The word spinster might seem like a metaphorical dumping ground for all unmarried ladies, but back in colonial times, it referred to a very specific group: single women between 23 and 26 years old. Advance past that age without a ring and you became a “spiky thornback” — a bottom-dwelling fish that happens to be the only member of its genus. Turns out, surely to the dismay of the dipstick who coined the term, we are now a nation of spiky thornbacks. In 1994, the average Canadian woman married at age 26.26; that same year, for the first time, the marriage age ticked above the average age of having your first child (at 26.2 years), upending a very old notion of the order of things. Since then, we’ve never crossed back — women are having children later and getting married later still, if we’re getting married at all.
In All the Single Ladies, Rebecca Traister, writer-at-large for New York magazine, investigates female life at a time when marriage is no longer the starting gun for adulthood nor the measuring stick for our worth. Left to their own devices, single women are earning more money in more fields than ever before, reshaping our definition of family and having a significant impact on elections (in the U.S., they vote overwhelmingly for Democrats; in our last election, unmarried women broke for the Liberals). Here, Traister discusses what women get up to when they aren’t absorbed with wifely duties.
Why did you want to write this book?
I started thinking about this book in the weeks before I got married, when I was 35. It wasn’t some swan song to my single years — it was more of a meditation on this thing I was about to do. My unmarried friends and I had such full adult lives, bursting with work, friends, money, commitments, responsibilities, pleasures, disappointments, all of it. Whereas for my mother, and many of her contemporaries, adulthood officially commenced with marriage. So the intention was to write about this radical rethinking of how adult women’s lives are mapped out. However, after I had done about five minutes of research, I realized it wasn’t as unprecedented as I had thought.
The relationship between independence from marriage and social, political and economic independence has a really long history. In the 19th century, when so many American men moved west or lost their lives in the Civil War, women — especially middle-class white women on the East Coast — were left without men to marry, so marriage rates plummeted. And when women’s lives were not consumed by wifeliness and maternity, their energies went toward literally changing the nation.
So many single suffragettes!
And abolitionists. It was unmarried, working women who staged the first walkouts as part of the labour movement. Women founded settlement houses together, which were hotbeds of economic reform. It was often single women who founded colleges and expanded education for women.
Why do you think their history isn’t better known?
I don’t know the answer to that. But there’s this incredible period where women are living singly, and it reaches its height right around the turn of the 20th century. After women get the right to vote in 1920, there’s this massive, multi-tentacled push of women back into an early-marriage model. You have Teddy Roosevelt talking about how women need to reproduce as a patriotic duty. You get both singleness and lesbianism diagnosed as perversions. This is when dating is invented! Suddenly there’s a suspicion of female bonds that are too close, and so young men and women are encouraged to spend time together romantically, socially and sexually.
But it wasn’t just stuffy psychoanalysts who were suspicious of single women. I didn’t realize how little room Betty Friedan left for them in second-wave feminism.
It’s hard to overemphasize how much of a norm early heterosexual marriage had become by the middle of the 20th century. It was suffocating. The way Betty Friedan framed it was about expanding life outside of marriage for women. Which was radical! And remains radical! But it wasn’t a fundamental critique of marriage. Friedan was very unfriendly to single women. She sort of compliments Susan B. Anthony by saying, oh, she didn’t turn into a bitter spinster with a cat. That was her version of an unmarried woman.
That’s still a lot of people’s version of an unmarried woman.
And this is especially true for women who are living not in cities but in some rural, religious or immigrant communities, where early marriage is still the norm. Whether or not they’re being told they’re spinsters with a cat, they’re getting social pressure — “What’s wrong with you?” I write about a woman in my book who lives in Bismarck, North Dakota, and when she tells people she’s not married, they say, “I’m sorry.” Like it’s an illness.
I will say there are also many other kinds of messages that are being sent that were not sent 20 years ago. It’s terrible to rely on Sex and the City, but if you look at popular culture, it is now filled with single women who are glamorized. Shonda Rhimes’ shows are full of this. Like on Grey’s Anatomy, where Meredith and Cristina call each other “my person.” There’s a romance there. And it feels good to be able to say that our friendships can be our romances, that they can be our families.
You say there isn’t really a way to recognize the crucial role that women play for each other — no ability to assign friends or non-traditional partners the responsibilities of next of kin, for example. Do you see that changing any time soon?
Yeah, I do, especially as women, across classes, continue to have kids at higher rates outside of marriage. I think we’re going to see more and more communal child-rearing situations. We’re already seeing communal living situations — adults going in on houses together. As that becomes more common, we’re going to have a population with needs that must be addressed. I think we’re on the way to socially and culturally normalizing those relationships.
How much of the delay in marriage can be chalked up to cash?
In communities where there is tremendous joblessness and poverty, where rates of depression and incarceration and addiction are high, marriage is a really risky deal. It’s difficult to form stable partnerships that are going to be improvements in life. The programs that have been proven to boost marriage rates and lower divorce rates are all ones that expand welfare and bring people economic security. Of course, in privileged spheres — and we know this based on lived experience, history and about a bajillion studies — marriage impedes the speed at which women progress in their careers, and there are wage penalties for every child they have.
Not true for men!
Men get the opposite. The earlier men marry, the faster they move in their careers, and they actually make more money when they have children. For women, there is an ingrained understanding that marriage is going to delay them professionally and impede them economically. I heard from so many young women, “I don’t want to get married — men are just going to drag me down.” They weren’t necessarily saying it as some feminist statement — more like “It takes too much work to be in a relationship and I really want to establish myself in my career.”
But once women establish themselves in their careers, it can be hard for them to step away, unless it’s for a honeymoon or maternity leave. What can we do to change that, so single women don’t burn out?
We have a 24-hour work culture at the moment, and we’re really at a burnout point. We’re beginning to acknowledge how that is true for parents, but we don’t acknowledge that single people — this was very true when I was a single person — are often called on to stay late when other people have to go home because they’re doing work-life balance. And good! I don’t mean to be critical of that. But single people have lives that are just as full and demanding — by many measures more, because you’re doing it all by yourself. You’re paying your bills, you’re dealing with your family and friendships, you’re fixing your bookcases, you are doing your laundry. There’s no “Can you grab milk on your way home?” or “Can you rub my back?”
You can’t balance your work-life balance off of someone else.
I find it crazy that single people, who bear such an enormous burden for that stuff, are written off as less mature. A good partnership is a more immature way of life, as far as I’m concerned, because there’s another person taking care of me.
Why did you get married?
The institutional part? Largely because it was a chance to have a party in the middle of our lives. We were older, our parents were alive, it felt like a good idea.
Has your idea of marriage changed at all since then?
No. I’m straight, with two kids, and I live in Brooklyn: I could not be more boring, bourgeois married. For me, the massive shift in perspective was in meeting and falling in love with my husband. I had been very, very single until I met him in my early 30s. I had years without a boyfriend, and I didn’t have thrilling flings. I dated. But I’d never had a relationship that was good, that made my life better.
You wrote a piece last year for New York about how sex that’s consensual can still be terrible, but we don’t really address it. Why is it important for us to talk about bad sex?
I don’t know that I’ve ever gotten more mail from people than after I wrote that piece: “Oh my God, I’ve lived my whole life having pretty mediocre sex, and I’ve never been able to talk about it.” So much of this comes from playing defence. We have anti-rape-culture activism, which is terrific. But in an effort not to be scolds, when we say we’d prefer it if men got better at not raping women, we make up for it by saying, “But this is not anti-sex! Women love sex!” And then if you’re not having sex, or not having sex that makes you feel thrilled, you’re made to feel not sexual — still one of the worst things you can say about a woman — and not a good feminist. It’s this swamp of difficulty in terms of how to talk about these things.
What do you miss about your single life?
Oh God, that’s easy: I miss my friends! Which is not to say I don’t see them, but the intimacies change, in part because we are not each other’s whole sustenance anymore. Recently, I snuck off for lunch with one of my dearest friends. We were single together for a long time; we ate together three or four times a week, went to ball games and concerts and on vacation. Now we haven’t seen each other, without our husbands and kids around, in more than six weeks. As soon as we began talking, I felt this wash of relaxation. And we began drinking. And I didn’t want the pleasure of being together to stop. So we were incredibly irresponsible and just kept eating and drinking and talking. And it was wonderful! But there’s a real cost. I was late with a story; she skipped a meeting. Having to steal time from places we can’t afford to is a sign that we are missing each other.