This article appears in our Summer 2016 issue, Money. Subscribe today!
It’s a good thing I’ve been single for a long time, if only because it allows me to say with utter authority something that will come as no surprise, which is that at some point you just get sick of hearing about yourself as a problem. There are a lot of things I love about Beyoncé, but near the top of the list is her anthem “Single Ladies.” Why? Because on a surface level, anyway, it sounds like a unique celebration of the single life. It is, in any event, significantly more musical than the incessant drumbeat of lazy news coverage about unmarried women in contemporary America.
So it was with joy that I breezed through Rebecca Traister’s new book, All the Single Ladies. The book is a lot of things, but perhaps its most surprising feature is that it is quiet. This is not the same thing as calling it bland or tepid or insignificant. Rather, it is a level-headed treatise on the multifaceted representation of the many millions of single women in contemporary America. Traister affirms that single women are not only accepting and sometimes reveling in their independence, but also fundamentally shaping politics and culture as a force in their own right. All the Single Ladies is not so much a pointed attack on conservatives or patriarchy as it is an interrogation of single-female stereotypes and caricatures.
Traister offers the lives of single women depth and complexity in a culture that has too often mischaracterized unmarried women as relatively worthless, underdeveloped, or dangerous. All the Single Ladies does not take a defensive posture; it is not meant to correct the screeds or hand-wringing that often seems to blatantly connect unmarried women with purported societal ills. But the book does intentionally reframe the conversation about the growing number of unmarried women, pointing out that our culture has generally discussed singlehood under the rubric of antiquated gender norms and expectations that are flawed, damaging, and shortsighted.
Traister does an excellent job of writing about intimate friendships between women—not only as relationships that are highly underrated, but also as alternative familial arrangements that offer the kind of support and structure that marriage ostensibly offers exclusively to romantic couples. She also writes about women who cohabitate without being romantically involved, once deemed “Boston marriages” in a nod to Henry James’s novel The Bostonians. Traister weaves in data and statistics about the growing number of single and cohabitating women with narratives from women across racial, geographic, and generational lines. Perhaps because she is herself a journalist and writer, the book’s source material and anecdotes feature journalists more prominently than most other books. That includes the friendship origin story of Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow, cohosts of the podcast Call Your Girlfriend. Along with Traister’s description of one of her own close friendships, it embodies the myriad enriching relationships single women can have that don’t require a male partner.
The book is nuanced in assessing the way that unmarried women’s choices often act as fuel for harsh, anti–single woman rhetoric; it is also empathetic toward those who choose to become single mothers and those who are not single by choice. And Traister, who married in her midthirties, writes from the perspective of someone who believes a powerful, unpopular truth: It may not be that unmarried women are deviating from the norm, but rather that our politicians and media haven’t recognized that single life might be the new normal for many women. The idea of single women as the rule and not the exception has been gaining traction in popular culture for a while now, and is manifested in television shows like Living Single, Sex and the City, and Girls, to name a few. And the growing number of women who marry later in life or wait until they have established careers before partnering up and starting families further complicates the status-quo narrative. Ultimately, All the Single Ladies suggests that accepting single women of all ages and sexualities as unremarkable isn’t just good for women, it’s also good for society. A nation that believes women are equipped to decide if partnership and motherhood are really what they want for their lives is one that respects that women are already in control of their destinies.