“But it’s an error to assume all marriages are good marriages, and to fall into the narrative trap laid by Disney and Shakespeare, the one in which a wedding is the satisfying conclusion of a story.” (146)
Rebecca Traister immediately won points for naming her book, All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation (2016) after a Beyonce song. I found it–like so many of the books I read this year–through NPR’s list of Best Books from 2016. It is a serious look at the institution of marriage and being single in America in modern times. It includes both the historical inequalities of marriage as well, the stigma of single women, and how things are often different for women of color. I found it to be both enlightening and thoughtful, and I would definitely recommend it.
Traister is a good author for the subject matter, since she understands both worlds. She is happily married, but married when she was thirty-six–plenty of time for her to experience and understand the life of an independent single woman. I appreciate that she wasn’t shoving singledom or marriage down the reader’s throat as if it were a zero-sum game. Instead she takes the time to explore what marriages have meant for women and what staying single has meant for women as they’ve gained more personal and political power. In the interests of full disclosure, I am single, which may be some of the reason I was drawn to this book. Although I like the idea of marriage, and I’ve been around many happy couples that I admire, the idea of that kind of commitment is terrifying. I simply cannot imagine it for myself.
“Finding a strong marriage, a rewarding partnership, is hard and rare. And, ending up in a bad one remains a reasonably terrifying fate for many of us, yet we rarely read panicked pieces about the abundance of unhappy wives; we have rarely been treated to studies comparing the probabilities of them ever having great sex or satisfying careers to the probability of them getting killed by terrorists.” (149)
Traister discusses how marriage has changed. Instead of going straight from the care of their fathers to the care of their husbands, women are marrying later and spending more years living independently. The institution of marriage has become more equal. Women may own their own property and their husbands are not legally allowed to rape them. [Yea!] This independence and ability to provide for themselves has allowed the number of single women to grow. She also discusses how single women contribute to society. They are more likely to volunteer in the community and take care of aging parents. In addition, society has an easier time understanding ambitious or publicly powerful women when they are single and child free. “Maddeningly, having children enhances men’s professional standing and has the opposite impact on women’s.” (176)
One of the more interesting facets of this book was Traister’s discussion of how all these dynamics affect women of color, specifically black women. When Betty Friedan jump started the women’s movement, calling for women to work outside the home, she wasn’t thinking about the generations of black women who had been working outside the home out of necessity. Quite often, women’s liberation followed on the footsteps of poor minorities. They would be doing something that was looked down upon (working outside the home) until white women decided it was a good idea and turned it into liberation. I am glad that Traister took the time to parse out some of these intricacies and not write a book that was only about single, white women.
“While one of the bedrocks of the expansion of the middle class was the aggressive reassignment of white women to domestic roles within the idealized nuclear family, another was the exclusion of African-Americans from the opportunities and communities that permitted those nuclear families to flourish.” (67)
This is a well-written and well-researched book that I enjoyed reading. Traister packs a lot of information in these pages, mixing: history, politics, women’s personal experiences, and racial injustice into a coherent whole.
Find all of my reviews on my blog.