Rebecca Traister, writer at large for New York Magazine, is one of the most fresh and prominent voices in journalism. She is the author of Big Girls Don't Cry, about women in the 2008 presidential election, and her writing in The New Republic, Salon, and many other publications has been a crucial part of the lively feminist debates of the 21st century. Her new book, All the Single Ladies, celebrates the impact of today’s nearly unprecedented population of single women. We spoke with her about the trailblazing single women of the late 19th and early 20th century, the failure of marriage as a solution to poverty, and the vitality of feminist debate.
How did your idea to write this book come about?
It actually came about in the weeks before I was getting married. I was 35 years old, and I had published my first book that year, which was about the 2008 election. It was the most thriving point in my career. I was keenly aware that marriage was such a different thing for me than it had been for, say, my mother. And my mother is also a professional woman. She's an English professor, a Shakespeare professor. She had a PhD. She was one of the first four women hired in her department in the early seventies, late sixties. But she married at 22 or 21 maybe, right in the days after she graduated from college. The thing I was thinking about was that I was deep into my adulthood. I was deep into my career, I was established, I had a wide and deep circle of friends. I had been hired, fired, and promoted. I had published a book, I had an education. I had my own bank account and my own apartment. My life had been built really independently. So the act of marrying my husband was such a different thing than kicking off adulthood with marriage.
As I understand it, you expected it to be one thing, and then when you were actually doing your research and reporting, it turned into something different.
I expected it to be a book of contemporary journalism. There's an enormous population of unmarried women in this country, and it is unprecedented. I sold it as, "Here is this unprecedented thing. It's a world of Amazons." But when I started to do the research, I realized it is not without precedent in this country.
When else has this happened?
During the 19th century, both the casualties of the Civil War and westward expansion drew hundreds of thousands of men west, or left them dead after the war. There was a massive population of middle-class white women, especially on the East coast, who were not married because gender ratios had slipped.
A lot of these women were not subsumed by the duties of wifeliness and by responsibilities of motherhood, so they devoted their adult energies to causes you may be familiar with: suffrage, abolition, the labor movement, the temperance movement, the settlement house movement. It was women who were the founders of secondary education, a lot of women's colleges. If you look at where the energies of unmarried women went in the 19th century, you can chalk them up to several major amendments to the Constitution.
As the percentage of unmarried women remained high into the Progressive Era and the early 20th century, there developed a real national anxiety about women not marrying. You had Teddy Roosevelt talking about race suicide because middle-class white women weren't marrying and reproducing enough.
So there was a backlash.
Yes, there was a tremendous backlash. In 1920, women were permitted to vote for the first time, and somewhere around those years, when national anxiety about the rising power of American women was probably at an absolute high, there were all kinds of things you started to see happening. This is the period where lesbianism becomes more defined as an identity and seen as a perversion. Suddenly the bonds between women, which historically had been understood to be extremely close, were becoming more suspect. Starting in this section of the early 20th century, suddenly there's an interest in dating, in steering men and women toward each other earlier.
The other thing that happened was that all these mechanisms were creating the nuclear family structure of the mid-twentieth century—the building of the suburbs that were only for white people, the building of the highways that often razed black neighborhoods and cut off urban black neighborhoods from services. They created what we would understand to be a domestic trap for middle-class white women, and at the same time they cut off black women and black families from the same kinds of domestic opportunities. Even the G.I. Bill served white men much better than it served black men because colleges wouldn't admit black men. So all the things that created this new stable middle class of the mid-twentieth century fostered early marriage and the nuclear family, but cut off black people, who since mass emancipation had been marrying at higher rates and at younger ages than their white peers. The black marriage rate began to decline at the same time. Out of this, then, it's no coincidence that you get in 1963 The Feminine Mystique, which is the explosion out of that domestic suffocation for white women, and in 1965, the Moynihan Report, which pathologizes black single motherhood. I just became fascinated by all this history.
It's interesting how this translates now to promoting marriage to poor women, and especially black women, as an anti-poverty measure.
There's a lot of the book that's actually devoted to this. There is this incredibly popular idea that if we just promote marriage, that marriage creates more economic stability. And I very much disagree with that idea. To me it seems abundantly clear, though it does not to many social conservatives, that it's poor economic conditions that inhibit marriage or simply committed, stable partnership. Poverty is a thing that does tremendous damage to marriage prospects. It makes marriage rates dip, it makes divorce rates surge. If you're talking about marrying people within a population that is suffering from the very same disadvantages, where mates are more likely to be unemployed, to be economically struggling themselves, and in turn, to be suffering from higher rates of depression, drug addiction, and incarceration—a theoretical "marry someone" makes no sense. The practice of not marrying has been born out of adjusting to and dealing with impoverished conditions that make marriage impractical.
The only programs that have ever been shown to boost marriage rates and lower divorce rates are programs where the government has provided better welfare programs and better job training programs, and where it has actually helped stabilize populations economically. In those instances, divorce rates went down, and marriages became more stable. So all this money that we're throwing at it with the Healthy Marriage Initiative—many studies have shown that it has done no good.
But I do think it speaks to the enthusiasm that many social conservatives have for marriage as the solution. I think it speaks to some nostalgia we have for an institution that for a long time provided a kind of order, and frankly a containment of women. When you harken back to the good old days of marriage, when marriage was a sort of forced social and economic norm, and when women had a harder time being economically independent, it meant that they were often forced to depend on a male mate whom they married at the beginning of their adulthood. I think that there is a nostalgia for that because those practices and those expectations came from a time in which women did not compete or threaten.
What do you think of the state of marriage in the United States now?
I do argue in the book that single people in the United States are saving marriage, ironically enough. Because in muscularly exerting their independence, not just by delaying marriage, but by working and becoming increasingly economically stable in advance of or instead of marriage, by having babies out of wedlock and becoming single mothers, they’ve made it increasingly a reality across classes. Women are forcing our culture to adjust and to redefine marriage as a more equitable institution. Even though our marriage rates are plunging, and our reproductive rates are plunging, the United States is doing way better than the rest of the world. Our marriage rates are much higher than anywhere in South America, way higher than Japan, which is just in the basement, and higher than many places in Europe. I’m somebody who's always a critic of the United States and its power dynamics, but the thing that's good about the United States is that it adjusts. Our willingness to re-imagine marriage culturally is helping to keep it appealing in ways that countries that are much more attached to their gender power imbalances are not doing.
Feminism has gotten a lot more airtime in the media over the past several years, and with that has come a certain amount of in-fighting, which some people say is toxic. Do you think that’s a bad thing, or do you think there’s a healthy debate?
I think feminism has never existed for five seconds without in-fighting. Feminism has been defined by its cacophony since its inception. Since there's been a women's movement, it has been people arguing with each other, which is not some essentialist point about women arguing. It is simply that the women's movement, the idea of feminism, is to represent a population that is so broad, huge, and diverse, that there is no way that there couldn't be in-fighting. Because to represent women—what does that mean? Women are over half the population. And those women are so different from each other, and they have so many different perspectives, priorities, and needs. They face such a variety of inequities. They have such diverse kinds of privileges and disadvantages that any effort to better women's position in the world must be met with challenge. So it is a sign of its health, and that people are paying attention to it and are engaged in it that they're arguing about it. I think the cacophony and the fighting are good. It can be exhausting. But to me, there is no healthier sign about feminism than the complaint that people within it are fighting with each other.
Yes, there’s a pessimism about those debates that sometimes feels unfounded.
Well, I think that every generation that comes to it has to learn this themselves. When you come out of a backlash where there hasn't been a lot of engagement, and you think of the feminism of the past as some kind of monolith, you just have these frozen images of getting the vote, or Roe v. Wade, some vision of second wave feminism. And you imagine it to be this static thing that made strides from which we now benefit. Also there's always this cringe-y rhetoric about sisterhood, and this idea that feminism is supposed to be more naturally collaborative. Of course, it is collaborative in ways that are crucial to it. It's why there was a kind of cultural investment in breaking up strong female partnerships amongst young women in the early part of the 20th century. Women working together caused trouble. So there is something collaborative, obviously, about feminist projects. But somehow that is translated in lots of people's minds to this idea that, if sisterhood is powerful, then it must mean that sisterhood is always supportive, which of course couldn't be further from the truth. So the fighting is not a sign that the movement is being destroyed. It's a sign that the movement is functioning as it always has, which is with a lot of competing voices inside of it struggling to determine the course of what we're going to fight for next.
Interview by Molly Long