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All The Single Ladies
All The Single Ladies
Submitted by Francesca R
6th June 2018
All The Single Ladies

Rebecca Traister apparently always hated it when heroines of hers got married (such as nineteenth century American writer Laura Ingalls in 1885, and present day activist Gloria Steinem in 2000). However she deals the same blow to her own fans, having wed a few years in advance of this part-celebration, part-polemic about single womanhood. Ms Traister's rationale is that the postponement of matrimony is maybe strategy enough to ensure that female adulthood is defined by more than the husband a woman would otherwise presumably bind herself to at its start. So this isn't firebrand feminism. For your reviewer (childless and never married, and unlikely to ever be otherwise) it was adequately emphatic though.

Simone de Beauvoir, 20th century French political philosopher, observed that in prevailing wisdom of her time, women are either "married, have been, plan to be, or suffer from not being". The century prior, Susan Anthony, American reformer, foretold that the emergence of (more) gender equality necessitated an era of women staying single (as Miss Anthony did). Reformists who tie up gay marriage with this movement (in a way which appears contradictory to some folk), do so because same-sex unions are the only type not to be born in a crucible where one partner has or had power over the other.

Ms Traister chronicles the origins of the single woman era. Some heroines in her text were not opposed to marriage, but rather to its "suffocating circumstances". Others regarded the institution itself as irredeemably scarred. All through this, the enemies at the gate are social conservatives whose aim is for men to keep, preserve or regain control of politics and public and private life. These groups persistently unlevel the playing field so that incentive structures dissuade and penalise single women from making out as would their male peers (particularly if they are poor or black), as well as forever wishing to command mainstream narrative that would seek to portray non-marriage as itself the source of all social ills visited on its (female, only) practitioners. Especially if they choose motherhood as well.

In any case, female agency rose to something of a peak before the start of the 20th century, in America (which is where Ms Traister focuses) but also in Europe. Two world wars and a depression ushered in a retracement towards domesticity (encouraged by and delighting Ms Traister's despised social conservatives) but this was temporary, and since about 1980 the line has been moving ever upwards again. The story is similarly told in other books your reviewer has covered including "Spinster", Kate Bolick, and "The End of Men", Hanna Rosin. Both are in Ms Traister's end bibliography.

It's easier for rich girls (make that white, educated and urban ones) to do independence (your reviewer knows this). Just like it was easier for Elizabeth The First to tell the English House of Lords what do do with its implorings for her to select a spouse and now please. But a significant thing is that poor women who will not be queen do it too, just with a much curtailed set of resources. Ms Traister's chapter that pulls down erroneous notions of fecklessness that get applied to choices like out-of-wedlock motherhood in poverty is brilliantly logical and actually inspiring (why wait in hope of a husband before a child if a rational calculus points to that never happening, for example). But it is a compounding irony that behaviours that are (finally, mostly) now viewed in privileged women as liberated and empowered, are still labeled as dangerous, wanton and threatening when practised by those less advantaged.

According to Mallory Ortberg, another feminist writer, "a woman alone is a beautiful thing". To your reviewer, it is, actually, the pinnacle of her experience to be by herself. And this appreciation doesn't require first hand knowledge of centuries given over to the service or nurture of others. Neither is it gender specific. But there is useful inclusion that it is probably too rarely acknowledged in the case of women, that there are more than a few ways they may, or may wish to make a mark on the world that don't involve children. This receives some corroboration from the statistic that 20% of American women now end their child-bearing years without having any. Not that parenthood is a bad thing. There are just other things too. Ask a man for details.

Ms Traister's conclusion tries to be a bit of a call to arms though this feels a little forced after three hundred pages which are a lot of the time exuding feel-good victorious vibes (partial ones, yes, but it feels good). It's also more of a wish list for government largesse than anything to do with contemprary attitudes. But it scarcely makes four pages, and probably didn't really merit a mention. "All The Single Ladies" is a very enjoyable read.
Rebecca Traister

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