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The World-Changing Power of Single Women

A new book charts the rise of unattached women through history—and makes the case for how they can change public policy.
Throughout history, single women have been a powerful political and artistic force. (Photo: Laura Hadden/Flickr)

Throughout history, single women have been a powerful political and artistic force. (Photo: Laura Hadden/Flickr)

Shulamith Firestone thought feminists could change human nature. "Feminists are talking about changing a fundamental biological condition," she wrote at the beginning of her 1970 second-wave classic The Dialectic of Sex. Sexism could be traced back to the fundamental biological difference between men and women, according to Firestone: Women occupied a lower strata in society than men because pregnancy made them physically vulnerable, a biological difference that posed a challenge to her sex. When women threw off their oppression, they would fundamentally change the structure of society, the definition of love, and sexuality. "If there were another word more all-embracing than revolution," Firestone wrote, "we would use it."

Rebecca Traister's new book All The Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation at first seems more modest in ambition than Firestone's revolutionary vision—it doesn't call for the complete re-construction of humankind. Instead, Traister, a writer for New York magazine and an Elle contributing editor, has written a book that concentrates on explaining the causes and elucidating the results of a quieter change: the rise of single women in the United States. In 2009, Traister reports, the number of unmarried American women rose over 50 percent. From 1890 to 1980, the median age of first marriage varied between 20 and 22, while today it is 27. In the last two decades in the U.S., single women have come to outnumber married women.

Traister argues the rise of single women hasn't just changed American demographics, it's transformed gender roles, gender expectations, and gender politics. She finds, moreover, that influential single women are not an exclusively contemporary phenomenon: Though Traister originally intended to use her research—which includes conversations with single women of varied income levels, geographic locations, races, and ages—to sketch a portrait of the modern single women in America, as she dug deeper, she realized single women have been an important demographic for decades. The resulting study surveys the historic role of unattached women from the abolition movement to today. It's a history that is aimed at single women themselves, as it works to provide them with a sense of their own history. But the book also works to show how single women can change the world for everyone.

All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation. (Photo: Simon and Schuster)

All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation. (Photo: Simon and Schuster)

The rise of unmarried women has broken what writer Jonathan Last has referred to as the "iron triangle" of sex, marriage, and child bearing. Thanks in part to increasingly available birth control, and in part to changing cultural norms, women no longer need to be married to have either sex or children.

Single women have always provoked feelings of anxiety and discomfort in America, where their independence has been portrayed as unnatural, overly sexual, and monstrous. Single women abolitionists "were accused of wanting to free slaves so that they might marry black men," Traister notes. More recently, the specter of single women has provoked outcry from conservative commentators like Ross Douthat, who believe that abortion and divorce undermine the social fabric of the nation and contribute to poverty and social pathologies. Even feminists have been leery of single women. Firestone herself spoke against the sexual revolution and its promised liberation; dispensing with marriage, she felt, meant men could have sex without having to provide either economic support or commitment to a partner or family.

Despite the alarmist paranoia they've inspired, Traister finds unattached women were historically a volatile political force, rejecting their proscribed gender roles to engage in political advocacy and organizing. Firestone herself never married, nor did many women activists and artists, a list that includes Emily Dickinson, Jane Austen, Susan B. Anthony, Frances Willard, and Sarah Grimké. Others put marriage off until later in their lives, such as Charlotte Brontë, Beyoncé, Angelina Grimké, Lucy Stone, and Ida B. Wells-Barnett. At times when women were expected to take care of husbands and children, singleness gave some of these women the ability to write poetry, fight for women's rights, and protest lynching. Today, never-married women are particularly likely to be politically active, and often contribute time to attending rallies and organizing. Single women in 2012 voted two-to-one for Barack Obama, proving to be a crucial segment of his election coalition.

The growth of single women as a demographic has transformed more than America's electoral landscape, however. It's altered baseline assumptions about what "normal" means, in addition to giving women substantially more control over their lives. Well-off women have especially benefited from the freedom being single has provided them to put careers first and order their lives as they wish: Traister writes that her realization that she could have a child on her own, via sperm donor, without getting married, or waiting for Mr. Right, was "incredibly freeing." (That's a reaction shared by many: When journalist Sarah Elizabeth Richards interviewed women about their experiences for a story on egg freezing in the Wall Street Journal, she noted that "egg freezing motivated [the women] to take charge of their lives.")

For women who are poorer, being single isn't always a liberating choice—single motherhood, for instance, can come with financial, emotional, and medical consequences. Still, poor women who raise children without fathers aren't "necessarily emblematic of disarrayed thinking, a lack of planning, or otherwise being out of control," Traister reports, based on her interviews. Women may choose children because they want the emotional connection, responsibility, and the rewards children bring. Studies show that two-parent families live in less poverty and have children with higher grade point averages and college aspirations than single-parent ones; nevertheless, Traister argues some families are better off without fathers. Good fathers can help enormously with child rearing; but abusive, or indifferent fathers are often more of a burden than a help. Single motherhood is often not the ideal choice, but it may be better than other available options.

Traister highlights the need for programs that support people in the society we've got, rather than the one that some wish we had.

Traister is careful not to denigrate marriage; she is, after all, married herself. Nor does she pretend that all single people are happy all the time. Single women can suffer from loneliness; they worry about who will care for them if they are ill; they face financial and logistical struggles when they have children. That doesn't mean that marriage is the solution to their problems, Traister argues—and it certainly doesn't mean that marriage can or will protect them economically. The 1950s utopian ideal of marriage, in which every family is headed by a happy married couple, remains a fantasy divorced from the real logistics of maintaining relationships and raising children.

Traister highlights the need for programs that support people in the society we've got, rather than the one that some wish we had. At the end of her book, she includes an appendix of policies required to address the needs of single women. The policies she suggests are, not coincidentally, supportive of both single and hitched Americans, including a higher minimum wage, housing subsidies, affordable day care, universal paid sick leave compensation, and greater access to reproductive health services. Before you can build a social safety net, she conveys, America needs to acknowledge that marriage isn't one—not for single people, and not for married ones either.

All the Single Ladies makes a convincing case that there's something transformative about investing greater cultural value in the lives of unmarried women. An America that could see single women as normal people, rather than an aberration, would be an America on the way to becoming more equal and more free—not just for single people, but for women, for LGBT folks, for minorities, and even for married guys (like me). What Traister is proposing isn't Shulamith Firestone's revolution. But it would be a start.