Not All the Single Ladies

Not All the Single Ladies

The optimism of Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies is encouraging, but the book’s blindspots illuminate the limitations of contemporary liberal feminism.

Beyoncé performing in Seattle as part of the Formation World Tour, May 18, 2016 (Ronald Woan / Flickr)

Feminism has now been trending long enough that you can evoke the resurgence with a set of shorthands. Sheryl Sandberg. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Beyoncé. Emma Watson. Tina Fey. Roxane Gay. Mindy Kaling. In politics, as well as popular culture, girls run the world. Angela Merkel. Teresa May. Hillary Clinton. As Andi Zeisler, the co-founder of Bitch magazine puts it in her recent book, We Were Feminists Once, “Feminism, so long dismissed as the realm of the angry, the cynical, the man-hating, and the off-puttingly hairy, [is] officially a thing.” Or, as the artist Ann Hirsch recently joked, you can “put feminist in front of any activity and it will sound edgy. i.e. Feminist stargazing, feminist skiing, feminist gardening etc.”

One important aspect of the feminism trend has been its focus on single women. In the past few years, representations of female life that center on friends and careers rather than heterosexual romance have proliferated. Think: Girls, Broad City, The Mindy Project, Orange Is the New Black, Jessica Jones, the new Ghostbusters. Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels became widely beloved for this reason, too. In these books, husbands and lovers come and go. For all the trouble they cause—see the spoiler-filled blog, “F*ck Nino Sarratore”—they remain secondary to the relationship between the female protagonists.

In the midst of this feminist revival, stories about women living on their own tend to be charged with positive affect. By contrast, contemporary television makes coupled life look bleak. Consider: HBO’s Togetherness, which a recent BuzzFeed article aptly summarized with the headline “The Misery of Being White, Rich, and Married on TV.” Or the unsexy, soporific Jason Biggs plotline in Season One of Orange Is the New Black.

Rebecca Traister’s new book has arrived at just the right time and resonates powerfully in this overall atmosphere of feminist celebration. Traister immediately sets the upbeat tone with her title: All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation. When it landed this spring, in the midst of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, the book inspired enthusiasm from liberal feminists. When Power Woman Amy Powell and Paramount TV optioned the book earlier this spring, her producer described it as “a triumphant investigation into the lives of American women that deserves to be brought to the screen.”

All the Single Ladies sets out to investigate a “dramatic reversal” in American marriage patterns that has taken place over the past decade. “Throughout America’s history, the start of adult life for women . . . had been typically marked by marriage,” Traister begins. “In 2009, the proportion of American women who were married dropped below 50 percent.” There is no doubt that this shift is dramatic. “For young women, for the first time, it is as normal to be unmarried as it is to be married, even if it doesn’t always feel that way.” Traister argues that this “dramatic reversal” is tantamount to a “wholesale revision of what female life might entail,” and that that revision constitutes “the invention of independent female adulthood.”

The book’s organization is thematic, rather than strictly chronological. But from the outset, Traister establishes that her narrative will be a forward march. “Today’s unmarried and late married women are walking a road toward independence that was paved by generations of American women who lived singly when it was far harder to do so than it is today,” she begins. By delaying or forgoing marriage, Traister argues, single women have always remade, and are currently remaking, the United States economically and politically.

Their efforts, Traister says, have been world changing. “This is the epoch of the single women, made possible by the single women who preceded it.” Traister credits single women with a wide range of achievements. For instance, she argues that, “by demanding more from men and from marriage, it’s single women who have perhaps played as large a part as anyone in saving marriage in America.” The book concludes with an exhortation: “If our grandmothers and great-grandmothers, and their unmarried compatriots, could envision the radical future in which we are now living, it is incumbent on us to honor the work they did and walls they broke down by adjusting our own lenses. It’s time to rebuild the world for the diverse women who live in it now, more freely, than ever before.”

It is a compelling story. Yet it does not seem complete. While I find the success of All the Single Ladies encouraging, I believe that its limitations are worth discussing because they illuminate the limitations of contemporary liberal feminism. These are the limitations that feminists have to recognize and overcome if we want to create a movement for all women.

All the Single Ladies is refreshingly and unapologetically ambitious. Traister surveys academic history and sociology, and quotes from dozens of interviews that she personally conducted. Her book features women from a range of race and class backgrounds. There are cameos by luminaries ranging from Letty Pogrebin, the New York publicist who helped make Helen Gurley Brown and Jacqueline Susann famous, to Anita Hill. Traister slips in autobiographical anecdotes, but treats her own experience as one among many. To insist on this scope, while exploring a topic that is often trivialized by being relegated to memoir status, is no small achievement. All the Single Ladies is something like the book I wanted Kate Bolick’s Spinster to be.

As a demographic, Traister uses the Single Lady to reframe the history of the Second Wave. She points out that, for all that activists like Betty Friedan revolted against domestic life, they remained confined by it, defining their demands in opposition to the rituals of the suburban ranch house and kitchen; Gloria Steinem, by contrast, offered a “fetching vision of unmarried life.” All the Single Ladies highlights the disciplinary function that widely publicized stories about violence against women play. “The media messages about these crimes—always more breathless than coverage of tragedies that befall poor women or women of color, which is often nonexistent—have been clear,” Traister writes. “The women for whom cities increase economic and social empowerment are put at risk in these metropolises.”

Traister offers a refreshing takedown of all the cultural messages that suggest that for a woman to remain single is “immature” or “selfish.” “When people call single women selfish for the act of tending to themselves, it’s important to remember that the very acknowledgement that women have selves that exist independently of others, and especially independent of husbands and children, is revolutionary.” Rather, she highlights the importance of friendship. “Female friendship has been the bedrock of women’s lives for as long as there have been women,” Traister asserts. In addition to telling the story of how she came to consider one of her female friends “my person,” she interviews two professional women who describe their separation by a cross-country move just as devastating as any break-up: Traister’s fellow New York magazine writer Ann Friedman and her friend Aminatou Sow, co-founder of the international listserv Tech LadyMafia. (Sow and Friedman now cohost the popular podcast Call Your Girlfriend.) Traister likens their relationship to friendships that formed among nineteenth-century suffrage activists, which detractors called “shrieking sisterhoods.”

But even as Traister gestures toward the diversity of the unmarried demographic, she insists on treating “single ladies” as a coherent group. This emphasis raises some logical questions. For instance, there is the chicken-and-egg: did these women lead extraordinary lives because they stayed single? Or did they stay single because they had personalities and aspirations that did not match the norms of their day? As the book goes on, its argument begins to strain under the double pressure of being inclusive while remaining optimistic.

Take the chapter on “The Sex of the Cities.” Traister proposes that urbanization liberated women by giving them an opportunity to outsource traditionally female tasks like cleaning, cooking, and doing laundry to service workers. “The city itself becomes a kind of partner, providing for single women the kind of services that women have, for generations, provided men,” Traister writes.

Male participation in the public sphere has long been enabled by wives who cooked, mended, did laundry and housekeeping. When men were single (and when they weren’t) another low-paid female population worked as their maids, laundresses, seamstresses, secretaries, and prostitutes. Until recently, there was not a reverse set of services available to most single women. For the well-off, at least, cities go some way toward rectifying that.

Yet, “for the well-off” is a major caveat. Traister fails to reckon with the fact that most of this low-paid gendered labor is still performed by women. The ability to avail yourself of such services, if you can afford them, is not a triumph for women as women; it is a triumph for a particular class of women.

The chapter focused on poor women is the weakest in the book. Traister spends some time describing a twenty-four-year-old customer service representative from Brooklyn named Emmalee. Emmalee lives with the father of her child; she receives food stamps, Medicaid, and help from the Women, Infants, and Children program. Traister says that “the question of government aid wasn’t wholly behind [Emmalee and her partner’s] decision not to marry. ‘Not my end result,’ she said, ‘but kind of, yeah.’” Traister treats this quote as evidence that Emmalee’s decisions about marriage have not been determined by her economic circumstances. “There are logical reasons why economic need might have an impact on choices women make about marriage. But it certainly doesn’t have enough of an impact to account for the number of unmarried women out there.” But does this analysis really follow from the quotation? Does saying that the subject is not primarily motivated by a desire to dupe the welfare system support the conclusion that economic factors have not significantly shaped her personal choices? On the contrary. The sociological sources that Traister cites to back up her claims—the Knot Yet study published by University of Virginia researchers in 2012 and Johns Hopkins professor Andrew Cherlin’s 2014 book, Labor’s Love Lost—both found that a majority of working-class people delaying marriage cited economic uncertainties as their primary reason for doing so. Foregoing marriage because you and your partner do not have secure jobs or rosy long-term prospects is an understandable decision; it may be a rational one. But it does not necessarily mean that the single woman feels empowered by her singleness in any straightforward way.

As the book goes on, Traister’s desire to draw every piece of evidence back to her main theme—that being single is good, and a conscious choice—has a flattening effect. Because of course, for most people of any gender, singleness will include times of loneliness, vulnerability, sexual frustration, anxiety, and so on. I imagine that Traister would respond—quite rightly—that married people experience those emotions too, and that we talk about the downsides of marriage too little. Single women have been attacked and stigmatized so frequently that we need to restore balance. Yet, All the Single Ladies left me with little sense of the emotional texture of single life. It made me yearn for the ambivalence and complexity that other genres handle better. We would need to spend longer with these characters in order to register the range of emotions that single life inspires. For the most part, Traister’s characters make quick appearances and then exit.

Traister’s desire to emphasize the positive pushes her to make some tenuous claims. In the chapter on motherhood, Traister describes an anecdote about how once, when she was nursing, she found herself stuck at a reporting engagement that ran late. A kind male colleague helped her track down bags of ice so that she could store the breast milk she had pumped until she got home. She draws the following conclusion from the experience:

These are the halting steps of progress: On the one hand, the United States still lacks paid parental leave, anything resembling early maternal support from the government; many workplaces don’t have rooms where new mothers can breastfeed when they come back to work; and in the House of Representatives, women only got their own ladies’ room in 2011. And yet, the determination of American women to push through toward independence and parity, despite these systemic challenges, has produced an unquantifiable shift in attitude and behavior. We now work with, befriend, and partner with men who help us keep the breast milk cold.

Half a page later she offers another anecdote as evidence that gender relations within marriage are improving:

In 2015, Wisconsin Republican Representative Paul Ryan announced that his interest in taking the job of Speaker of the House—and becoming third in line to the presidency—was diminished by his desire not to “give up my family time.” As a politician, Ryan has opposed childcare subsidies and paid leave legislation that would make spending time with families more realistic for more fathers and mothers, but it marks a fairly remarkable shift in the culture when a man can cite a domestic commitment as one that might stand in the way of a powerful (if also thankless and doomed) job.

“Family time” is a well-worn cliché in American politics and business. Does an avowed opponent of women’s rights who invokes it really suggest that “a fairly remarkable shift in the culture” is taking place?

The struggle of the book to reconcile opposing evidence into a single story shapes it at the level of sentence structure. Across these passages, a common syntax emerges. “On the one hand . . . ” we have the persistence of structural sexism. But there are “unquantifiable shifts” in individual behavior. Granted, “as a politician” Ryan has waged relentless war against the wellbeing of women—as well as many other groups. But perhaps his invocation of a cliché about needing “family time” hints that a change has come. Again and again, Traister acknowledges ills that plague the poor, the queer, and so on. Then, she insists that things are better than they used to be and will continue to get better—without elaborating precisely how.

Another, related rhetorical strategy that All the Single Ladies uses is to cite odious right-wing pundits as opponents. David Brooks makes multiple appearances, most memorably in his January 2006 column reminding women that they are misguided to invest too much of themselves in careers because “power is in the kitchen”; so, too, do Jonathan Last and Ross Douthat. Pointing to conservative enemies feels like a bit of an evasion. It is a way of riling up your base while also foreclosing discussion.

The implication is that all women should remain united in the face of such obvious enemies. And yet, in moments, Traister acknowledges that to read the story of single women as a story of progress relies on setting extremely low expectations. When Traister turns to poor women, she admits this: “It’s crucial to unpack what’s true and what’s not true about female advancement—and single female advancement—across classes, rich, poor, and in between. When it comes to female liberty and opportunity, history sets an extremely low bar.” But if history has set a low bar, does it follow that our politics today must too?

It struck me, as I neared the end of All the Single Ladies, that while Traister interviewed a diverse range of women for the book, the feminist icons and theorists whom she treats as her touchstones are exclusively white and middle class—from Susan B. Anthony and Nellie Bly to Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. Shulamith Firestone makes one brief appearance, but her Marxist interpretation of gender does not come up. Nor, curiously, does her call to women to “seize the means of reproduction”—even though what Firestone was imagining was, arguably, precisely a Girls Rule the World scenario, a triumph of single ladies if there ever was.

Historically, black and working-class feminists have articulated the shortcomings of the All the Single Ladies point of view. They have been the ones to point out that the language of universal sisterhood can be coercive. There are moments where Traister’s history would be richer if she acknowledged their perspective. After an excursus on the role of female organizers in the abolition and suffrage movements, Traister writes:

Over a century in which women had exercised increasing independence, living more singly in the world than ever before, the movements that independent women had helped to power had resulted in the passage of the 14th, 15th, 18th, and 19th Amendments to the Constitution.

They had reshaped the nation.

But, as Angela Davis documents in Women, Race, and Class (1981), in fact the interests of black women and white activists came into direct conflict during this period. In 1894, African-American leader Ida B. Wells and Susan B. Anthony split on the issue of whether African-American women would be admitted to the National American Woman Suffrage Association; Anthony argued that they could not be, at the risk of alienating southern white voters. Thus, as Davis put it, “the woman suffrage campaign began to definitively accept the fatal embrace of white supremacy.” White men were willing to give their wives the vote in order to counteract the votes of black men, immigrants, and members of the native white working class. White women had their reasons for accepting the compromise. But to present this as a triumph of women, as women, is dubious.

Since the 1980s, differences of race and class may have only become more relevant. While, for generations, women shared many experiences in common, the success of white middle-class feminism in getting some women access to the professional sphere means that in fact our interests are far less unified than “we” might imagine. In 2013, the economist and journalist Alison Wolf published XX Factor: How the Rise of Working Women Has Created a Far Less Equal World. The book detailed a wide range of data demonstrating that, as higher education and higher paid positions opened to women, and these women increasingly marry men from similar educational and economic backgrounds, such marriages have driven income inequality in Western countries.

Wolf called the contemporary equivalent of this process “the fracturing of sisterhood.” It seems that any book that seeks to treat women as a class in 2016 needs to take account of that fracturing, and honestly reflect on what it is that still unites women as a class across such differences, rather than simply wave them away by saying that, even for those with the worst situations in our culture, there are “unquantifiable shifts” taking care of things.

Fracturing is a much harder story to sell than All the Single Ladies. It’s telling that, when I went to Amazon to check up on Wolf’s book now, in 2016, I discovered that the publisher had changed the subtitle for the paperback edition. While it originally read “How the Rise of Working Women Has Created a Far Less Equal World,” now it simply says, “How Seventy Million Working Women Created a New Society.”

Moira Weigel is a writer and academic currently finishing a PhD at Yale University. Her first book, Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating, came out in May 2016.

Correction: The print version of this article incorrectly identifies Aminatou Sow as an engineer. The text has been amended above.

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