The Power and Importance of Single Women

Author Rebecca Traister says that it’s time to shed the stereotype of the “brunching, irresponsible, cat-lady-spinster.”

all-single-ladies
Photo by Simon and Schuster

When journalist Rebecca Traister began researching and writing her much buzzed-about new book, All the Single Ladies, she thought she was addressing a contemporary phenomenon, specific to her generation. They were the first generation to delay marriage, establish a career and embrace singledom—or so she thought. Instead, she found that while her generation did make history—unmarried adults outnumber married adults in the U.S. and the number of adults who have never married is at a record high—they were part of a long history of single women who have reshaped the political and social fabric of the nation. "The story of single women is the story of the country," writes Traister.

Today, the Pew Research Center reports that unmarried men and women maintain 58 million households in the U.S., and women specifically make up 53 percent of unmarried adults in America. Women are marrying later than ever—the median age today is 27, up from 20 in 1960. This has led to a gradual acceptance and destigmatization of the single woman—and established her as, according to Traister, a powerful political force.

Traister, a writer for New York Magazine, has been praised as one of “our most incisive thinkers on politics, culture, and feminism” and All The Single Ladies has been hailed as “a singularly triumphant work,” by the L.A. Times. Married with two children, Traister spoke to Real Simple about what she learned during her single years in New York City and why the “rise” of the single woman is socially and economically beneficial for both unmarried and married women.

What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen, in respect to single women, since you began writing the book?

I started writing this book in 2010. In 2012, single women made up 23 percent of the electorate. The numbers of single people and increasingly the attention paid to them, and especially single women, has increased exponentially in the years since I’ve been writing the book. I think the marriage rate hit its historic low in 2015. [The marriage rate is now at 50.3 percent].

What surprised you most when you began doing your research?

One of the great lessons of writing this book is that this story has existed for so long but has not gotten a terrific amount of attention. When I sold this book, I sold it as this contemporary phenomenon all about my generation and I said it was “unprecedented” for women in America to stay unmarried in numbers this great, but I didn't know that there had been a pattern in which lots of women didn't marry in the 19th century until I started writing the book and doing the research. [In the 19th century, marriage rates declined due to an imbalanced gender ratio created by the Civil War and men moving westward for work. In fact, many unmarried women engaged in “Boston Marriages,” or women who lived together].

2010 was the year you started writing and the year you got married. What sparked your interest in writing about single women that particular year?

I always worry that that in some ways it conveys that I was ambivalent about getting married, but I was not at all ambivalent, I was thrilled. I had been very, very single in my life throughout my adulthood up until the time I met [my husband], and that was the big shift for me.

I was thinking about what a different role marriage was playing in my life at 35 than it had played (probably) for my mother who married when she was 21. My mother got a Ph.D. and went on to be an English professor and one of the first four women in her department, but she was married for the whole time. I was at 35, and I was getting married but it was such a different act. I had made my career and made my friends and made my home on my own, and then I met somebody in the midst of what was a really robust adulthood.

How do you define the “single woman?” Is she more than just unmarried?

The term “single woman” is a catchall for basically all the different paths that women may take that no longer involve marrying a man at 22 or 23. That could mean being single for some years or decades or for your entire life being unmarried. It could mean unmarried cohabitation. It could mean serial monogamy; it could mean same-sex relationships; it could mean heterosexual relationships. For many women, it means children born in advance of or outside of marriage, and it could simply mean later marriage, or unconventional marriage.

The reality for most people now is that their lives encompass a bunch of those options. The path anyone takes at this point isn't defined by this one narrow chute that we used to send a whole lot of women down. We're seeing all kinds of variations that wind around love, sex, partnership, family, children, and independence.

By that definition, given that you married later in life, do you still somewhat identify as a single woman?

Yes and no. Because in many ways, I’m not only married, I am very traditionally married. I am straight married, I am very monogamously married, I have two kids, and it would be very disrespectful to single women to say, “Oh, yes, I’m still a single woman in spirit.”

There is a celebration of marriage. There’s celebration of babies. There is acknowledgment. And single women get very little of that. Single women are often the ones who pick up the slack during honeymoons, or during family leave. It's single people who are presumed to have no life or no other responsibilities or no need for their own recognition, celebration, and time. By many measures, my life got a lot easier when I got married. Single people don't necessarily have people with whom to split burdens. That's why I would never say, “Oh yes, I’m an honorary single person,” because I’m aware at this point that I’m really not.

That said, when I was single, I was not somebody who was in and out of relationships. I was the person who almost never had a boyfriend. I think that probably left pretty indelible memories and marks on me. So, though I would never presume to “identify” as single, I very much remember single life and would like to continue to be on the “team” of single people.

Is there anything you miss about being single?

When I say that I “miss” it, it’s not that I would prefer it to what I have. But of course there are things that I miss—and these things stem from a bunch of [factors], not just marriage, [like] kids, increased work responsibility, and age. [I miss] the constancy with my female friends, and the daily intimacy with my female friends. And [my relationship] with my city. Operating independently in New York City gave me a very different relationship with New York City than I have now. One of my chief memories of my 20s and 30s, bizarrely, is walking on the sidewalks. Between going to work in the morning, leaving work, going to meet somebody somewhere… I guess that’s when I do a lot of my thinking. I remember the sound of my boots on the sidewalk. I still walk down the sidewalk, but I think that my responsibilities make me more efficient, and perhaps less meditative.

Speaking of your friendships, what can a strong female friend teach you or bring to your life that a romantic partner cannot?

I think a strong female friendship can bring to you everything that a romantic partner should. I think that in many cases the things that female friendship can provide are both very exultant—like love and belief and inspiration and support of each other's goals and dreams and ambitions—and then really mundane, like [having] somebody to go through your office paperwork with and to put as the emergency call person when you have to fill out stuff at the doctor.

[Friends] are the people [with whom] you practice certain kinds of intimacy. They're the people we practice human relationships with and commitment and fidelity and honesty and bickering and boredom and irritation, which are all parts of what marriage is about. As adults, even if we're not married, we're still using those same muscles with our friends.

Your book looks at many important single women throughout history. Do you have a favorite?

I don't know if I have a favorite historic single woman, but I’ll tell you my favorite story. [The story of] Marian Anderson, the singer, encapsulated so much. Her [high school] boyfriend asked her to marry him. His name was Orpheus Fisher, and she says no, in part because she has ambitions for a career and she feels, correctly, that having a husband would weigh her down and get in the way of her very serious ambitions. So she turned him down. She goes on to have this historically important career, and sings on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and she broke all of these barriers in terms of race and gender and becomes really famous. Then, when she's 46 years old, she marries Orpheus Fisher, the same guy who asked her to marry him [when they were teenagers].

Too often we just don't hear these narratives that have forever complicated the notion of your “one special day” and “happily ever after.” Long before this generation of post-feminist women, we've had centuries of women who have been articulating their anxieties and ambivalence about the constraints put on them by marriage.

How do you think social media—where women are barraged with pictures of weddings and babies—affects single women?

Social media increases the level of fetishization of weddings, of engagement ring photos, and that increases an awareness of every time anyone gets married—and they get approval for it. Any picture of my personal life that I put on any social media venue gets enormous affirmation. We are still trained to affirm domestic, emotional, and familial events as achievements. That's wonderful. But we're more trained to [applaud] that than we are for professional events or achievements. On the other hand, given the geographic disparity and the fact that marriage patterns really differ depending on where you live, social media has opened up closed communities. Even if you are somebody who is feeling particularly alienated or anxious in your unmarried state… social media connects communities with people from other places and [gives you] a feeling of not being alone in the world. Both of those things are operating at the same time.

What do you think married women can take away from this book?

Nothing in the book should exactly feel alienating to married women just because they're married. It’s written by a married woman. It’s recognizing a key part of women's history from which [married women] are benefitting too. Having more unmarried women out in the world in workplaces…literally just makes it normal for women to be earners. My theory is that, in many ways, it makes marriage better because it raises the bar for what marriage is supposed to be. [Men and women] take on the responsibilities that used to be gendered. You have women out there earning their own living and doing their own laundry, and men out there earning their livings and doing their laundry. So when they meet, it's not going to be automatic that the men are going to earn and the women are going to do the laundry.

[The book] is not just some battle cry for the single woman. It's about women behaving in a way that's establishing all women as something closer to equal adults in society and in the world.

What is one thing you would tell your single, 20-something self?

It will always be to relax and have a better time and stop worrying so much. Though, in fairness, that's also what I would tell myself yesterday.

You can purchase All the Single Ladies on Amazon.