I have mixed feelings about All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation (Rebecca Traister, 2016). On the one hand I see the importance of shining light on a traditionally marginalized group, for that is what single women are. On the other hand, I’m not entirely certain who the intended audience is. Is it for married women, wishing to understand their unmarried daughters, sisters, and friends? For men, wishing to gain some insight into the opposite gender? Or is it for people like me, who can’t help but see themselves reflected so sharply? My guess is that it’s a bit for all – there’s as much to gained by reading about people whose lives are vastly different from yours as there is comfort to be found in discovering that you are very much not alone. For that may indeed be Traister’s theme – although we may be single, we are not alone.
I gained most from the early parts of the book, where Traister traces single women throughout history. We all know about Elizabeth Tudor, the “Virgin Queen,” but did you know that Ida B. Wells, Zora Neale Hurston, Georgia O’Keefe, Florence Nightingale, and Louisa May Alcott all remained unmarried? That it was women, many of them young and unwed, working in terrible labor conditions in factories, who led the first industrial strikes in the US? That Spelman, the historically black women’s college, was founded by two unmarried women? I had never considered the power single women, as a group, wield, so this was edifying for me. I was likewise impressed by Traister’s acknowledgement of intersectionality, for marriage rates and women’s right do indeed vary across race and class. To ignore this would be as much of a slight as ignoring women’s place in history altogether.
If all that seems a bit dry (and it is), rest assured that Traister includes numerous portraits of and conversations with single women and their marital aspirations, or lack thereof. She asserts that Sex and the City was largely influential in changing the single woman’s image from lonely spinster to vibrant career woman and, accordingly, there are numerous women she interviewed who gladly fit the image. Thankfully, though, she also includes interviews with women who are complete opposites. There is an unwed mother partnered with her child’s father, a young woman dedicated to her religious beliefs, an older woman who never wanted to be married, a woman in her forties who fears she’ll never find the right partner. The women who make up the bulk of this book are as varied as can be imagined and I was glad to see that, for all Sex and the City did to boost the image of the single woman, we were not relegated to the stereotypes perpetuated by Carrie & Co.
I suppose some of my reservations with this book comes from the fact that it arrived at my library at the exact wrong time for me. I was in the midst of my own relationship decline, which was difficult enough, but the part of the book that really hit me was where Traister elaborates on the importance of female friendships. While women may be eschewing romantic partners in their early years, they are building strong friendships and creating their own family of close-knit connections. Reading about Traister’s and other women’s extreme sense of loss when their friends moved to pursue jobs and other opportunities broke my heart, because I went through the very same thing. It was as devastating as any breakup I’ve ever had.
Perhaps that is an unfair reason for me to have mixed feelings, but so it is with books. They come into our lives and sometimes touch us where it hurts most. Nevertheless, All the Single Ladies provides a well-researched look into the lives we’ve been warned from leading and offers the suggestion that maybe, despite what we’ve been told, being single is not the worst thing that could ever happen. Trust me, I have my checklist of everything that could be worse.
[Book Riot Read Harder Challenge: read a non-fiction book about feminism, read a book about politics]