the few lapses even more significant. Because Traister so resolutely stands up for single women in most passages throughout the book, she has credibility. The risk is that some specific sections such as the ones on illness and fear will perpetuate marital privilege, leaving married people feeling more smug about their status and single people more insecure. That’s something that a singles perspective would challenge.
Married people also enjoy social, cultural, and political privileges. In ways large and small, their lives are valued and cherished and celebrated.
Bella DePaulo is the author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After, How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, and more than 100 scholarly publications. She has been writing the "Living Single" blog for Psychology Today since 2008. DePaulo has also contributed to publications such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, and Time magazine. She is a project scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She tweets at @belladepaulo.
Great Stories about Ladies without Partners
Barbara J. Risman
This book is a gold mine of wonderful stories for a cocktail party. Did you know just how many of the women who have made history remained single to do so? A few of them include Mary Cassatt, Emily Dickinson, the Brontë sisters, Willa Cather, Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Blackwell, Clara Barton, Dorothea Dix, Jane Addams, Alice Paul, and Catharine Beecher to start. While some may have had long-term partnerships, their legal single status makes sense, as wifehood used to mean domestic subordination. Even without children, wifehood deprived women of citizenship rights. This book is chock full of stories of how single women changed history, providing leadership in settlement houses, in nursing, and in antislavery movements. The Polish immigrant, labor organizer, and suffragist Rose Schneiderman, who demanded that “the worker must have bread, but she must have roses too” (56), was a “single lady.” The painful moment in Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court nomination process when the brave (and single) Anita Hill was ignored and her harasser seated on the bench is brought to life again by an interview with Professor Hill herself.
Contemporary women’s lives are also documented. Here, the sociologist in me found the informality of the sample problematic. The author interviewed close to one hundred women. She sought out some because of their writings about or activism on women’s issues, some were friends or friends of friends, and some were strangers she just bumped into in airports. While the author, Rebecca Traister, makes the appropriate mea culpa about this not being an academic research project, I found the stories about contemporary single ladies fun to read but not convincing for her thesis. Perhaps this is because the history and interviews are intertwined with asides and bits and pieces of the argument to create a textual organization that did not flow in a linear narrative. Occasionally, I had to return to the table of contents to remind myself of a chapter’s theme.
There is some discussion of women who are single by choice, and others who are single because there are not men in their communities who the women believe are a good bet to be partners. But the author never really defines who a “single” woman is. In this book, it can be someone single for life, someone single before they marry, or someone who is single between marriages or after marriage. But then that includes us all. Aren’t we all single ladies—those who never marry and those of us who do, before (and sometimes after) each marriage?
The main thesis of the book is that women—now more than ever before—are likely to be single, and this both liberates them from the bonds of compulsory marriage and maternity and also provides our country with a progressive force for social change. The author’s point is well taken that the diversity of life trajectories open to women (and men) now differs radically from the required early marriage of the past. But the argument that unmarried women are at the heart of an independent nation isn’t any more convincing to me than the alternative possibility that the growth of ideologies of individualism and autonomy have made possible the choices women are now free to make. And of course, both are probably true.
This book exists to justify the choices women make to remain single for all or large chunks of their lives. If it sells well, we will have good evidence that American women feel the need for that reassurance. In any case, it’s a delicious read for the beach, or with a glass of wine before bed. And it will provide you with a treasure chest of stories for your next dinner party.
|Back to top||Tweet #SignsShortTakes|
Aren’t we all single ladies—those who never marry and those of us who do, before (and sometimes after) each marriage?
Barbara J. Risman is professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is also vice president of the American Sociological Association. She is the author of Gender Vertigo: American Families in Transition (1998) and coeditor of Families as They Really Are, with Virginia Rutter (2015). She is president of the board of the Council on Contemporary Families. Her forthcoming book is about millennials and the gender structure.
Our Work Is Never Done
Just before All the Single Ladies was published in March 2016, New York Magazine, where the book’s author, Rebecca Traister, is a staff writer, ran a cover story version with the kicker: “The most powerful voter this year, who in her rapidly increasing numbers has become an entirely new category of citizen, is the single American woman.” An earlier book, Big Girls Don’t Cry, on the pivotal place of women in the 2008 election, established Traister as one of the most interesting feminist journalists now writing about gender in US politics. I read All the Single Ladies the same week that New York published her penetrating feature story about Hillary Clinton’s hard-fought campaign to become the first female presidential nominee of a major party.
Hillary, of course, is no “single lady.” Her tenure as our nation’s most polarizing modern First Lady kick-started her political career and its vicissitudes. Two decades later, Hillary’s marital history and personal ambition still incite rabid, sexist resistance. We are soon to learn whether or not a (married) grandma can be elected president of the United States. If so, it’s unlikely that grandpa Bill will stay home to bake cookies.
Departing from her usual journalistic beat, Traister’s newest book sets out to celebrate the social impact of the stunning rise in the ranks of unmarried women among US adults, who by 2009 outnumbered married women. All the Single Ladies can be read partly as a postmillennial Feminine Mystique, updating feminist critiques of 1950s marital culture for twenty-first-century conditions. After dispiriting decades dominated by the right-wing politics of family values, the book’s enthusiastic reception warms this second-wave feminist’s heart.
Ironically, however, All the Single Ladies indicates that the prime beneficiaries of the tidal wave of female singlehood turn out to be professional married women like Traister herself. Indeed, the “unmarried” category itself is misleading—more a product of legions of women (and men) who are now delaying rather than foregoing marriage. Feminism has achieved more success in reforming patriarchal marital gender conventions and laws than it has in derailing marital privilege itself. Traister seems mildly uneasy about having written a book extolling single ladies just when she was entering a lucky marriage. Convincingly, she attributes her good fortune to her long years of independence: “I wound up happily married because I lived in an era in which I could be happily single” (263).
I’m less convinced by Traister’s belief that legal same-sex marriage helps to equalize, degender, and expand intimacy options for everyone. She applauds the watershed Goodridge decision of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court for endorsing a vision of marriage as “mutuality, companionship, and the glorious choice, not only about whom to marry, but about whether to marry” (250). This ignores queer analyses I still find potent, which argue that same-sex marriage reinforces marital privilege and the stigma of singlehood. As proponents of the “conservative case for same-sex marriage,” like Andrew Sullivan and David Brooks, once promised, legal same-sex marriage nudges the right to marry into an obligation to do so. It marginalizes queer family diversity.
Keenly sensitive to race and class inequities in access to marriage, Traister also recognizes that single ladies of all backgrounds still suffer steep social, economic, and cultural handicaps. Yet she doesn’t fully grapple with institutionalized couple and marital privilege or explore the terrain of disestablishing marriage. One particularly poignant unintended consequence of same-sex marriage is that it will add to our widening social class divide. Same-sex spouses, like their different-sex counterparts, are more solvent than unmarried pairs. When they tie the conjugal knot, they add to the kind of class disparity currently symbolized by power couples like Hillary and Bill.
Ironically, therefore, “by demanding more from men and from marriage, it’s single women who have perhaps played as large a part as anyone in saving marriage in America” (241). Single women, who as Traister shows are far more progressive than our married peers, currently face a more urgent rescue mission. Hillary’s ultimate glass-ceiling breakthrough against Trump will depend disproportionately on our support. Now that we (and same-sex couples) have saved marriage, we may have to save our threatened democracy as well. A single lady’s work is never done!
Feminism has achieved more success in reforming patriarchal marital gender conventions and laws than it has in derailing marital privilege itself.
Judith Stacey is professor emerita of sociology and of social and cultural analysis at New York University. Her research focused on the politics of family and sexual diversity. Books include Unhitched: Love, Marriage, and Family Values from West Hollywood to Western China (2011), In the Name of the Family: Rethinking Family Values in the Postmodern Age (1996), and Brave New Families: Stories of Domestic Upheaval in Late-Twentieth-Century America (1998).
It’s a humbling honor to have one’s work critiqued by such thoughtful readers. As I consider the responses, I am reminded of what I hope is a strength but may also be a shortcoming of All the Single Ladies: in writing it, I drew on a number of specialized fields—including history, social science, political science, economics—to present what I intended as a richer portrait of unmarried women in America than one based in contemporary reporting alone. My goal was to mix source material from multiple disciplines in order to deepen the story; it is also bound to leave those in the professions from which I borrow somewhat dissatisfied.
That said, Rebecca Carroll’s assessment of the book means the world to me, just as her formal Los Angeles Times review did. I agree with her that there is simply no way to write a thoughtful account of America’s women and their history that is all white, and her work on black girlhood, race, and families, as well as, most recently, on gentrification, has taught me so much. It would have been impossible to tell the story of single women in America without having considered the ways in which gender and race and dependence and subjugation are woven throughout this nation’s history and present, its art and its culture and its politics.
It’s thrilling to hear from Nancy Cott, whose scholarship I deeply respect. Her observation that All the Single Ladies tilts heavily toward young women is surely fair, though some of the women whose stories I return to most often and in greatest depth are past their thirties. Frances Kissling (in her seventies), Gloria Steinem (eighties), Anita Hill (fifties), and Nancy Giles (fifties) are all women whose voices are woven throughout the book; I cite Kissling in particular, mulling her evolving feelings about single life as she ages.
But yes, All the Single Ladies is in many respects a book about younger women. In part that’s because the seismic shift in marriage patterns has happened in recent decades. So while I did try to cover historical ground and account for recent generational differences in experience, I was also taking a snapshot of a moment at which the road map for female life is being redrawn. That that necessarily entails a focus on young women may indeed be a limitation, but these are the women whose expectations of adulthood are swiftly shifting.
I’ll also defend myself a bit against the notion that I do not acknowledge single women as a group with distinctive political clout. As I write about at some length, unmarried women were 23 percent of the electorate in 2012 and are expected to make up a greater share in 2016; their leftward leanings have already proven politically decisive. I conclude my book with a list of economic and social policy shifts that must be enacted to better support their growing numbers. Cott is correct that I do not lay out a particular strategy for collective action, but the book certainly considers the political implications of a growing population of unmarried women, both past and present.
Bella DePaulo’s work within the field she calls “single studies” has been, as Kate Bolick points out, invaluable, and I appreciate and respect her vigorous disagreement with my conclusions about the relationship between marriage and health. Because, as both DePaulo and Bolick write here, there has been so much published about single female life over the years—in so many fields, in so many styles, drawing on so many differing studies and measures—I often felt myself pulled between robust competing views. All the Single Ladies is a book that is largely positive about women’s move away from marriage as the defining institution of their lives, but I made efforts not to give in to what Cott refers to as my “immense cheeriness” about the trend. Rather, I worked to fairly and fully acknowledge the negative implications of singlehood where I felt those implications to be compelling. Surely there were instances in which I judged wrongly, or at least debatably; DePaulo is perhaps right that I came up short in my analysis of marriage’s relationship to health; I thank her for making me think harder about it.
I would argue more vehemently about what she perceives as the book’s undervaluation of friendship. The centrality of friendship is the cornerstone of All the Single Ladies. Yes, as she points out, I cite some subjects describing moments of ambivalence about their unmarried status; as a journalist, even one with a strong point of view, an omission of that ambivalence to serve a larger positive point would have constituted malpractice.
I’m grateful for Barbara Risman’s generous appreciation of the book’s beachy merits and have nothing but sympathy for a sociologist’s pain in a reading a volume that was so unscientifically sourced. Though I did rely on data from social scientists, she is correct that my own sampling process was informal.
I think Risman’s observation that I “never really [define] who a ‘single’ woman is” merges with Judith Stacey’s well-taken point that I do not grapple intensely enough with same-sex marital privilege (a point that reinforces arguments DePaulo has laid out so ably). Stacey is absolutely fair in her assessment that the book would have benefited more from deeper queer analysis.
The crux of what I’m trying to capture in All the Single Ladies is not in the wholesale reversal of hetero norms of early marriage but rather a lifting of those norms as the only model. This produces a messy result: not simply a replacement path, an easily delineated single life that exists in contrast to an earlier married model, but rather an array of options, some of which still wind around or return to (revised) traditional norms.
|Back to top||Tweet #SignsShortTakes|
The crux of what I’m trying to capture in All the Single Ladies is not in the wholesale reversal of hetero norms of early marriage but rather a lifting of those norms as the only model.
Rebecca Traister is writer at large for New York Magazine and a contributing editor at Elle. A National Magazine Award finalist, she has written about women in politics, media, and entertainment from a feminist perspective for The New Republic and Salon and has also contributed to The Nation, the New York Observer, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. Traister’s first book, Big Girls Don’t Cry, about women and the 2008 election, was a New York Times Notable Book of 2010 and the winner of the Ernesta Drinker Ballard Book prize. She lives in New York with her family.