The Radical Power Of American Single Women

No need to put a ring on it, thank you very much.

"Single female life is not prescription, but its opposite: liberation," writes Rebecca Traister in the introduction of her new book. 

The aptly-titled All The Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation looks at what Traister calls the "creation of an entirely new population: adult women who are no longer economically, socially, sexually, or reproductively dependent on or defined by the men they marry." It's a time in which women are remaining unmarried later and in greater numbers than ever before. As of 2011, just 20 percent of Americans between 18 and 29 were married, compared to nearly 60 percent in 1960. "This is a radical shift in how we conceive of adult life for American women," said Traister.

Traister positions these revolutionary demographic patterns within a historical context and looks forward to what these unmarried women could collectively accomplish. (Because, spoiler alert: We're still pretty far away from gender equality.)

I am part of this demographic shift. I'm 28, single and living in Brooklyn, with a fulfilling job and a fantastic community of near-familial friends. Romantic partnership is something I desire deeply, but the marriage bit doesn't feel imminent or even altogether necessary -- and I'm surrounded by women, both coupled and uncoupled, who feel similarly. After all, there are places to travel, career milestones to reach, houses to be saved up for, friendships to be forged, people to date, people to love, people to sleep with (maybe even all three at once).

It's an odd experience to read a book that so incisively examines a demographic of which you are a part. Especially because, as Traister pointed out, when we're living in these moments, we rarely consciously think about the patterns we're contributing to.

"A very small percentage of those who are changing the marriage patterns are motivated by any kind of politicized or feminist mission," she said. "Mostly it’s just that the pattern has fully changed and we don’t even think of these things."

For those of us who have remained unmarried into our late 20s and beyond, we are living smack dab in the middle of what Susan B. Anthony once dubbed an "epoch of single women." I spoke with Traister to discuss what this age of single womanhood really looks like. 

The Huffington Post: What made you want to write about single women in the first place?

Rebecca Traister: It started with this acknowledgment that my adulthood was built outside of marriage, because I was someone who didn’t have a lot of boyfriends and didn't have a ton of sexual partners. I was really single -- through high school, through college, through most of my 20s and into my 30s. And I had built my work life, my home life, my social life, my relationship to the city I lived in, and none of those things had to do with any specific man.

That was so different than the stories of female adulthood I had spent my formative years looking to as models of what my life would be like. And my life was nothing like that! And it was clear that it wasn’t just my life. My own experience told me that I was not alone, and when I started to look at numbers, I realized that nationally I was really not alone. I didn’t think that enough had been made in the press of these startling numbers of women who are living independent of marriage, and how new this is historically. 

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How has marriage historically limited women’s opportunities?

This country was organized based on heterosexual, legal pairings. And very early on and until well into the 19th century and parts of the 20th, marriage law was based on English Common Law and the idea of coverture, which literally meant the covering of women’s identities by their husband’s identities. Women’s property and women’s wages became their husbands’ property and wages. Up until 1920 women couldn’t vote. Until 1974, married women couldn’t get their own credit cards or in some cases their own loans. Basically, the husband’s professional, social, and economic identity covered the individual identity of the wife. Lots of women managed to assert their agency despite these laws. We have had generations of women who exerted their will, and were pioneers and had robust careers and lives. But the legal structures made it much harder.

This is a radical shift in how we conceive of adult life for American women.

How do those structures play out in modern America?

There are all kinds of structures that we don’t see as oppressive, but they show that the country is still built on the idea that there’s one kind of American who earns in the public sphere -- and that’s probably a dude -- and one kind of American who picks up kids at 3 o'clock in the afternoon and figures out what to do with them during three months summer vacation. And that’s probably not a dude. The vast majority of women who marry still take their husband’s name. And I’m not vilifying that behavior! But that’s a pattern where women are truly still taking on their husbands’ identities. We don’t have any systems in place that acknowledge the majority of families no longer have a full-time parent at home. And the only other option is paying for childcare, which can be prohibitively expensive. Our systems just aren’t working.

That means we should not only subsidize various forms of childcare, it should also mean that we limit the kinds of workdays and create workplace flexibility. Half of this is that we need to put in more programs to support women’s ability to be in the workforce full-time, but it also means we need to reconsider what being in the workforce full-time means for women and men.

How are unmarried women impacting our country’s legislative priorities?

So far, the actual impact they’ve made is limited. We’re still waiting for maternity leave, we’re still waiting for raising the minimum wage. But what they are doing, in increasing numbers, is voting. And they’re voting Left. They’re voting for Bernie Sanders, though in South Carolina, they voted for Hillary Clinton. Not all of them, but, in vast numbers, single women tend to vote for Democrats.

How influential are unmarried women as a voting bloc?

Getting single women to come out and vote is a challenge. Our larger social structure isn’t built for them. There’s a dissociation between what government can do and single women. The second issue is that a lot single women are economically imperiled and don’t have access to the resources that allow them to vote. They don't have time to stand in the polls forever, they don’t have time to jump through hoops to get certain kinds of identification cards or registration. It’s a very vulnerable voting demographic: lots of low-income women, lots of single mothers, lots of women of color -- and those are the people who are hit hardest by voting restrictions. But in 2012 they were almost a quarter of the electorate. They could be responsible for electing the president if they came out in force and voted as strongly Democrat as they have in the past.

[Single women] could be responsible for electing the president if they came out in force.

When you looked back at the history of unmarried women, what did you learn that most surprised you?

I learned that in the 19th century there was a huge population of women who didn’t marry. Lots of men went west for exploration, and lots of men were killed during the Civil War, so there was kind of a man shortage on the East Coast. And we’re [talking specifically about] middle-class white women, because before Emancipation, black women who were slaves in the South didn’t have marital freedom. Marriage was often forced on them and slave marriages weren’t legally recognized in most states, so marriage was used as a tool to further subjugate slaves. After Emancipation, black marriage rates actually rose, because there was marital liberty. But for middle-class white women whose potential husbands were killed in the Civil War or went west, when their lives weren’t subsumed by wifeliness and motherhood, they wound up committing themselves to all these revolutionary causes: abolition, suffrage, the labor movement. They expanded the ranks of women teachers and nurses and secondary education, and they really transformed the country for women in a powerful way that sort of culminated with the passage of the 19th amendment in 1919.

You argue that it might actually be the women who have pushed back on traditional ideas of what marriage should be, who have ultimately saved marriage as an institution. Can you explain that idea?

What we’re trying to get to is a nation in which we have more equitable institutions and opportunities for men and women. To get there, the institution that has historically set limits on adult female independence, as marriage has, has to be reformed. Susan B. Anthony predicted in 1877 that before we could get to an age of gender equality, we must live through an epoch where women cease to marry. Because even if we change the laws -- which we have to some degree -- that wouldn’t change our hearts and minds and social attitudes about the natural power relationship between men and women.

How might these changing marital patterns impact straight couples positively?

Living independently of each other maritally [helps men and women] regard each other as peers. What happens when men and women aren’t marrying at 20, but are in workplaces together, are at bars with each other, are having affairs with each other, and are understanding each other as peers, as colleagues, as friends, and as sexual partners who are not legally bound to each other? It increases the chance of them seeing each other as equals. It also increases the likelihood that each gender will learn to fend for itself in ways that historically they weren’t trained to do. Women become more stable earners and establish more stable professional bases, while men learn to do their own laundry and feed themselves. So when and if they do end up partnering as hetero pairs, those jobs won’t be automatically assigned to one gender or another. 

What we have is increased liberty to pursue more options that hopefully get us towards outcomes that suit us individually, as opposed to what culture demands of us.

You also offer a really nuanced look at the role sex plays (or doesn’t play) in single women’s lives. Why do you think there’s so much hand-wringing and anxiety when it comes to women having sex outside of marriage?

Women’s liberation of any sort engenders intense anxiety. If women are liberated, who is gonna pick up the kids at 3? Who might be challenging men for their salaries and their college admissions letters and their political jobs? And sexual liberation is particularly frightening. Female sexuality in the 1950s was so associated with a disruptive political force that terms like bombshell were developed to describe sexual women. Women’s sexuality, when unleashed, is extremely threatening, in part because it threatens how we trace reproduction. Marriage has been a way of attempting to ensure the replication of power and wealth from one generation of another, passing it down from men to men. But if sexuality happens and is not contained by marriage then it threatens men’s power.

What role did you find female friendships played in the lives of the single women you spoke to for the book?

Female friends -- and also male friends -- really play the role that marriages did for a long time, and perhaps a far better role than marriages did for a very long time. The intimacies of friendships outside of marriage can really be spousal or familial. It’s about who you come home to and talk to at the end of the day. Who you grieve with, who you experience stress with, who you bicker with, who you get bored with, who you talk about politics with. And for many people, [friends are] who we raise our children with, who we deal with our parents’ health crises with, who we go to for financial support and advice. Pretty much everything outside of sex can be accomplished within the framework of a non-sexual friendship. And often those friendships provide more than the marriages that might have provided sex (or might not have provided sex), but that we’re taught to aspire to.

The world is filled with married women who feel lonely, who feel unfulfilled, who yearn for love, who yearn for sex, who feel regret... And we don’t diagnose that as symptomatic of marriage.

We also seem to be living in a moment where single women have unprecedented power, influence and freedom, yet we haven’t quite escaped the expectation that women should eventually enter into a long-term (heterosexual) partnership. What would you say to women who are trying to navigate that reality?

Of course, there is human impulse and unhappiness and a drive towards love. Not for everyone. Not everyone is yearning for a committed partner for the rest of their lives. But a huge amount of people want to fall in love, want to have sex, want to be known, and that is human. But as the marriage pattern changes, the patterns of when people meet and fall in love has so extended. The possibilities for love and for marriage extend not just through your 30s and 40s, but into your 50s and 60s. This is a less and less unusual story.

The other thing that I would say is that it’s very easy for us to talk about loneliness and lack of fulfillment and regret -- all of which are felt by single women, often in relation to having not found a satisfying relationship, and that’s so real. But it’s easy for us to see those feelings as symptomatic of singleness. And here’s something we too rarely consider: The world is also filled with married women who feel lonely, who feel unfulfilled, who yearn for love, who yearn for sex, who feel regret over chances they didn’t take or that life hasn’t turned out the way they wanted it to. And we don’t diagnose that as symptomatic of marriage. That is not to minimize the genuine pain that people sometimes feel in singlehood, it is simply to say these things are not necessarily caused by singlehood or inoculated against by marriage. 

The thing that I’m writing about is not that any path guarantees happiness -- and, in fact, lots of paths bring all kinds of unhappiness. But rather what we have is increased liberty to pursue more options that hopefully get us towards outcomes that suit us individually, as opposed to what culture demands of us. 



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