On ‘Single Ladies’ Making History: A Q&A With Rebecca Traister

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Culture & Conversation Human Rights

On ‘Single Ladies’ Making History: A Q&A With Rebecca Traister

Katie Klabusich

In All the Single Ladies, Traister outlines the struggle and the strength of womanhood while demolishing myths, as well as flat-out lies, about the role and prevalence of single women through history.

The premise that unmarried women have driven social and political change in this country since before its founding is enjoying mass circulation thanks to author Rebecca Traister’s latest book, All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation.

As a perpetually single woman rapidly approaching 40, I was on the edge of my seat for its March 1 release. It was exhilarating to discover that women who remained unmarried by choice or chance, married late, or had non-traditional marriages (for the time or even today’s standards) have always done movement work out of necessity and passion.

Traister opens her book with an exchange from 1896. In an interview with suffragist Susan B. Anthony, Nellie Bly asks, “What do you think the new woman will be?” Anthony responds, “She’ll be free.”

Perhaps our society is entering that era of the new woman: Traister’s book became a New York Times’ Best Seller almost immediately after it hit bookstore shelves, just in time for the conclusion of a presidential primary that might end with a female nominee at the top of a major party ticket.

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It does feel as if we are still defining and creating this “new woman” though—just look at the misogyny around this election, ongoing resistance to the Equal Rights Amendment, and rampant attacks on reproductive health. One has to wonder: When do we finally prove Susan B. Anthony right?

In All the Single Ladies, Traister outlines the struggle and strength of womanhood while demolishing myths, as well as flat-out lies, about the role and prevalence of single women throughout history. She was kind enough, via email while traveling to promote the book, to extrapolate on female friendship, the power of unmarried women in shaping electoral politics, and how far we have yet to go before common life choices like staying single cease to be considered “alternative.” Here is a lightly edited version of our conversation.

Rewire: Marriage as the “least bad” option is a recurring theme throughout the book. Some are choosing it because of social assumptions and the need to belong, others for economic reasons. Could we be reaching a tipping point for validating the choice not to be part of a conventional two-person union in law and tax code?

Rebecca Traister: I think we’re still quite a distance from a massive tipping point when it comes to altering policies, though certainly we’re at a tipping point when it comes to the way in which Americans live their lives and map out their adulthoods. Obviously, part of the problem is government dysfunction and part of it is the lingering, deeply entrenched attitudes that continue to privilege marriage and afford benefits to those (especially men) who marry.

I do believe that the new organization of the citizenry, the development of a massive (and potentially powerful) new population—of women living independently of this institution on which they have historically been dependent and which has in many ways confined them, especially in its older forms—will have some kind of political impact over the next few decades. (Gulp … century?) But, I imagine that the progress will be slow. Maybe I’m wrong! Maybe it will be swifter than I can imagine.

Right now I’m just hoping for paid parental leave, which makes so much sense yet it has been bizarrely impossible to move toward until very recently. And a higher minimum wage, which is also so crucial, but which has been considered a radical ask. And paid sick days! Which is also one of the most obviously humane ideas we could come up with, yet is still not federally mandated.

I’m hoping for a lot, in other words. I always hope for a lot.

Rewire: What makes single women so different electorally?

RT:  Well, there isn’t self-conscious politicization. But there are a bunch of factors. In terms of the rates they vote, single women move around more—to cities and around the country and out of the country—which makes it harder for them to vote. They are susceptible to voting restrictions, since so many single women are ironically so desperately in need of policies that would enable them to take the time it now often requires to cast a vote; and politicians have cut them out rhetorically for so long—speaking only of American families, pretty obviously in reference to traditional, hetero-nuclear family structures, and not other kinds of family formations.

Also, in terms of what they need in the world: they require support for their own independence (as male independence has been supported for centuries through enfranchisement, government-backed business and housing loans, infrastructure investment, tax breaks, etc.) in the form of higher wages, pay equality protection, mandated paid sick days and parental leave, lower college costs, subsidized high-quality child care, and unfettered access to safe and legal abortion, and also to contraception.

When we were organized in hetero, legally bound units in which one kind of American did the professional work (and accrued the economic benefits and enjoyed some of the government-subsidized benefits as well) and another kind of American did the domestic labor (enjoying no economic benefit, save being dependent on her husband), the need for these policies that might better support economic independence of all kinds of Americans didn’t seem so starkly necessary. Now it is. But of course, the conditions that make it necessary—the possibility of women having more liberated sex lives, higher-earning work lives, having kids outside of marriage—were won in self-consciously political battles, through civil rights and feminist movements. Those victories created conditions that now permit this more mass behavioral shift.

Rewire: You link the “new reality” of women logistically being able to live independently, and therefore choosing to do so, with the patriarchy’s panic about decreasing stigma around premarital sex. Could this anxiety over erosion of privilege and power be what’s driving the attacks on reproductive health two decades later?

RT: Well, it’s certainly part of it. Attacks on reproductive health and moves to regulate women’s ability to control their reproduction have always been linked to fears about women’s insurrection and eventual independence from male-dominated power structures. And it makes sense. Women’s bodies are the ones in which reproduction happens; men’s ability to exert influence—or ownership—over their offspring and to pass along their privilege to a next generation is all foregrounded in some sort of social and economic control over women and their bodies.

Abortion restrictions are one way to do that; making birth control inaccessible is another way to do that. Previously, it was keeping women from voting and out of workplaces. Basically, anything that saps women’s ability to live independently and forces them to rely on men for economic, social, and/or sexual possibility leads men to maintain their power. And, of course, that’s where marriage came in; it was for a long time the institution that organized and enforced men’s power over women. But as more people live outside of it, it’s changing, which is good news. It’s becoming more flexible, more egalitarian, more a thing that women and men are likely to enter into at varied ages—and only when it is going to enhance their lives, not simply because they have no other choice.

RewireIn the chapter “Single Women Have Often Made History,” you write:

The consumerist cycle both depended on and strengthened capitalism, and thus worked to allay other postwar anxieties about nuclear attack and Communism, both of which had become linked to fears about the power of women’s sexuality run amok. Historian Elaine Tyler May reports that “non-marital sexual behavior in all its forms became a national obsession after the war,” and marriage, in tandem with the repudiation of women’s recent advances, was the cure.

Is there anything—any “ill”—over the past several centuries that hasn’t been linked to female sexuality or insufficient submission?

RT: Environmental collapse? The recession and mortgage industry disaster? Probably those things are also linked in some quarters to women’s insufficient submission; there’s always someone out there willing to blame a hurricane, or an economic collapse precipitated largely by wealthy white men, on women’s promiscuity or whatever.

But yeah, more seriously, most everything that afflicts us can get blamed on women and their propensity for moving toward equality and away from dependency on men.

Rewire: You write about female friendships—a topic close to my heart—throughout the book. When you introduce your friend Sara you describe how deeply entrenched in your life she was for many years. My “Sara” and I have found that people often squint and “huh?” when we talk about each other in a way that indicates we might be each other’s “person.” Even though, as you write, tight female friendships have been common historically, our generation was taught to view each other as rivals, not to be trusted. Do/did people get your relationship with Sara? What are people missing when we talk about our platonic “person” and possibly missing in their own lives?

RT:  Well, the fact that not everyone “got” that relationship (or other close friendships that were so central to my adulthood) was part of what prompted me to first write about Sara, in a piece called “Girlfriends are the New Husbands,” back in 2004, then again in 2005, then again in 2012. The centrality of friendship to women’s adulthood is really a topic that has obsessed me for a while! Both because I’ve lived it and because almost every one of my peers has also lived it.

And no, as I write in the book, there’s no greeting card aisle, no specially trained therapists, to help us navigate the very serious emotional terrain of friendship, as there is for marriage and divorce or for parental or sibling relationships, though really friends do become our familial and most intimate partners for years at a time, often for our whole lifetimes. I think that as more of us stay single for longer, alongside each other, and experience friendship as a bedrock of our adulthoods, the better we’ll get at acknowledging and supporting friendship as a primary relationship.

In earlier eras, when marriage was much less likely to offer emotional sustenance or companionate pleasures, female friendships were recognized to some better degree. But our recent history (from mid-20th century) really encouraged marriage as the institution in which we put all our emotional stores, and encouraged those marriages to begin at the start of our adulthoods. So we have some work to do in moving away from that model and remembering that there are other patterns of commitment, and commingling of lives and responsibilities, and that they are just as valid—and often better for us!

Rewire: Most of the women I know have an impossible time doing nice things for ourselves. We judge ourselves the way you describe raising an eyebrow at Carrie Bradshaw’s shoe collection, but not Carol Brady’s hypothetical need for drapes. You write: “Any time women do anything with their lives that is not in service to others, they are readily perceived as acting perversely.”

I think all of us have internalized this. What can we do to unlearn this unhealthy drive to give of ourselves until we’re depleted and encourage ourselves and each other to pursue things that we like/want simply because they bring us joy? And can a shift in this thinking lead us to demanding more/better in all categories of our lives, including relationships and work?

RT:  Well, this calls on me to be a bit of an advice columnist, which I’m very bad at. (Though I should add that I think I’m very good at giving individual advice! Just not to masses of people).

My (slightly lame) answer to this is that the first step is one many women are already taking: simply putting themselves first—whether that means pursuing their own ambitions, crafting their own individual commitments and not adhering to old models that don’t fit them. As more women live in a greater variety of ways, the more they help all of our eyes to the fact that women have selves, and that those selves count for something—count for a lot.

This very basic first step has been a long time coming.

Rewire: At the end of your introduction you say, “Here we are,” meaning Susan B. Anthony’s “epoch of single women.” If we’ve arrived there, what comes next?

RT:  I have no idea! That’s what’s so exciting.