Friday, November 1, 2019

All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister

Source of book: Borrowed from the library.

Where to even begin with this book? There is so much to say, and so many things in it which need to be better understood. 

Let me start with this: I was raised in Cultural Fundamentalism, which can probably best be understood as fighting to return to a mythical golden age. A key part of the myth and perhaps the biggest driving force in the Culture Wars™ is that of the supposedly ideal gender roles and hierarchies found in “traditional” marriages of the past. You know, where the man made all the money, the woman did the childcare and housekeeping, and everyone was happy...and if they weren’t they should be, damnit! 

Thus, a key sign of what they saw as cultural decline was the cultural shift away from women marrying young, having babies, and keeping the hell out of the halls of power. “Feminism” was seen as the great satan, the malevolent force which told girls that they could make their own choices, have their own lives, make their own money, and indeed exist without being owned by a male. 

Whatever I may have believed (or at least tried to believe) in my teens, I thoroughly rejected that paradigm when I left my parents’ home and established one of my own. When I fell in love with the woman who would become my wife, I knew that her decision to marry me was conditioned on our agreement that we would most certainly NOT have a “traditional” marriage. She was clear that she would have a career, and I knew that meant that both of us would have to make the adjustments necessary to make that happen. In practice, this has meant that she has worked nights and I have worked part time with a flexible schedule, so that our children have had a parent present. (We had some help from my mother-in-law when the kids were little, which we greatly appreciated.) 

Our marriage is, in a very real sense, non-traditional. She is more ambitious and driven, while I am more nurturing. It is just who we are, and traditional gender roles wouldn’t work for either of us. 

I tell this story because it really does fit in with the book. While primarily about singleness, it also discusses the way that singleness as a viable option for women has changed the entire landscape. It has, in fact, revolutionized marriage itself. Thus, the book isn’t “against” marriage (and the author is, in fact, married with kids) - but it does explore the implications and results of female independence.

The book can be divided into two main topics. The first is the history of single women, primarily in the United States. Pretty much every civil rights or social movement has drawn its force from single women. That includes causes from the abolition of slavery to voting rights to unionization to the civil rights movement. The second topic is the modern reality of increasing singleness. Marriage ages have risen dramatically (and are now higher than the average age of first birth), and a historically large portion of the female population is single. Traister looks at why this is, and also at what it means for society. Unlike the usual right-wing pearl clutching about cultural decay and such, she examines it as the natural result of women having - and making - choices about their own lives. 

There are so many outstanding passages and quotes that it is impossible to list them all. I did write down a bunch, though, and want to go through them a bit in this post. 

I also want to recommend a companion book to this one: The Way We Never Were by Stephanie Coontz, which looks at the myth of the “stay-at-home mom,” and how it is a historical anomaly and strongly connected to racism. Coontz is cited frequently as a source in All the Single Ladies - primarily her research into marriage and women in American history. 

Nellie Bly: “What do you think the new woman will be?”
Susan B. Anthony: “She’ll be free.”

This quote opens the book. And I think it captures the ultimate goal of feminism: to make women every bit as free as men have been for millennia. So why is this so controversial? 

The introduction is fascinating too. Traister explains that she hated it when the heroines in her books got married. Because marriage was the end. As in, it was the end of the woman as an interesting person. All the life and motion and vivacity of her childhood ends, and she becomes, well, a wife and mother and ceases to be interesting. This is, of course, a shame - but it is something I myself have felt reading literature. Traister loved Anne of Green Gables - as did I (I had a huge crush on Anne in Jr. High), but I never could get into the books after the first four. Because Anne just wasn’t much fun after she got married and had kids. All those hopes and dreams and adventures and passions...well, they “had narrowed, and now seemed to lead only to the tending of dull husbands and the rearing of insipid children…” And, while I am sure that most of us real-life husbands aren’t quite as dull as the ones in books, this is very true about the literary sorts. Gilbert isn’t much fun after marriage either. But shouldn’t adulthood and even marriage with kids be full of all those hopes and dreams and adventures and passions? 

Susan B. Anthony, who never married, is quoted again at the end of the introduction.

As young women become educated in the industries of the world, thereby learning the sweetness of independent bread, it will be more and more impossible for them to accept the...marriage limitation that “husband and wife are one, and that one the husband…” Even when man’s intellectual convictions shall be sincerely and fully on the side of Freedom and equality to women, the force of long existing customs and laws will impel him to exert authority over her, which will be distasteful to the self-sustained, self-respectful woman… Not even amended constitutions and laws can revolutionize the practical relations of men and women, immediately, any more than did the Constitutional freedom and franchise of Black men transform white men into practical recognition of the civil and political rights of those who were but yesterday their legal slaves. 

Anthony then predicts that, logically, when women gain their economic, social, and political rights, they would usher in an “epoch of single women.” And lo, it has come to pass. 

(Side note here: the anti-abortion lobby loves to claim Anthony as one of their own. But the evidence strongly indicates that she would have had no use for their patriarchal crap.) 

The rise of single women as a significant demographic has had a number of effects. One that Traister mentions that I found intriguing was the connection between single women and LGBTQ rights. Here is something to consider:

The journey toward legal marriage for gays and lesbians may seem at odds with what looks like a flight from marriage by heterosexuals. But in fact, they are part of the same project: a dismantling of the institution as it once existed--as a rigidly patrolled means by which one sex could exert legal, economic, and sexual power over another--and a reimagining of it as a flexible union to be entered, ideally, on equal terms.

Later in the book, Traister looks in more detail at the way that same-sex marriage has changed expectations in heterosexual marriages. 

If there are broad distinctions to be made between the nature of same-sex female pairs versus heterosexual ones, it’s that the same-sex unions have not entailed one of their members being automatically accorded more power, status, or economic worth based entirely on gender.

And THIS is what I mean when I call my own marriage “non-traditional.” We entered our marriage on equal terms, with the aim of flexibility. And never, ever, ever, as an institution which would allow me to exert power over her. 

In the long run, I believe this will be one of the biggest legacies of same-sex marriage: it will lead a complete rethinking of the institution, changing it from one of power to one of mutuality and love. 

After this bit, Traister takes a look at the Culture Wars™, specifically, the preservation of the (mythical) past. She looks at a few of the old white dudes who predicted that the power of the single female voter was destined to fade, because they would die out. This, as Traister points out, makes two ludicrous assumptions.

[Joel] Kotkin’s error, of course, is both in assuming that unmarried people do not reproduce--in fact, they are doing so in ever greater numbers--but also in failing to consider whence the gravitation away from married norms derived. A move toward independent life did not simply emerge from a clamshell: It was born of generations of dissatisfaction with the inequities of religious, conservative, social practice. Why should we believe that children born to social conservatives will not tread a similar path, away from conservative values, as the one walked by generations of traditionally raised citizens before them? The impulse toward liberation isn’t inoculated against by strict conservative backgrounds; it’s often inculcated by them.

 And that is it in a nutshell. I was raised ultra-conservative, as was my wife. And we both found our background to be a strong motivation to live very different lives than we experienced. 

Traister also takes a hard look at history. As Coontz explores in detail, the idea of limiting women to the home is, in some ways, modern. It is a product of the industrial revolution. With fewer people working in agriculture, and children no longer vital to economic success, something had to change. Alas, what happened was the sequestering of women to a narrow (and rather powerless) sphere, removing them from the visible political and economic life of the nation, while relying on them to do the unpaid drudge work necessary for men to work outside the home. 

Traister points out an extremely interesting phenomenon in this regard. As machines made household tasks quicker and easier, women had less that they had to do. (Seriously, compare hand washing clothes with a washing machine, or building a fire to cook with turning on a burner, to name just two.) 

Everyday tasks were made more time-consuming and taxing, so as to better fill the days of women who might otherwise grow restive and attempt to leave the house.

Exactly. Homes have expanded dramatically in size. (So much more to keep clean and decorated!) Children that used to have lots of unstructured time now have hours of homework and extracurricular activities that they must be doing or you are a bad parent. (The whole helicopter parent phenomenon exists to fill the lives of unhappy mothers, in my opinion.) Entertainment must be lavish. (Hey there, Martha Stewart!) And, in the more Fundie households, homeschooling is mandatory - a full time (if uncompensated) job requiring a woman at home. This is the modern manifestation of the phenomenon, but it dates back to the early 1800s - Traister quotes a number of publications from the era.

Moving forward a bit in history, Traister mentions the intimate connection between feminism and abolitionism. You might think, perhaps, that the subjugation of women and the subjugation of non-whites could be related. And you would be right. And not just about the connection back then, but in our own times as well. Almost universally, you will find that misogyny and racism go hand in hand. 

In this section, Traister also mentions one abolitionist and feminist who did marry: Lucy Stone. I must say, she was amazing. She was the first woman in the United States to keep her name after marriage, and she forewent the usual vows (including a promise to obey her husband) in favor of reading a protest against marriage laws. Her husband, in case you wondered, was also an ardent feminist, and fully on board with this. You can read the whole thing online here, but how about this badass opening?

While we acknowledge our mutual affection by publicly assuming the relationship of husband and wife, yet in justice to ourselves and a great principle, we deem it a duty to declare that this act on our part implies no sanction of, nor promise of voluntary obedience to such of the present laws of marriage, as refuse to recognize the wife as an independent, rational being, while they confer upon the husband an injurious and unnatural superiority, investing him with legal powers which no honorable man would exercise, and which no man should possess. 

In addition to timelessly great causes like abolition, single women also ignited the Prohibition movement. While that turned out to be a disaster on many levels, it didn’t come out of nowhere. Traister makes an excellent point:

There may be no greater testament to the suffocating power of marital expectation than the fact that, for a time, the banning of booze seemed a more practical recourse against spousal abuse than the reform of marriage law or redress of inequities within the home. 

Another bit of history that was interesting was on the topic of abortion. For centuries, abortion was largely the province of women - herbal healers with the knowledge necessary. Abortion was legal in many cases, believe it or not. However, as part of the backlash against feminism, there was a legal crackdown on the means by which women could evade or exert control over the “benign offices of wife and mother,” which was considered their destiny. That’s why abortion restrictions have always gone hand in hand with attacks on birth control and accurate sex education. Again, you can see this exact same thing happening today. The anti-abortion industry is now openly opposed to birth control and fights against scientifically accurate education. Why? Well, women might take control of their own reproduction - cutting men out of the loop perhaps. 

In the 1920s, another major shift occurred, one which is not talked about in conservative circles. Prior to the 1920s, it was commonplace - nay, normal and expected - for a young man to have his first sexual experience with a prostitute. Well, if he didn’t have it by raping a slave girl, perhaps. The price of the preservation of [white] female “purity” was widespread prostitution and rape of human chattel. However, the abolition of slavery, while it didn’t eliminate the problem of rape (which very much continued - a white man might get fined for raping a black woman or child but that was it), did give black women the option of leaving the situation rather than submit to further assaults. In the 1920s, the second shift occurred. “[Y]oung middle-class men were more likely to lose their virginity with women of their own class than with prostitutes.” Think about the magnitude of that shift. With it came what conservatives keep lamenting: women were far less likely to be virgins on their wedding night. 

Here’s another interesting parallel between the past and present. When Margaret Sanger founded what would become Planned Parenthood, there was a backlash that had some really unsavory overtones. While I admire some things about Theodore Roosevelt (his advocacy for public lands, his trust-busting, his progressive-for-their-time ideas), he was, like most of his era, racist. He disliked Sanger and the idea of birth control because he believed it kept the white birth rate down, thus leading to what he called “race suicide.” Ouch. “A race is worthless if women cease to breed freely.” Double ouch. But you see this today, notably in Evangelical circles. They don’t use explicitly racial terms (like the more Fundie groups absolutely do), but they use some nice dog whistles. Hence Al Mohler’s Freudian slip when he condemned women for choosing to be childless (making them, as he said, not fully human) - he actually said that childless people don’t tend to vote for Trump. Hey, you know who else doesn’t vote for Trump? Non-white people. And no, I do not think that was an accident. It’s the same recycled rhetoric about brown people reproducing faster than white people, just with dog whistles. I grew up in that nonsense. 

(Another side note here: one of the reasons that I think the anti-abortion movement is evil is that they lie incessantly about everything from science to medicine to history. One of the biggest is the gross slander of Margaret Sanger, wherein they “quote” from one of her letters...leaving out the part that makes it clear that she intends the exact opposite of what the anti-abortion industry claims.)

Speaking of racism, I think one of the strongest chapters in the book is the one that looks at the decline in marriage in African American families. Those of us who grew up conservative were taught that black poverty rates were driven by black women spreading their legs before marriage. And that the cause of that was social programs. (Never mind that more whites are on welfare than blacks, of course.) Traister takes a look at the real history. In the 1950s - before the social programs in question - black marriage rates declined. She looks at how explicitly racist policies excluded blacks from the heavily subsidized programs for whites that gave rise to the suburban family phenomenon. From jobs to housing to education to even Social Security - blacks were excluded. 

Here’s something for consideration: what if African Americans are neither stupid nor more immoral than white people? What if they too respond to circumstances in as predictably human fashion as we white people do? It is this question that nudged me away from my conservative beliefs after I got out of the bubble of childhood. I think Traister’s writing is strong on this issue. She makes a solid case for why marriage is not an advantage for everyone. And in particular, why marriage makes things worse for people in grinding poverty or in communities decimated by mass incarceration. In her evisceration of “pro-marriage” government seminars, Traister cites evidence that addressing poverty itself raises marriage rates. 

It seems clear that a government address of poverty is likeliest to make marriage more accessible to those who want it, while programs designed to shove marriage down the throats of Americans least equipped to enter it stably have little impact. If politicians are concerned about dropping marriage rates, they should increase welfare benefits. It’s that simple.

This is backed up by substantial evidence, by the way. But, as the Trump era has proven, conservatives have zero interest in actually improving life for the poor, who they view as undeserving. It is, and always has been, about racism. I would recommend this book for that chapter alone. 

Another great chapter is on the advantages of singleness - and delayed marriage. Conservatives (and patriarchists in particular) tend to push for women to marry young. Before they get too “independent.” (Yep, I grew up in that shit.) Traister points out that women are faulted for being “selfish” when they insist on the same self-determination as men have always had. For example, women have been expected to pick up and move to follow the man’s job. A man who did the same would be mocked as “whipped.” A man is entitled to build his life around his interests, but a woman who does so is often denigrated. (And always denigrated in Fundie circles. Believe me on that one.) Citing one of the many screeds against single women, Traister notes that it was “pathologizing unmarried women as flawed, sneakily laying out [the] self-interested female subject in comparison to a set of deeply ingrained cultural expectations: that a woman who really wants love and who is worthy of being loved should be willing to put her priorities second to those of a mate.” 

In my own experience, there will always be a tension between the desire to be partnered, and the desire for independence. But for men, that tension didn’t really exist until recently. A wife was there to support her man’s dreams. I was literally taught that. But in my non-traditional, egalitarian marriage, we both support each other’s dreams. And we have to compromise, because we are two different people with different desires and areas of interest. Sure, our dreams overlap quite a bit - that’s why we are married rather than single - but both of us have had to give up a bit so the other can have what they need. It’s worth it for what we gain. 

I have long said that the single most effective way for a woman to change the dynamics of a marriage (particularly a future marriage) is for her to have her own income. It literally changes everything. While Fundies fuss and fume about this, I have found it to be a much improved dynamic. This is also why the younger generations believe in being financially “set” before marriage or kids. 

They [women] see their own economic stability, their jobs, as a “defense against patriarchal sex role expectations and a defense against bad behaviors” including substance abuse, cheating, and domestic violence, as well as “insurance in case of a breakup. “They’re worried,” said [researcher Kathryn] Edin, “that if they don’t earn money they won’t have the power to negotiate for equal say in the relationship.” 

Again, this is exactly what I see in the marriages of people I know. While it is certainly possible to have a good marriage with economic inequality, it is hard to have a truly equal one. 

How about this irony: egalitarians are much more likely to get married and stay married. 

The great irony is that, as much as conservatives rage against the dying of traditional gender roles, by many measures, it’s the people who are messing with the old marital expectations who might be credited with saving marriage as an institution.

Much has been written about the malaise in Japan. An aging population, plummeting birth rates, shrinking workforce, and a generation seemingly uninterested in relationships and marriage. There have been a number of theories floated, and some have some truth in them. As in many other countries, concern about the future makes marriage less likely. The last several decades of neo-liberal economic policies have made younger people less well off than their ancestors, and they are not as optimistic about what their future will look like. I think, though, that there is a significant piece missing as to why Japan in particular has issues. 

Traister ties the best of the theories together with an idea that seems startlingly obvious once you see it. Japanese culture is based around an extreme version of patriarchy. Work hours are brutally long, and do not allow the needed time to care for children or build a home life. Traditionally, this was done by women, but, as women have become educated and had their first taste of an alternative, they have rejected the idea of becoming a servant to a man. Women can now earn a living, but they find that they still face the same domestic expectations from men. 

Guess what this led to? The fact that 90% (!!!) of young Japanese women told surveyors that they would rather stay single than enter into “what they imagine marriage to be like.” That’s a problem. If gendered marriage expectations are so bad that 9 in 10 women run away, then you are going to have a “celibacy problem.” Traister notes as well that there is a strong correlation worldwide on this issue. Countries with strong patriarchal expectations of women end up with lower marriage rates. Young women forgo marriage, and young men live at home as adults so their mommies can do their laundry and cooking for them. Grow up already. Countries with egalitarian cultures actually do better. Traister is pretty optimistic about the United States on this score - she sees the US as more willing to change due to its culture, loud Fundies notwithstanding. 

I think there is some truth in this. There has indeed been a massive shift in the culture. (Which is what terrifies Fundies.) Even in the days of Susan B. Anthony and Nelly Bly, Anthony could say that while men used to be afraid of suffragists, they now sought them out. At one time, educated women were less likely to marry. Those days have been gone for a while. Now, educated women - and employed women - are more likely to marry. They have become desirable because male tastes have adapted to change. At least in the circles I run in, most men my age, honestly, prefer smart, educated, and employed women. It’s a turn on. The shift, Traister believes, came because of single women who pioneered the entry of women into the workforce and other formerly male-dominated areas. 

More than that, unmarried women alter assumptions about women by working alongside men who come to see them as colleagues and bosses; by drinking beer and arguing politics with men who come to regard them as friends; by having sex with men who (hopefully) come to understand that sex does not mean ownership. By existing on their own terms in the world, women force men to reckon with them as peers and as human beings, not simply as subordinate helpmates or sexual objects.

Preach it! As American Evangelicalism and conservatism continue their dance down the path of misogyny and patriarchy, they will continue to lose the younger generations, who have experienced women as peers. As colleagues and bosses, friends and companions. 

I’ll end, as Traister does, with a bit about how society and government need to change. Much ink has been spilled by conservatives about how single women “expect the state to do for them what should be done by a husband.” I admit I bought into that in my youth. But it didn’t stand up well to real life. As the example of Japan shows in its extreme form, society has for centuries been set up to subsidize traditional male dominance. I could write an entire post on the ways in which female-dominated professions are paid less and have worse benefits than male-dominated ones. Or how subsidies and tax breaks shift money to wealthy (white) men. The system is set up to maintain male independence with the expectation that women will meekly get in line and work their asses off to maintain that, at the expense of their own independence. A truly just society would ensure that women receive the same financial compensation - and control over that compensation - as men do. And culture would then have to adapt to men taking an equal share on those unpaid duties of care. Guess what? We men can adapt - and we will have to, or we will increasingly be viewed by women as a bad investment. 

This book has so much in it, I just covered a few highlights. The bottom line: when feminism freed women from their status as chattel, and brought them closer to economic, social, and political equality, it brought significant social changes. Among them was that, given actual choices, women increasingly have rejected the rather one-sided “traditional” marital and gender role expectations. Humans have, as they always have, adapted to changes. Many women chose to be and continue to choose to be single - which I believe is far superior to being in a bad marriage. But men too have adapted - I have. And ultimately, there is no point in trying to preserve an unjust social relationship wherein one party owns and dominates the other. Marriage can be a good thing. But so can singlehood. And women are entitled to be considered fully human, with the same right of self-determination as men. Period. 


I couldn’t figure out where in the flow to put it, but I should mention that astronomer and all-around badass Maria Mitchell is quoted in connection with the tension between independence and partnering. Her poem, “How Charming Is Divine Philosophy,” is quoted in part. I can’t find the whole thing online, alas. 


I have probably mentioned this elsewhere, but it meshes with this post: my wife believed she would never marry. She had seen patriarchy up close, and had absolutely zero interest in having that kind of a marriage. She would have been one of the Single Ladies of this book. As it happened, she met and fell in love with me - at a young age, no less - and we ended up together. But she would have ended it if I had shown the least inclination to dictate her future to her. I am honored that she chose to share her life with me, make children with me, and conspire against the world together. 

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