Ever since I read Spinster–and probably before–I have wanted to read a book celebrating singleness. I live in two very different worlds–half the time I am working among other career-driven single academics; half the time I am with church friends who got married at 20, immediately had 17 babies*, and are less good than they think at hiding their disdain for my life. This means that I think a lot about singleness in general, and female singleness in particular. A lot of my friends have recently had or will soon be having babies, so I have been thinking about it more than usual just lately. I am extremely happy to be single and am unlikely to be persuaded into a relationship**. However, I am highly irritated by the patronising pity heaped on me by people who have never had the opportunity to be single.
The reason I give this context is that all of this was in the back of my mind, or sometimes at the forefront, while I was reading All the Single Ladies: Independent Women and the Rise of a Nation by Rebecca Traister. The book explores female singleness in the US from a variety of perspectives. It’s comprised of statistics, policy, analysis, and anecdotes from women from many walks of life, including an occasional narrative interjection by Traister. I can’t recommend it highly enough, and have already pressed it on several friends–married and single, male and female–who I think might enjoy it.
All the Single Ladies is honest about singleness in a way that I have not experienced from any other book or article. It celebrates singleness without dismissing the practical disadvantages that some women experience as a result; it presents it as a liberation without ignoring the fact that some women want to get married; it includes poor women and celibate women and single mothers. Traister’s analysis resists the man-bashing and marriage-bashing that characterised Spinster, which was refreshing. Without ever criticising marriage as an institution, she presented a clear, positive, and well-researched picture of singleness as a valid way of living. I was left in no doubt that Traister believes that marriage and singleness can be equally healthy and equally fulfilling, and that there are unique issues associated with each.
Something the book did well–especially in light of books like Spinster, which was written from an exclusively wealthy point-of-view–is acknowledge and explore how much easier it is to be a single woman if you are middle-class or comfortably off. Part of the reason that I am able to be happily and easily single is that I live in a city surrounded by conveniences, I am relatively financially secure, and if I really need to I can occasionally borrow money from my family. These things are very much not the case for a lot of women. Traister’s exploration of the way marriage and financial security remain inextricably and unhelpfully linked for so many women was sensitive and nuanced. She interviewed women who felt they couldn’t afford to marry their partners, because they would lose certain benefits; she also interviewed women who felt they couldn’t afford to leave unhappy or abusive marriages, because they did not think they could support themselves. It is still possible for a woman to go from school to marriage, sometimes via university, without ever setting foot in the workplace. This particular path was discussed thoughtfully: no judgement for individual women who take this route, but plenty of criticism for the cultural and social structures that prop it up, thereby depriving women of agency and options.
In fact, “critique without judgement” struck me as a hallmark of this book. Traister explores the ways in which marriage has historically deprived women of liberty, and she identifies several ways that this is still occurring in the US and around the world today. However, she never dismisses marriage as all bad, and she does not criticise the many single women she interviews who want to be married some day. Some of the most interesting passages of the book concern marriages where both parties have worked hard and compromised to make it an egalitarian relationship. I honestly had no idea that so many early activists for women’s rights were married to men who were also involved in that movement. Reading about the marriage between Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell, early campaigners for equal pay and women’s suffrage, was completely fascinating.
The discussion of Lucy Stone, in fact, is part of a wonderful thread running through the book. Traister celebrates the women who pioneered both equality within marriage and the right to independence free of a husband. In Stone’s case, she was married, but Traister identifies several political movements that were reliant on the freedom of single women. The campaign for women’s suffrage is an obvious one, but I had no idea that so many single women were also involved in the civil rights movement in the 60s, or the campaign for abolition. It makes sense, though–single childless women can put themselves in danger in a way that that married mothers might not be willing to. Ironically, the freedom to get arrested and be imprisoned, without worrying about who would make the dinner every night, allows single women a degree of liberation and involvement that married women simply do not have. This type of freedom has also, of course, allowed women to align themselves with terrible political movements making awful decisions–in much the same capacity as men. Freedom, in other words, to be either more selfless or more selfish than a married woman can. This historical element was absolutely riveting. I would happily read an entire book that exclusively addressed the role of single women in societal change (in all seriousness, if you know of academic papers that address this, please link them in comments).
There were other things I loved. There is a chapter about how, when you are a woman living alone in a city, your relationship with that city sometimes feels very intense: it is providing lots of conveniences and securities that, historically, marriage would have provided instead. Although my own little city is much less impressive than London or New York, I do feel this way about Southampton: I love it, I love the city, chiefly because of the way it has enabled me and looked after me as I have become more independent. I can easily get a taxi home from the station at 2am (when I visit my mum, I am always freshly shocked at a train station that has no taxi rank); I can order delicious noodles when I have to stay late at the office; I have a huge supermarket three minutes’ walk away from me, and a well-connected bus network, and all manner of services set up to save me time and labour. There is a local coffee shop where they know me, and a huge library, and all these things together mean that I don’t need to be married for convenience or for security. I love Southampton with an intensity that people sometimes find rather hard to understand, because they do not know the joy that I take in living alone.
The book is very US-centric, which is more than understandable. I mean, it has a Beyoncé lyric as the title and Rosie the Riveter is on the cover. It does mean that some things don’t carry over very well. For example, much of the chapter on single motherhood focussed on the racialised way that US politicians talk about single mothers and welfare. The UK has its own issues, but I don’t think that particular bias is reflected here. In fact, I think if you ask someone in the UK to picture a single mum, they will picture a fat, white, working class teenager shopping in Iceland while wearing Primark leggings (an equally inaccurate picture, just a different one)–so I did not need Traister’s careful and thoughtful analysis of single motherhood in order to disprove that assumption. Similarly, in the UK access to birth control is not treated as a political issue and it is easily available on the NHS***, and even my very socially conservative acquaintances think accessible birth control is probably a public good. However, given the disproportionate impact that US culture has on the rest of the world, it was really helpful to get an insight into some things that it is very hard to understand from outside the country.
There were things that I strongly disagreed with, and there were times when I felt like Traister dismissed robust data in order to make a point. There is an almost overwhelming amount of evidence, for example, that children in two-parent families do better on a number of outcomes than the children of single mothers. Traister correctly identifies a whole lot of confounding factors for these studies, and certainly I agree with her that encouraging a woman to stay in an abusive relationship for the sake of her kids does harm to everyone. However, in this section in particular, she seemed to be conflating anecdote with data (“this person had a single mother/is a single mother and is doing fine, therefore single motherhood is always a great choice). Her analysis fell into the trap of assuming all differences between the children of single parents and children who are the product of a stable two-parent relationship are explained away by confounding factors, that there is absolutely no chance of a correlation otherwise–which is not exactly how confounders work. In case anybody wants to take issue with this, I should clarify that my own parents are separated, I have seen firsthand that staying in a relationship for the sake of the kids is not a recipe for anybody’s happiness, and I am myself considering fostering or adoption as a single mother one day. I do not think that single parenthood is wicked or inherently bad. I just don’t think that there is sufficient evidence to claim that the stigma around single parenting explains all inequality of outcome, any more than there is sufficient evidence to claim that single parenting is inherently flawed.
On the plus side, I loved some of the snarky things that single women in this book said about married women. Weddings, hen weekends, and baby showers are expensive and sometimes rather self-congratulatory, and many of the interviewees had some strong words about those of their friends. I enjoyed hearing about milestones that single women have chosen to celebrate in their own lives, because there are so few things that we celebrate in the lives of single people. If you are constantly going to weddings/hen dos/baby showers, and telling your friends how fantastic and special they are, but they never return the favour because they presume you are lonely and unhappy, that in itself can contribute to feeling lonely and unhappy. Women in this book had organised formal celebrations for close friendships, dream jobs, important birthdays, and any number of other things. Inspired by this book, a friend and I are organising an anti-hen weekend for all our untethered friends, in which we will go to a spa, have a fabulous time, and shower each other with unironic praise over our great choice to be single.
In short, I really loved this. It’s one of the best books I’ve read all year. I have some disagreements with Traister–when she seemed to recommend women becoming single mothers as a means of “self-validation” I wanted to scream–but it was so good. So much of her central thesis–that being single is fine, but being single in a culture that overwhelmingly privileges marriage is difficult–rang true. Perhaps I wouldn’t have liked it so much if I wasn’t in a position where people make stupid assumptions about me because I live alone. However, the fact remains that I do live alone, and people do make assumptions, and it’s nice to have some data to back up my life choices. A lot of negative reviews I have seen about this book boil down to “single women exist and are awesome and have been powerful in the history of the US, duh, why did she feel the need to write about it? Everyone knows that”. Mostly the reviews seem to be from very young women, and I am glad those reviews exist, because it means they are not facing pushback or criticism or stereotyping from other people. However, their experiences are probably not the norm. It was so helpful for me to see a positive, but nuanced, examination of a demographic shift that directly affects me–and one for which I receive a lot of grief from others. I feel much better informed, and able to deal with criticisms far better than I could before.
*17 is an exaggeration, but it’s sometimes less of an exaggeration than you might think.
**Although, in the interests of full disclosure, it’s not exactly like there’s a queue of men desperate for my feminine favours.
***I am distinguishing between birth control and abortion here–abortion is a more contested issue, though still available on the NHS.