(I received an ARC of this title from the publisher via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.)
All the Single Ladies is not a rallying cry to singledom. Rebecca Traister doesn’t make value judgments and she isn’t here to simply sing the praises of girl power. Her focus is on the realities of a changing world and how we need to make greater cultural, political, and economic changes to keep up with the times and make new social structures work, rather than try to force everyone into a mold that is increasingly irrelevant and probably never worked very well in the first place.
Despite the growing acceptance of single women as a legitimate demographic and not just a bunch of kooky spinsters and unwed mothers, old habits die hard. The idea that a woman’s actual adulthood doesn’t begin until marriage persists, as does the belief that marriage is somehow a cure-all for social ills. So-called experts still assume single motherhood is a driving factor of poverty and crime, despite all of the other factors clearly involved and the chicken-egg form of the argument. Many people still assert that any woman who chooses to be single is selfish and somehow decadent, obviously disregarding the discrepancy between how we treat single women versus single men. The business world pays women with children less (about 4% less per child) and men with children more. More successful women are opting to have a child without a legally bound partner, which threatens to upend the “legitimate” family that is favored by tax breaks and male authority. This is just the barest glimpse of the many, many issues Traister examines through statistical analysis and over a hundred personal interviews with women of all ages and situations.
Books that examine independent women are not rare, but a quality one that doesn’t simply look at one side of the argument certainly is. Most of what Traister has to say—particularly as she is a late married woman herself—is in favor of independence, but she also looks at the ways our current social and cultural constructs are not equipped to deal immediately with the changes that are occurring so rapidly. It’s also worth noting that independence, in this analysis, doesn’t simply mean never married, but also late married, divorced, and widowed as well—essentially turning a lens on the larger and larger space of time women are utilizing for themselves as single entities, whether forever or simply longer than society prefers. Utilizing a shifting macro-micro approach, All the Single Ladies takes the feminist adage “the personal is the political” to heart and Traister works hard to maintain an intersectional lens throughout; this is not a Mary Tyler Moore/ Sex in the City single-girl trope writ large, though it also has its place in the narrative. Class, race, sexual orientation, history, geography; all play a vital role in her study and are at the heart of its thesis.
I am not a single lady. In fact, I am part of a decreasing demographic, having married at twenty (and part of an even smaller statistic in that I’m still married 11 years later). But this book is still about me and people like me just as much as it is about single women, since the institution of marriage and what it means for American society is just as wrapped up in “how” and “when” and “why” on both sides of the argument. If I were to be honest, I would have to admit that I didn’t get married so young for purely romantic reasons. I married for love, but the “when” part of the equation was dictated by many of the outdated notions that persist despite generational shifts in the culture. Our parents-- part of an earlier generation that still clings desperately to certain relationship norms despite having grown up in the 1960s and 70s-- encouraged us based on their own experiences, but so did our economic situation and, tacitly, the world at large. One of the issues Traister examines with the most critical eye is how economics influences the decision to get married or not, and how that decision affects the overall “success” of marriage in general, resulting in a cycle of inflation and devaluation that prevents real progress or a wholesale reexamination of the institution. I’m not here to make a dark confession of dissatisfaction in my marriage or say that had things been different my life would be better, but it is very possible that it would have been quite different. If our society didn’t give couples financial and social advantages over single people, it’s very possible the options would have felt less constrained. But it’s hard to argue with the tangible benefits like tax breaks, and even harder to argue with the intangibles that come along with fitting a certain ideal of socially acceptable living arrangements. Had we both done what more and more people of our generation are doing and established ourselves better financially and socially as individuals, we would probably have had a stronger foundation to build on when we did get married. Ours is, so far, a success story, but most people who follow our pattern are not so lucky, and Traister reveals why that is and what needs to change in a way that is more relevant than ever.