Early in her new book All the Single Ladies, Rebecca Traister writes, “The story of single women is the story of the country.” Unmarried women, she argues, are a revolutionary force: Their very existence is changing our definitions of love, partnership, and family, and pushing our politics to the left. “Women,” writes Traister, “perhaps especially those who have lived untethered from the energy-sucking and identity-sapping institution of marriage in its older forms, have helped to drive [the] social progress of this country since its founding.” A writer-at-large for New York magazine and a contributing editor at Elle, Traister emphasizes that her goal is not to argue for one structure of life over another. Rather, she writes, “The revolution is in the expansion of options, the lifting of the imperative” that demanded “early heterosexual marriage and motherhood.”
It’s been 15 years since HBO’s Sex and the City delivered our most memorable send-up of the idea that feminism exists to pave the way for women’s choices, whatever they may be. “I choose my choice! I choose my choice!” Charlotte shouts at Miranda, defending an embrace of domesticity that, as her friends predict, she will come to regret. We are still debating whether feminism should validate “choice,” or, specifically, the choices that push back against patriarchy. The enormous accomplishment of Traister’s book is to show that the ranks of women electing for nontraditional lives—including queer women, single mothers, proud spinsters, and women, including Traister herself, who forged their identities alone before marrying relatively late—have also improved the lots of women who make traditional choices, blowing open the institutions of marriage and parenthood.
Throughout All the Single Ladies, Traister demonstrates how one group of women’s efforts to bend paradigms ended up improving the lives of another group. Because single women needed to work—to support themselves and to ground their identities in something other than marriage and child-rearing—they normalized the image of the working woman, which benefited their married counterparts, too. Conversely, when married women with infertility pushed for medical help in making their families, they created a booming industry that is now helping women have children after marrying late or without a male partner. Traister even argues that single women are saving marriage in America. The idea of female choice, in Traister’s book, is neither a platitude nor an apolitical evasion. It’s an interconnected web of causes and effects that’s remaking society for everyone.
Crucially, the book’s attentions don’t fall disproportionately on single ladies who are white. It dives into the economic and social factors that have long made marriage less practical—or less possible—for many women of color. From the racist distribution of New Deal benefits to suburban redlining to the growth of the carceral state, American policy has made it exponentially harder for many men of color to serve as stable partners and providers. Traister dismantles the popular conservative idea that a “marriage cure” is the best anti-poverty policy: It’s not marriage itself, but the union of two incomes that makes legal coupledom a good bet. Traister writes, “It’s important to remember that, while poverty certainly makes single life harder, it also makes married life harder, so much harder that single life might be preferable.” The book goes head-to-head with the pundits who treat singlehood, and especially single motherhood, as a form of failure or a scourge on society. It recasts a life alone as, for many people, a rational choice, and maybe not even a difficult one.
Some of the women in the book are not actually single in any strict sense. They fit into Traister’s narrative because they’re structuring their lives in ways that convention-defying single women have made possible. In an early chapter, Traister writes about the historic figures who reshaped women’s relationship to work by defining their lives around causes and creative passions, not husbands, including Susan B. Anthony and Mary Cassatt, who never married; as well as Zora Neale Hurston, Frida Kahlo, and Ida B. Wells, who spent long stretches single. When Traister tells the stories of contemporary women who are “married” to their jobs, however, she quotes many women who are married in the traditional sense as well. Traister’s own mother told her, “I love being everybody’s grandmother and mother and wife and all of that—that’s wonderful. But basically, there’s got to be something that’s me, and that’s been my [working] life.” Single women helped open the public sphere to all women, and helped edge marriage from its place at the undisputed center of women’s lives.
Perhaps the boldest statement in the book is that single women are transforming marriage for the better. “By demanding more from men and from marriage, it’s single women who have perhaps played as large a part as anyone in saving marriage in America,” Traister writes. It’s here that she shows most clearly how single women have initiated a domino effect that has flattened conventions all over the map of American life. The ability to delay marriage until a truly suitable mate came along, or to say no to connubial life altogether if the shoe didn’t fit, has been women’s primary source of leverage in the effort to make marriage more equitable, more supportive of women’s personhood, and more free. Over time, women’s changing demands have also altered men’s desires: The book cites sociologist Kathleen Gerson’s research, which suggests that 80 percent of women and 70 percent of men “desire egalitarian marriages in which wage earning, domestic duties, and childcare are divided equally.” The latest step forward, Traister writes, is gay marriage, which “reframes the power structure of the entire institution, disabling the gendered mechanism by which it historically exerted its oppressive power.”
No matter how much single women have done to remake society, the world is still set up—from tax codes to insurance policies—primarily for couples. Traister closes her book with an appendix of policy proposals to improve the lot of single women; in accordance with her theme, most of these proposals would better the lives of women in general. Many boil down to fair pay, available sick and parental leave, and other things that would put men and women on equal economic footing, whether they are partnered or solo. “We must not continue to function as if every worker has a wife caring for his home and his children for free, or as if every wife has a worker on whose paychecks she must depend,” Traister writes.
The book’s most creative suggestion is that America needs “more communal care between women.” In a chapter that chronicles the changes in her friendships after she married, Traister depicts the difficulty of building a life around platonic ties; she muses about models in which un-partnered people could grow old together and support each other through ill health, “creating an expansive and resilient shield, in many ways more flexible than marriage, against the brutal realities of life and death.” In a book that feels nearly comprehensive, this idea is a shimmering thread left dangling: Perhaps single women, having expanded the meaning of marriage, can chip away at expectations for friendship next. This rich portrait of our most quietly explosive social force makes it clear that the ladies still have plenty of work to do.