When it comes to books about singleness, I’m pretty hard to please. But as a single woman in her 40s, I would like to see myself in books about the single life, and I’d like to see some sort of complexity in the discussion—how it’s not all great and not all bad, how singleness can be a mix of choice and happenstance, and how the single life is not the same for everyone.
Last year, I had high hopes for Kate Bolick’s Spinster, but I couldn’t cope with it. Despite being my age and sharing my profession, Bolick’s experience couldn’t have been further from my own. Never mind that her supposed attempt to redeem a word often used disdainfully ended up involving redefining the word altogether. Her “spinster” role models? Most of them got married. And Bolick? Usually in a romantic relationship. You can’t have my word, lady. I like my word. I am about as much a spinster as you’re likely to find, and being unmarried is a big part of that. If I were to get married, I’d still be me, but I wouldn’t claim the word spinster because that’s not what it means.
Okay, rant over.
So with all that said, you might imagine that I approached Rebecca Traister’s new book All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation with some trepidation. And I was relieved to find the book I’d been hoping someone would write.
The key is right there in the title–the word All. Traister does not assume that her own experiences prior to marriage or those of her social circle are the norm. Nor does she try to paint a picture of the typical single woman. Instead, she looks at data about women and marriage at different points in U.S. history (it is a U.S.-centric book), talks to women from different walks of life, and delves into the literature about women and singleness. She finds some trends and pokes holes in common assumptions and stereotypes as she examines women’s singleness from multiple angles. She looks at money, motherhood, friendship, sex, and so much more, always finding multiple perspectives on the topic.
Throughout the book, Traister considers the degree of choice women now have in their lives and the fact that marriage is no longer a requirement, while also acknowledging that not all woman are single by choice. And sometimes the choice is less about choosing singleness than about choosing a life in which meeting a suitable spouse is difficult. For instance, she discusses how singleness is easier in cities, where services and amenities are more readily available to women who are having to manage their households on their own. But women outnumber men in large cities, so the odds of marriage are reduced. Never mind that the services single women depend on are often provided by other single women at a low wage. (And there’s the complexity that I didn’t necessarily want but ought to keep in mind.)
She also does well at looking at some of the difficulties of single life that I don’t often see addressed. For instance, being independent means a lack of built-in support. It’s not that single women lack support entirely, or that married women always get the support they need, but singleness does present logistical challenges at times. Traister addresses this even while acknowledging that singleness also brings with it a degree of liberation and freedom of choice that marriage does not. Both states can be good. The important thing, and the thing that this book celebrates, is that women do have a choice. And even women who are single not by choice are able to live in a degree of comfort not available to women in the past, when marriage and motherhood were the assumed norms for all.
Although Traister’s personal stories and interviews tend to lean toward middle-class urban professionals, she broadens her discussion to include women from different races and social classes, and I think she was generally successful. She draws extensively from statistics about marriage rates among black women, for example, and incorporates black women’s own stories into the narrative. She also addresses many of the challenges specific to poor single women and explores why so many women choose to have children when they’re barely able to support themselves. (This was a great discussion that opened my eyes to a line of thinking I’d never fully considered.) And she has sharp words for lawmakers and pundits who scold women for their choices without doing anything to help them. (Traister has a political point of view, which if it weren’t obvious from the main text, would be absolutely crystal clear from the policy proposals she offers in the appendix.)
This is as comprehensive a book on single womanhood in America today as you’re likely to find, especially if you want to something that’s just 350 pages and written for a general audience. The comprehensiveness does mean a slight sacrifice of depth. There were topics I would have liked more on, but I wouldn’t have wanted anything left out, and more depth might have bogged the text down. The important thing to me was that I saw myself in these pages, but also I saw other women, including a few whose stories I hadn’t given much thought to.
I received an e-galley of this book for review consideration via Edelweiss.