Let’s look at “happily ever after.”
Fairy tales and societal convention set the parameters for centuries. Girl meets boy. They marry. They share eternal bliss. Today, however, the recipe is changing. Women’s options are expanding, more of them are pursuing education and careers — opting for independence — and marriage rates are dipping.
As Rebecca Traister writes in “All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation,” the changes have “refashioned the course of average female life.”
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Her book, released a little more than a year ago, chronicles this revolution and its cultural, economic and political ramifications. Part social study and part history lesson, laced with a touch of evangelizing, it celebrates what Traister sees as a “more just and equitable position in the world” for today’s women, one in which marriage is no longer a necessity for economic stability, for a socially acceptable sex life or for a socially accepted family.
Many women who do wed are marrying later. The stigma of singleness is fading. Traister makes the point that it’s OK to be married to your job or be content with a network of friends — “voluntary kin,” as she calls them — for enjoyment, shared sensibilities and connection.
Traister interviewed close to 100 women around the country over a five-year period starting in 2010, and she folds the stories of about 30 of them into the book. Her research beyond that is exhaustive, from identifying underpinnings of the movement that date back hundreds of years to digging into study after study of marriage and the lot of women in contemporary society.
Traister, one of the country’s leading feminist writers, is insistent. “All the Single Ladies” isn’t a screed against marriage as much as it’s an observance of the 21st-century opportunities that make it less imperative — and thus less expected — for women. Indeed, Traister drew a close to 14 years of independent adulthood by marrying seven years ago at age 35. She and husband Darius, a New York public defender, now have two daughters.
“I wound up happily married,” she says, “because I lived in an era in which I could be happily single.”
Traister recently discussed “All the Single Ladies” and how, as she writes, “women have come to understand that marriage … may not be an institution that best serves their needs.” Excerpts are edited for length.
Q: The book’s opening line — “I always hated it when my heroines got married” — harkens back to your childhood and reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” series. It’s almost as if you were born to this.
A: As a reader, someone who consumed stories about women’s lives, I was extremely interested in the limitations that were put on them. But it was really from a literary perspective, not from an activist’s perspective.
As a teenager, I did go to a couple of reproductive rights marches in Washington in 1992 — I was interested in abortion politics — but I was not a frontline activist by any stretch of the imagination. And in college, I wasn’t.
My interest in independence from marriage was sort of born of my own experience. I wrote a lot about independent life when I was single. I didn’t have any particular expectation that I was going fall in love and marry. I didn’t despair about it either. It just didn’t loom large for me.”
Q: And then you did fall in love and marry, as you write about at length in a book about women’s lives outside of marriage.
A: I’m very conscious of that. I started writing it in the months before I got married because I was in my mid-30s and I felt not a transition in who I was or in my identity. Precisely the opposite. I didn’t feel like much about me was changing, but I was acutely aware of the fact that people were treating the fact I was getting married as this life-defining thing.
Like the old rituals … registries and the idea that I was going to sign up to get dishes. I had dishes; I was 35 years old and had kept my own home for a long time. And my husband had dishes; he was 45 years old. There was a sense that the way we treated marriage was totally at odds with the lived experience of contemporary adults. The book was an investigation into that.
I wasn’t going to not write it just because I was getting married. I felt like it was an important book and an important topic to write about. But to say, “Oh great, this book about how revolutionary it is that women aren’t marrying was written by a boring, hetero, married woman,” I think that’s a fair criticism.
Q: You wrote that you “saw more people every day when I was single than I do as a married person … went out more … knew more about other people’s lives.” Do you struggle with that?
A: Absolutely. I’m very much in love with my husband, I’m very happy to be married to him, and that’s wonderful. But there are things I miss about being single, and I miss them palpably.
I miss the freedom. When you marry, you have an obligation to a person who lives in your house. It’s a real inward turn and that’s something, I think, that challenges the common narrative that single people are more self-involved and selfish.
In fact, single people are out in the world. They’re the ones more likely to participate, to volunteer, to help in their communities. And married people are much more occupied with people in their own sphere, often the people they’re living with.
Q: How have your married friends and acquaintances reacted to the book?
A: My married peers who are roughly of my generation are not unfamiliar with the world I’m describing. The more interesting thing to me has been how women of older generations have reacted, (with) a kind of real, open curiosity and interest: “Oh, this helps me understand how my daughters, granddaughters, great-granddaughters are living.”
And occasionally, I get a sort of whiff from very happily and long-married, elderly women of a tiny trace of … not quite jealousy but, “Boy, that sounds like a nice life. That’s something I didn’t get to do.” Not that any of them were telling me they’d trade in their husbands.
There’s a lot of pushback from people who are more politically and socially conservative, particularly because I’m writing about (shaping) public policy and economy policy around unmarried women and the way Americans now live. Everything from fully subsidized child care to mandatory paid leave for women and men and an increased minimum wage because two-thirds of minimum-wage workers are women — many of them single women, many of them mothers. I think we need to do a lot to increase social safety nets.
Q: The book is about, and speaks to, women. How do you hope it speaks to men?
A: Anything I write about women, or the way women are living now, or arguments about how we should support the way women are living now, it’s very gratifying if men read it.
We still in this country do not shine a light on women’s experiences — economic, social, political. We don’t hear enough women’s voices, and this is a book that’s full of women’s voices talking about love and sex and friends and homes and their careers and themselves. It’s wonderful if men are paying attention to those voices.
One of my hopes is that the book might be assigned in classes. Listen, I am a woman who’s a feminist, and the history in the book was news to me as I learned it over the past six years. There’s too little women’s history taught in the United States.
We love to tell cheerful stories about how much progress we’ve made in regard to gender and race, about how women are equal and they can do all these things and can play sports and be in college classes and be doctors and lawyers. People are shocked to learn that married women couldn’t get their own mortgages before the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974. That’s the year before I was born. They’re shocked to learn that marital rape was legal into the ’70s and, in some states, into the ’90s. This is recent history.”
Steve Wieberg, a former reporter for USA Today, is a writer and editor for the Kansas City Public Library.
Join the discussion
The Kansas City Star partners with the Kansas City Public Library to present a book-of-the-moment selection every six to eight weeks. We invite the community to read along. Kaite Mediatore Stover, the library’s director of readers’ services, will lead a discussion of “All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation” by Rebecca Traister at 6:30 p.m. July 11 in the Grace Hill Library All Soul’s Unitarian Universalist Church, 4501 Walnut St. If you would like to attend, email Stover at email@example.com.
From Chapter 9 of “All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation,” by Rebecca Traister, published by Simon & Schuster.
“When I married my husband in 2010, I was thirty-five and he was forty-five; we had lived a combined eighty years without each other. There are downsides to this, almost all emotional. We will almost surely have a shorter number of years together than we’d like. I’m also sad that, because of our ages and a desire to have children, we didn’t get more time together on our own — to enjoy each other, by ourselves — before we had our children.
“What was undeniably true was that one of us was not simply going to subsume the other. We had our own bank accounts; we had our own dishes; we had our own careers and our own social circles; we each knew how to do laundry and we each knew how to use an electric drill.
“When you come at the work of life from a more equal starting point, tasks and responsibilities may be more appropriately apportioned to the person who is suited to them, not simply to the person who is stuck with them by dint of anatomy. In my marriage, we split the cooking. I do most of the cleaning, he does all of the laundry, we take turns with childcare. I don’t advertise us, or any couple, as an aspirational model for any other couple; one of the freedoms of improving marriage is that the institution can be more easily molded around the particular talents and desires of the particular people entering into it. What I do know is that my life is a hell of a lot better, my daily load unimaginably lighter, my marriage far more equal than either my mother’s or my grandmother’s.”
The stats here in KC
Much of what Rebecca Traister sees nationwide, we see in Kansas City.
▪ Nearly two-thirds of all females in the city ages 20-34 had never been married as of 2015, according to U.S. census estimates. That was up from 55 percent a decade earlier. The next-older age group, 35-44, showed a never-married rise from 24 percent to almost 30 percent.
▪ More women were completing college, earning bachelor’s degrees or higher (32 percent as of 2015, up from 29 percent six years earlier). And more held graduate or professional degrees (a little more than 12 percent, up from 10.6 percent). The latter put them on a par with men.
▪ Women’s compensation still lagged. For those with bachelor’s degrees, median one-year earnings were nearly $11,500 beneath the earnings of equivalently educated males. But the trend was positive. That represented a six-year increase of 10 percent for women, outpacing a 6 percent rise for men.
▪ A University of Kansas study last year cited findings that women ages 25-64 filled 41.3 percent of all management positions in the KC metro area, a tick higher than the 39.9 percent nationwide.