Rebecca Traister‘s All The Single Ladies begins with the statistics that, “In 2009, the proportion if American women who were married dropped below 50 percent…for the first time in American history, single women (including those who were never married, widowed, divorced, or seperated) outnumbered married women.”
As someone who’s been primarily single for most of her life, Traister’s stats struck a chord with me. Marriage isn’t a factor that I see happening for me (or any of my female friends for that matter) anywhere in the near future — and as Traister would argue, it’s a trend that has no sign of stopping soon. The visibility and range of female single existence has expanded drastically in the United States — flat tropes of sad cat ladies, spinsters, emasculating career women, or sexually promiscuous vixens are no longer the defacto images of single women.
In fact, Traister considers single women, a demographic that has long been underestimated and overlooked, to be a major political force in the US. The rise, both demographically and metaphorically, of single women in the United States, however, has been a long time coming. Traister takes pains to detail the history of single (and formerly single) women in the past who worked to improve the lives of women both single and married and how their efforts created single womanhood as we know it today. She also posits that much of the nation’s social change came from single women who made lives outside of traditional marriage and motherhood, detailing how from abolition to reproductive rights, single women have played an integral role in enacting positive change for females in the country.
Traister relies on her extensive research (she interviewed over one hundred women, whose stories weave a narrative laced with lots of cogent data) to make an argument for continuing to push for social, economic, and political reform that will further increase options for women, following in the tradition of the single ladies of the past. She delves deep into why women have chosen or been forced into a single status and how this independence has shaped, and at times, improved life for women overall, both married and single.
Refreshingly enough, the book however, does not look down on marriage (Traister herself married relatively late in life), but instead examines the politics of it, especially from an economical and social standpoint. She does this with dexterity, coming off neither pushy nor preachy. Also admirable is Traister’s razor-sharp insight as she tackles the racial politics of single womanhood in the US; it would be fairly easy within this feminist framework to not address intersectionality, but Traister doesn’t shy away from how institutional racism has affected women of color’s relationship to marriage. She even offers a framework of political reform that would improve the quality of life for single women on the whole, since structurally, conventional couples benefit economically and socially from their unions.
What I enjoyed most about the text, however, was the careful acknowledgment of the breadth and depth of single womanhood. Not one singular experience defines being a single lady, nor does one experience or existence have to. The element of agency and possibility in being single is also incredibly empowering — and gives single women initiative, responsibility even, to make the change they want to see happen, regardless of what their marital status was or will be in the future. Where would we be after all, if not for single women like Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, and more? As Traister notes, “the story of single women is the story of the country.” As a part of this demographic, I couldn’t agree more.