One of the biggest bummers about writing about modern feminism is that you eventually run out of clever headline variations on “RUN! HIDE! Feminism is Ruining Your Life!” Despite this endless challenge, and with this review of Rebecca Traister’s new book, All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, I shall attempt to soldier on.
First, a disclaimer: There is nothing wrong with being a single lady. Being a single lady can be great! Unfortunately, despite its arresting title, All the Single Ladies is not really, deep down, about single ladies. It’s not about being “all up in the club,” or shaking it like Beyonce (who got married at twenty-six), or scheduling a fun spur-of-the-moment girls’ trip to Ibiza, or reading quietly by yourself, or even, many years down the road, dispensing wise old-woman aphorisms—and maybe even some covert, under-the-table, traditional Native American hallucinogens—at a corner table at some spa in Sedona.
This is disappointing, I know. However, you’ll be even more disappointed when you learn what All the Single Ladies is really about. It is summarized, rather neatly, with this one simple excerpt:
The forced dependence of increasing numbers of single people on each other may hearken back to a lost feminist project: the socialization of care and domestic duty…The state must play its role in supporting a population that no longer lives and dies within family units.
I like to use Post-Its when reviewing books, and I hastily scrawled this one immediately after reading those two sentences, just to sum things up:
Feminism On Top Of Marxism
I kid, I kid! Sort of. Not really. As we’ll discuss later, beneath its “girl power” triumphalism, All the Single Ladies shakes out, in the end, as a call for soft Marxism with an ill-fitting feminist bow. But the book has many more problems than that—many, many more—so let’s tackle those first.
Single women, as Traister rightly points out, have historically inspired significant change in America, and continue to do so today, with singlehood exploding all over the map. The statistics are stunning. “Today, only around 20 percent of Americans are wed by age twenty-nine, compared to the nearly 60 percent in 1960,” Traister writes; in 2012, she notes, unmarried women formed 23 percent of the electorate. In the early nineties, the average marriage age rose above the average age of first birth, and “about 60 percent of American women who have their first babies before they’re thirty have them out of wedlock. Forty-one percent of all births are to unmarried women.”
This is all very interesting, with fascinating political implications, so it’s a bit of a shame that the history and statistics presented in All the Single Ladies often accompany various deep dives into freshman dorm-room insanity. Here’s one of my favorite lines, which is fairly emblematic of the book as a whole: “The consumerist cycle both depended on and strengthened capitalism, and thus worked to allay other postwar anxieties about nuclear attack and communism, both of which had been linked to fears about the power of women’s sexuality run amok.”
Like, woah. Right on, man! Or, as I wrote on yet another Post-It note:
A Transactional Life?
Despite its enlightened, nonjudgmental mask, All the Single Ladies often offers a brisk walk through a forest of caricatures. “Conservatives,” for instance, are “mad” and “threatened” by “powerful single women”—here, as examples of powerful single women, Traister lists Anita Hill, Sandra Fluke, Lena Dunham, and, I’m not joking, Murphy Brown, who is not a real person. Conservatives are also on a constant mission, we are informed, to “support a male-dominated paradigm of power.” This came as news to me! Also, we are told, pro-marriage types are “always going to be threatened by the possibility that women might engage satisfyingly with their careers.” This also surprised me, because I’m not a man, and let me tell you, this book review sure as heck didn’t write itself.
Old-school, traditional marriage, writes Traister, was often “energy-sucking” and “identity-sapping,” leaving its female victims “contained, subsumed, and reduced by domesticity.” Here’s the weird thing, though: If you read All the Single Ladies with a straight face, you can be forgiven for thinking that nothing’s changed since the 1950’s. Traister quotes various young ladies vowing to fight off “dirty dishes and suburbia” or “making casseroles in winter until we die,” certain their careers will evaporate the minute they’re yoked to a dastardly man.
When you’re single, Traister writes, you can have a fuller, more complicated life: “It’s not such a bad thing to always have something to do, someone to meet, work to complete, trains to catch, beers to drink, marathons to run, classes to attend.” News flash, ladies: It’s 2016! You can do this and be married, too! I should know, by the way—I got married at 22. I have had a great deal of fun and career success since then, and even lived in Traister’s own New York City for a while, where concerned citizens would routinely ask if I was a child bride.
Traister is correct to argue that no single life formula works for every woman; she’s also correct that young women are wise to support themselves financially. But beyond a few bright spots, there’s a sad transactional view of life that floats through All the Single Ladies—a Marxist view that tends to eschew love, meaning, or sacrifice altogether. “Cities allow us to extract some of the transactional services that were assumed to be an integral, gendered aspect of traditional marriage,” Traister writes, in one instance, “and enjoy them as actual transactional service, for which we pay.”
Won’t Somebody Think Of The Children?
Don’t worry, it gets more depressing: “We don’t often consider that even in the very best case scenario, in which we bind ourselves to someone we love madly and reciprocally forever and ever,” Traister notes, after listing the disasters that can befall starry-eyed or even cynical lovers, “we are making a sad bet when it comes to the rest of our lives. Because short of simultaneous expiration, marrying even happily leaves us with a fifty-fifty change of dying last.”
It is rare that I am speechless; here, I had to set the book down, wish I was on an all-inclusive vacation with lots of free margaritas/complimentary therapeutic bongo drums, blink a few times, and read that segment again. The raw consumerism here—consumerism applied to people, treating them as products, and asking “What have you done for me lately?”—is breathtaking. So it should surprise no one, I suppose, that Traister also applauds the latest trends in single motherhood, even as they wreak havoc among the poor and working class.
The social science is not blurry here: Children do far better in two-parent families. All The Single Ladies, however, is not concerned with children. “In this new connubial world,” as Traister blithely notes, “there is a self, and it is determined.” Marriage is about self-actualization, not sacrifice, love, spiritual growth, or family formation. Children, when we’re “ready”—no matter if we’ve hit age 34 or 54—can be planted or purchased or otherwise acquired, all for our own pleasure, fulfillment, and entertainment. They are products, plain and simple.
Marriage rates probably would perk up if there were a boost in welfare benefits, Traister argues: “It’s that simple.” Oh. OK. In the meantime, at least according to All the Single Ladies, the government owes our newly atomized existences their due.
In the end, this paean to “independent” women ends as you might expect: a call for other people, via government taxation, to pay for their abortions, childcare, and high-tech “reproductive intervention”—as well as their most questionable choices. It would be funny, if it weren’t so sad. “The Rise of An Independent Nation,” indeed.