Throughout America’s history, the start of adult life for women—whatever else it might have been destined to include—had been typically marked by marriage.
-Rebecca Traister, All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation
For this week, I decided to do a book review on All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister. I started this on Friday because I knew I would keep revising until the last minute, so this is late. Again. It probably won’t be the best thing, but at least I tried. When Amazon Kindle recommended All the Single Ladies, it caught my attention. First, it made me think of that Beyoncé song. I also happen to be a single lady and a feminist.
“Since the late 19th century, the median age of first marriage for women has fluctuated between 20 and 22,” says Traister, “this had been the shape, pattern, and definition of female life.” In 2009, when Traister started All the Single Ladies, the proportion of American women who were married dropped below 50 percent. For the first time in history, there are now more single women than those who are married.
The single woman trend is nothing new, but All the Single Ladies takes insight into the female quest for independence. Traister doesn’t tear marriage apart as she is married (late at 35 after 14 years of living independently), but rather acknowledges that women have the choice. She discusses her own personal experiences with both sides and some of the single female icons of the past and present like Susan B. Anthony (never married), Charlotte Brontë (married late and only so to help care for her father), and Gloria Steinem (married at 66). She also interviewed women- at least 100, but about 30 were mentioned- regarding their own experiences with singlehood, marriage, and motherhood. It’s not just limited to white women, but women from a range of races, economic statuses, geographic locations, and religions.
For centuries, there’s been the ridiculous notion that marriage and motherhood were the ultimate source of happiness for women. The same sentiment is echoed in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists speech that “we teach girls to aspire to marriage” and that “society teaches a woman at a certain age who is unmarried to see it as a deep personal failure.” That kind of thinking is problematic. It teaches girls that they need a husband to feel whole and if they don’t, then there is something wrong with them. “It reduces all relationships women have to marital ones, and suggests that they are, by nature, dependent beings, in search of someone-” Traister argues, “if not a husband then an elected official or a set of public policies—to support them.” And that is just not true anymore. Women are proving that they can take care of themselves and live a fulfilling life without the validation of a husband.
The revolution is in the expansion of options, the lifting of the imperative that for centuries hustled nearly all (non-enslaved) women, regardless of their individual desires, ambitions, circumstances, or the quality of available matches, down a single highway toward early heterosexual marriage and motherhood. There are now an infinite number of alternate routes open; they wind around combinations of love, sex, partnership, parenthood, work, and friendship, at different speeds.
Single female life is not prescription, but its opposite: liberation.
There’s a chance I’m going to die alone with 1,000 cats. I found myself nodding along when Traister wrote, “Sure, perhaps I was just a misfit girl destined never to fall in love (a suspicion I logged many hours cultivating), let alone marry.” Confession time: When I was younger, part of my plan was to be married at 25 (yes, despite the fact that I’ve never had a boyfriend). I’m 24 now. Still a single pringle. Not at all ready for marriage. Through all that time, I learned to embrace my independence. I realized I had bigger dreams in mind and there’s still so much to do before settling down. I know God has a plan for me and when the time and conditions are right, the right person will come along. And he will respect my independence. “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,” Traister declares. I, for one, refuse to settle. Neither should any woman for that matter. And it doesn’t hurt for men to learn how to do things for themselves.
All the Single Ladies is brilliant and thoughtful. Whether a woman chooses to marry early, late, or not all, have a lot of sex or abstain from it, have children or not, the choice is entirely up to us. We’re doing just fine. Single or not.
Single women are taking up space in a world that was not built for them. We are a new republic, with a new category of citizen. 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 really counts unless she is married.
. . . .
It’s time to rebuild the world for the diverse women who live in it now, more freely, than ever before.
ICYMI, here’s my Single Pringles playlist
Have you read All the Single Ladies? Let me know your thoughts!