All the Single Ladies

All the Single LadiesWhen 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.

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19 Responses to All the Single Ladies

  1. lauratfrey says:

    This sounds like a perfect antidote to Spinster, which I didn’t read, but I did revel in the bad reviews ☺

    • Teresa says:

      I gave up on Spinster after about 75 pages and then just enjoyed the negative reviews. This is the book I was hoping Spinster would be.

  2. Deb says:

    Although I’m in my late fifties and have been married for almost 30 years, books like this always interest me both from a general interest point of view and because I’m the mother of three young women and I think about what the future holds for them. None of them see marriage as an end goal, it’s something that might happen if they meet the right guy, but they feel no anxiety about remaining single if that’s how their lives develop. Also, there was an in-depth interview with Traister on Jezebel.com a few days ago which is well worth reading (although, since you’ve read her book, you might find it more of a rehash of what she covers there).

    • Teresa says:

      This is definitely a book I’d recommend to married people who are interested in the topic (and even some who aren’t). She does a great job at getting past the stereotypes–both positive and negative–and providing a well-rounded view.

  3. The Disobedient Author says:

    Interesting article. I am also a married mum of three, but like the person above, I am interested as a mother of a girl, but also as the friend of many single women in their forties who have settled to a single life, without pressure to give birth or run up the aisle in a white dress. I see that both choices have positives and negatives and I am happy for these friends, that finally the parental/ societal pressure they were under in their 30s (to settle for just about anyone, provided there was a ring and a baby) has given way to contentment.

    • Teresa says:

      That’s so true about both marriage and singleness having positives and negatives. I liked that this book wasn’t a celebration of singleness as better or a complaint about how hard singleness is, because neither approach would get it right. And I hope as time goes on the social (and internal) pressure to marry eases up. I was lucky enough not to experience much overt social pressure to marry, but as I’ve gotten older it’s gotten easier and easier to imagine never marrying and not minding it much.

  4. Talk of the devil! I read about this book in the NYTimes Book Review this morning and thought it sounded good. I’m excited that Traister keeps it intersectional, because the class/gender/race/etc elements are such an important piece of the conversation that often get forgotten.

    • Teresa says:

      Yes, the intersectional discussions are some of the book’s best stuff. I especially appreciated how she picked apart the messages women of different races and classes get about marriage and motherhood and how they really do or don’t apply to those women.

  5. Elle says:

    It’s so wonderful when you find a book that provides something you felt another book lacked—sounds like that’s what happened here. And I’m with Jenny on the awesomeness of the intersectionality. The “choice” to marry or not marry has so often been fraught with contingency (primarily economic, I guess) that the inclusion of that ambivalence in any treatment of the subject feels really important.

    • Teresa says:

      I get really tired of pieces about single women because they’re so often either “rah, rah, you go, girl” pieces or complaints about how awful it is, and the reality is that singleness is both really great and really hard, depending on your circumstances at the time. I was so glad that Traister acknowledged the way feelings differ and change.

  6. Christy says:

    When I saw you were reading this, I was very interested in what you would say in your review. You warned me off Spinster, but I was hopeful this would be better and I’m glad it was. I’ll definitely have to check it out.

  7. Stefanie says:

    I’ve been seeing this book pooping up around the book review pages. Glad to know it is good because it sounded really interesting. Does she talk about women who are single because of divorce? I have a number of good friends who were divorced in the last few years and it has been really hard on them.

  8. I must get this book–thanks for the comprehensive review.
    I am married but must confess I sometimes look back on my single days with longing. It seems we all have to live quite a while before we figure out there are good and bad things about all states of life. The consideration of what we are by both choice and chance is always interesting.

    • Teresa says:

      I used to think marriage would solve all my problems. I’ve long since realized that it might solve some problems (it would certainly increase the chances of having someone buy and prepare chicken noodle soup and saltines for me when I’m sick), but it would introduce other problems. Now I’m often relieved not to be married, but who know? I might have loved marriage–our could love it still if I ever do get married. Life is like that.

  9. aartichapati says:

    I want to read this! I heard an interview with the author on NPR and she just sounded so thoughtful and I found myself nodding along to much of what she said. I think I want to read her previous book, Big Girls Don’t Cry, too.

    • Teresa says:

      Thoughtful is a good word, especially given how she looks at singleness from so many angles, not assuming that her and her friends’ experience was the norm.

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