"YOUNG WOMEN today no longer have to wonder, as I did, what unmarried adult life for women might look like," writes political journalist Rebecca Traister in her latest book, All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation. In it, she charts the increasingly common trend among American women of delaying or opting out of marriage—not because they're all living inside a Cathy comic (ACK!!!), but because marriage is no longer the entry point into adulthood that it once was.
This is a revolutionary idea, with revolutionary implications. And though their numbers have increased, Traister clarifies that unmarried women aren't some modern blight invented by Helen Gurley Brown, but have long played an essential role in our country's most important social movements, from the abolition of slavery to current battles over equal pay—in part because unmarried women, free from the gendered obligations that historically accompanied marriage, have had the time to be politically engaged. (It was enough to make Susan B. Anthony dream of an "epoch" of single women.)
That single women are everywhere, that they are a potent political force, that they are not half-people, isn't likely to be news to any actual single ladies or the people who know and love them. But to well-meaning relatives who enjoy inquiring after your personal life, to GOPers terrified of women's sexual freedom, to intrusive Uber drivers asking about your marital status, it may well be—yet it shouldn't, especially if, like Traister, you entered young adulthood in the '90s, when one of the most significant shifts in American marriage patterns occurred.
"That was... the decade in which we saw what people now call the Great Crossover... so that now the average age of first birth was preceding first marriage, which was a scrambling of how we were told women's lives were supposed to proceed," Traister tells me over the phone.
Shifts like this, coupled with the knowledge that at 21, marriage wouldn't have made "any sense" in her life, Traister questioned the utility of marriage in the lives of young women. With good reason: Though often portrayed as an on-ramp to happiness, marriage has actually historically served as "a way of replicating male power," says Traister.
"To scramble that and to say, 'Wait a minute, we're not living in those kinds of pairs anymore, and even when we do, the power dynamics within them are gonna be different,' is very disruptive," she says. "And so you hear from conservative lawmakers—seriously practically everything they say eventually can come back to 'Let's go back to how things used to be.' And you can hear that when Mitt Romney gives an answer in the 2012 debate about gun violence and says, well, you know, we should marry someone... Marco Rubio is somebody who said the biggest anti-poverty weapon we have is marriage. Jeb Bush has said that single mothers should be shamed more."
Single Ladies pushes some much-needed common sense against conservative arguments for marriage over, you know, PUBLIC POLICY. But what's also hugely important is that Traister normalizes and puts into words the vast, varied lives of unmarried women. We do not live inside a pitiable waiting room, hoping to leave once someone worthy of commitment appears (and, okay, some of us have already met such a person and—don't tell Ted Cruz!—remain unmarried). A single life is a real life, with its own ineffable beauty, which former Hairpin advice columnist Megan Dietz, giving counsel to an unhappily coupled reader, once described this way: "You'll find yourself sailing down the street on a sunny afternoon, laughing at how wonderful you feel, your heart floating up inside you like you just drank a fizzy lifting drink. Do you remember this feeling? It is called freedom, and it is exquisite, and I want it so badly for you."
Still, it isn't always easy to be a single woman, because the world isn't always designed with us in mind. In one of Traister's most poignant passages, she recounts the frustration of trying to move an A/C unit across New York by herself. With help from a compassionate cab driver and a super, she prevailed.
It reminded me of a Sunday morning when, needing new furniture after the breakup of a cohabitating relationship, I found myself alone at Ikea, struggling to pull a heavy boxed bedframe off a warehouse shelf. The box was bigger than me, the shelf comically high. I tugged, failed, considered that I could probably be physically crushed if this didn't go according to plan, and was just about to give up when, unprompted, another woman offered to help. As we hauled my new single-lady bed off the shelf, I could have cried. I thanked her profusely and paid for delivery.
On the train ride home, I felt that "fizzy lifting drink" feeling, which I would grow accustomed to over the next year, as it popped up when I boarded planes by myself; when I took my car in for a tire change; when I bought myself a cheeseburger and whiskey for dinner, to be consumed sloppily and alone while reading this book. To paraphrase Traister paraphrasing Susan B. Anthony, the epoch of single women is here.
Now put your hands up.
All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation
by Rebecca Traister
(Simon & Schuster)