Rebecca Traister, one of our most incisive thinkers on politics, culture, and feminism, has, not surprisingly, spent an inordinate amount of time writing about Hillary Clinton, half of one of the world’s most scrutinized marriages. It must have been a relief, then, to turn her attention to single women, as she does in her new book, “All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation.’’
As its title suggests, “All the Single Ladies’’ is a multifaceted endeavor. Bringing together US history and life in this 21st century, through data, interviews, and an enormous stack of reading and viewing material, from news articles and scholarly books to “That Girl’’ and “Living Single,’’ Traister produces an invigorating defense of a demographic too often criticized and caricatured, rather than recognized for its profound effect on American society.
The first two chapters make a powerful and convincing argument that women and especially single women — independent, ambitious, free from the constraints of marriage and children — have “helped to drive social progress of this country since its founding.” From 19th-century abolitionist and women’s rights movements, to turn-of-the-century progressive labor, settlement house, and women’s suffrage activists, to 20th-century feminism, single women have pushed to extend the core promises of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, not to mention justice for all Americans: married, single, male, female, white, black, rich, poor.
Their efforts have “made the possibility of independent life for today’s single women . . . plausible”; for the first time in history, more women are single than married, and women have unprecedented economic, professional, and social independence. This demographic shift, in turn, is fostering further social and political change (single women elected Barack Obama). Though Traister tracks centuries of backlash to women’s moves toward independence, she is confident that we will continue to head in an ever more equitable direction.
While the basic facts here will be familiar to anyone acquainted with women’s history, viewing them through the lens of single women brings new insights. Haters and defenders alike recognize the importance of Roe v. Wade (1973), but linking that decision with Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972), which gave single people the right to buy contraceptives, and the 1974 Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which prohibited credit discrimination, shows how policy blew open the doors to opportunity for single women in the 1970s, initiating an era of women’s independence that continues today.
This kind of pointed analytic synthesis is Traister’s great strength, and it characterizes the best of the book’s subsequent chapters, which address different aspects of contemporary single women’s lives, from sex and money to friendship and solitude. Her chapter on poor women is brilliant, deploying data and a devastating critique of opposing arguments to demolish the idea that marriage is the solution to the poverty. Rather, she argues, political and economic policies and programs that favor married white men are at the root of most problems faced by poor women, which will best be solved, in turn, by policy (most significantly pay equity and paid leave).
Another of Traister’s strengths is her commitment to considering all single ladies, not just the “Sex and the City’’ demographic too often presumed by pundits (except when they are condemning poor black single mothers). Whether she is addressing history, trends, or statistics, she carefully integrates race and class distinctions, and her case studies are more diverse than any I can recall in comparable books. Indeed, she persuasively argues that black and working-class women have initiated (albeit not always by choice) many of the cultural shifts now embraced by white women, including work outside the home, economic independence, and single parenthood. This refusal to treat single women as a monolith makes the book both more interesting and more persuasive.
That said, the topical chapters are not always as compelling. Paeans to female friendship, urban living, and sexual adventurousness rest a bit too heavily on single-life-loving anecdotes from urban writers and activists (a limitation Traister acknowledges), while chapters on marriage and parenting offer little we haven’t read elsewhere. Though Traister scrupulously notes the diverse viewpoints of single women (some are lonely, some wish they were not single, some end up getting married!), her rah rah tendencies generally prevail.
Still, we could all use some rah rah these days, along with reminders of the progress we’ve made, and the progress we still need to make. These are among the many reasons that, even when her efforts don’t fully cohere, we’re better off reading Rebecca Traister on women, politics, and America than pretty much anyone else.
ALL THE SINGLE LADIES: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation
By Rebecca Traister
Simon and Schuster, 339 pp., $27
Rebecca Steinitz is the author of “Time, Space, and Gender in the Nineteenth-Century British Diary.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.