Sex and the City. Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.” Queen Latifah’s Living Single. The cultural touchstones celebrating single womanhood in the last two decades are innumerable, and they reflect a seismic shift in demographics. For the first time ever, single women outnumber married women in America. But, paradoxically, many of those portrayals have been replete with age-old stereotypes signaling to women that coupledom is still the ultimate goal. (The finale of Sex and the City ends with the Carrie reuniting with the asshole who chronically hurt her.)
In her new book, All the Single Ladies, Rebecca Traister explores the historical, political, and cultural dimensions of single womanhood—and argues the group is now one of the most powerful in America. Her analysis considers the roles that race, class, and sexuality have played and continue to play for single women.
All the Single Ladies, which Traister says was inspired by her own story, is not only the definitive book on single womanhood, but is a true celebration of living solo. I spoke with Traister, a writer-at-large at New York magazine, just ahead of the book’s publication.
Collier Meyerson: You have an interesting trajectory when it comes to love, marriage, and becoming a parent. Before you got married, you decided to parent alone, and you were really confident about it all. How did your personal narrative guide you in the writing of this book?
Rebecca Traister: This is a tricky thing for me to talk about, because I’m so aware of not trying to give advice. I would never want to hold up what happened to me as a model because, in part, it comes too fucking close to that thing I hated when I was single…People tell you about babies and stuff, like: “When you stop looking for it, it will just happen.”
CM: That being said…
RT: The liberating moment came at 30. There was no evidence in my personal path that I was going to form a happy relationship. I didn't know that relationships with men could be happy. I had never experienced one. The ones I had experienced had made me low-level unhappy, and I didn't want that. That was a big point of liberation for me, where I was like: “Oh wait, I would actually prefer to be on my own than to be with someone who makes me low-level unhappy all the time.”
There was, for me, this separation of a desire for love, sex, and partnership. My desire was never for a husband; that was beyond my imagination for a long time. It just wasn't a priority. The ability to sever these things from each other, was spectacularly freeing. And it wasn't depressing.
CM: But of course it’s not that way for everyone.
RT: I have talked with many friends who have had different experiences. For some people [being single] hasn't had that same magical quality. It can feel depressing. Like, “I think I am giving up.” I think it can do bad things for them emotionally. For me, it was just so great. Like I had a plan. Something was in my control.
The spirit is about not saying, “My life is incomplete or has not started just because it’s just me so far.” My adult life is happening. It is full.
CM: So, I’m newly single. I grew up in NYC for most of my life and felt very empowered by its women, by the diversity of minds when it comes to sex and relationships and proclivities. But I’m not immune to the pressures of marriage or the stain of singlehood. And the place I most experience this pressure is on Facebook.
RT: There are so many things about technology that alter the experience of singlehood. There is certainly the social media fetishization. And this is particularly true for people who are living in cities but come from more suburban and rural areas, where their social networks—their Facebook friends—are just engagement pictures, sonogram pictures.
But people talk about that [stuff]. Especially when you have a social circle that is in an earlier marrying climate, and you’re in a later marrying climate. Or you, yourself, are marrying later or not at all. Those pressures are really intense.
CM: Is there any empirical data to suggest that social media impacts decision making? Because anecdotally speaking, everyone in my universe is getting married right now.
RT: I don't think it's about more people getting married. Or even more people responding to the pressures of social media. Social media just puts all the marriages up on a big billboard. I mean, marriage rates have continued to drop. [Today about 20% of Americans are married by age 29, Traister writes, compared to 60% in 1960.] But the fetishization of marriage has amped up. There is a great Rebecca Mead book about the wedding part of this—the amount of money spent on big weddings and wedding magazines and the whole wedding industrial complex. Other people have written about that. But the wedding industrial complex has actually ramped up at the same time that the marriage rates have been falling.
CM: What do you make of that?
RT: Well, a couple things. First, there's a class reason for it. Which is that, the people who still tend to get married—eventually, although much later than they used to—are some of America’s wealthiest people. Marriage rates remain highest (although they are falling, too, among privileged people) in the wealthiest sectors of American society. People who are still getting married are people who have money to spend on weddings.
That also has to do with a sociological shift that I don't spend enough time on in my book, which is this shift from marriage being an event that kicks off adulthood to being a capstone event. And that’s true across classes. So people aren't starting out with marriage and building together. Marriage is seen as an event that caps off a successful adulthood or mid-adulthood. And that is true for wealthy people and it is true for low-income people.
CM: This election, the majority of women expected to vote will be unmarried. You wrote a book on Hillary Clinton—what say you about the single and married women’s vote in 2016? Are there voting patterns we should look out for?
RT: Well, the book argues, when this population of women rose so swiftly it fundamentally changed the nation. We have a nation where so many of our social policies, our laws, our tax laws, the way our schools work (where they let out at three and have a giant summer vacations), so many of our civic and political institutions are built for a nation that lives in couples where there's one earner and one person to do domestic work. Right? And marriage standards have changed. That’s not the country that we live in any more. And Bernie Sanders—who’s always been extremely progressive economically and has supported those issues and has voted the right way—has not always been in the weeds on them.
So the vision that Bernie is laying out is very optimistic. And because we do need a wholesale revision, lots of people are responding to that sort of aspirational optimism. And I have some complicated feelings about this because the irony is, Hillary Clinton has actually been in the weeds on a ton of these national policies for a lot of her career.
CM: How else are single women changing the game in this election?
RT: When it comes to the issues—all sorts of social policy issues—whether you’re talking about minimum wage raises, whether you’re talking about college affordability, actually [Sanders and Clinton] are both right now in the right place on everything. They have fashioned a Democratic platform that—especially when it comes to social policy—is way to the left of everything we have seen in a long time. And I would give unmarried women a lot of credit for that. The candidates understand, whether they are recognizing it or not, that this country is now going to require a new kind of social contract with our government. We need it to act differently, because we have a different population and a different citizenry.
CM: You note that in the early 20th century single black women lived in cities and worked at rates much higher than white women and were therefore making inroads.
RT: [Black women], often out of economic necessity, made the steps and changes in behavior that then, when they get mimicked by more privileged white women, get recognized as revolutionary. Lots of habits that we recognize as liberating and feminist and revolutionary, when we see wealthy women doing them (or middle-class women, or predominantly white women) are actually habits that were first pioneered by women in difficult economic circumstances.
CM: When the Human Rights Campaign launched its campaign for gay marriage, there was a backlash from people in the queer community who said, We reject marriage because it is predicated on a completely heteronormative model. So we want to get rid of the entire institution. Does the passage of gay marriage impact single womanhood, in that it reinforces the same norms that keep single women down?
RT: It’s a good point. There were a lot of people that made this argument: that moving gay people toward marriage—creating it as a new norm—was just a way of expanding its oppressive reach. Right? And [Justice] Kennedy’s language was so shitty to single women.
CM: I remember everyone posted that on Facebook. I was like, this is the wackest shit ever.
RT: He says, “In forming a union, two people become something greater than they once were.” I read that decision and I was like, This is brutal to single people. It confirms what everybody is saying. And this is something that Bella DePaulo, who writes about about single rights and what she calls singlism, has been saying for a long time, which is that, if we instate gay marriage as just another norm, it’s just further cutting out single people from a ratified, supported existence. I think this is a really valid argument to make.
My view is more optimistic. My view is that gay marriage is actually playing a similar role as people not marrying, which is that it is undermining the oppressive gender roles.
CM: There has been so much progress [for single women]. Do you think that there will be a turning back?
RT: I do think there is a turning back. I mean, all of American history shows us taking two steps in one direction and then at some inevitable point taking a big step back. However, that direction has generally been towards the greater. I’m an optimist about these things. Ta-Nehisi Coates would argue with me about these things. I see the movement, the trend, generally being a progressive trend, and one that moves us closer to more equalized opportunities.
When it comes to marriage, we have made big steps recently in terms of making it a more equitable institution that is not based on gender power imbalances. That is something that we have been working towards in fits and starts for hundreds of years now. Still, I am sure that we will see a step back. I am sure that we will see a lowering of the marriage age and a rise in the marriage rates.
Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.