Review by T. F. Rhoden of Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation (Simon & Schuster 2016).
Demographics, when gone sour, degrade into identity politics.
Anything that places the tribe above the individual is troublesome at the very least. By tribe, I simply mean any grouping: nation, gender, race, ethnicity, sex, class, religion, caste, cult, and so on.
Take any one of these group identifiers to an extreme and tribalism proves, yet again, to be toxic to political society. Moderation in all things…tribalism and identity politics are not.
Yet, on that note of moderation, I sometimes worry that individualism can be taken to an extreme as well. Thus to challenge the notion of individualism at times is very important. Though I still maintain it as something of a political axiom—that the continuance of individual freedom is about as good as it can get in any polity—when an opportunity comes to either intelligently challenge this or at least provide a new perspective, we would do well to avail ourselves of it.
Watching Rebecca Traister make a pitch for her new publication All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation on Real Time with Bill Maher, I realized that reading over her perspective and maybe internalizing some of her argument would be a great opportunity to challenge assumptions.
It Raises the Bar on Men’s Behavior
And if we learn anything in this very readable and enjoyable book, it’s that the bar on men’s behavior has risen over the half millennium—more specifically past century—in all realms of our political society.
The first few chapters provide a quick, yet pointed, history of some of the ways in which men have institutionalized social customs that cage “the fairer sex” into unequal partnerships. This review of past idiocies claimed in the name of gender over individual freedom should serve as a reminder of how much better we all have it today in advanced industrial liberal democracies.
Some salient points for me were that I hadn’t realized coverture had lasted so long in some areas of the United States. Though I often joke about the “patriarchy” when someone asserts that it still exists in America in 2016, these bits of institutionalized political and legal discrimination against women of the past serve as empirical evidence that once, indeed, something like a patriarchy did very much pervade the American polity.
(Note to self: finally get around to reading Mary Wollstonecraft’s history on the French revolution!)
Throughout All the Single Ladies, Traister is always quick to point out that the identity of the female also “intersects” with other identities—the most “problematic” of them being where one is not only female, but also “black” and/or “poor.” The challenge of less-than-voluntary marriage options faced by a middle-class “white” woman were not always the same faced by poor black females. There are numerous examples of this throughout the text.
Stadtluft Macht Frei nach Jahr und Tag
It is on this point of empirics that Traister shines for this reader. She does a wonderful job of bringing up and reviewing an array of contemporary statistics.
Evidence that more and more women are waiting longer to get married, or even more important, opting out of the civil institution altogether, are on display here. These numbers go into the larger aggregate average that in the United States there are today simply more people who have not gotten hitched than there are people who are married.
And where can all these single people be found? Well if it’s single females, look to the city!
The in-depth interviews Traister peppers throughout the text go to show that not only are there demographically more single women than married women living in American cities like New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, and so on, these single women also feel freer in the city. The image Traister paints of her and her colleagues lounging about in fashionable cafes and bars in downtown Manhattan is vividly captured and reinforced by these interviews.
This actually surprised me. And I almost wish that I had spent more time in America’s largest metropolises when I was younger and single myself as opposed to loafing around Europe and Asia for the past fifteen years. If you are a hetero male on the right side of thirty, are able to maintain a job, and know how to tuck in your shirt, the odds really are in your favor in the bigger cities.
Granted, you may not get hitched immediately if you’re into that type of thing, but rather one ought to be able to stumble upon a phone number or two without too much difficulty…if only I’d known. (And here’s some proof, guys! Jeez.)
One odd element of this text for any reader that doesn’t have a yoni is how important feelings are in general for the non-male.
Perhaps I’m not putting this right, but as a reader who happens to be a man, one is tempted to ask oneself again and again, “Why do women care what others think about them so much?” On every third page, another episode or interview or example is provided showing how much the interviewee or respondent is worried about how they are being perceived. I wish to ask, “Why do they take corporate-funded media stereotypes so seriously?”
Again, this may not be a fair admission on my part, but I hadn’t realized how much this sense of “I’m a woman” and “The world sees me as a woman” can pervade the feelings and self-identity of what would otherwise just be an individual who happens to be a female.
I do not know the answer to this, but I find it perplexing and fascinating at the same time: Does this mean that if an individual is an female, she sees herself or rather feels herself to be female first, and individual second? Really? This cannot possibly be the case for everyone. But either way, the book leaves the reader who happens to be male with the impression that women (in terms of sex, gender, or whatever) are in some sense wedded to the idea of being “a woman” more than being a person or “an individual” who, again, just happens to be female. This also makes me wonder how many people purchased this book in order to make themselves feel better because they happen to be women who liked the title?
If I ever have a child who turns out to be born female—if I teach her nothing else it will be simply to not take one’s gender too seriously and always see herself as a free individual, with her own agency and own path to blaze forward, and to live life without any pathology that asserts tribe over person.
Solutions, Thank You!
Because the book is written more in a journalistic than academic style, much of the overly wordy brooding misunderstood as “Theory” with a capital T is avoided. (Note: Bruce Bawer is insightful on this last point.) That is not to say that the book does not offer up a critique, but rather it does more than this.
Toward the very end Traister provides a list of solutions. I am thankful for this and I wish more writers would do this because it is not an easy thing to do. Never forget that to “problematize” and “critique” some newly spotted sociopolitical inequity is not the same thing as offering a solution.
She provided thirteen specific (and bullet-pointed!) policies and attitudes “that must be readjusted and readjudicated as the swelling numbers of unmarried American women move forward into the world.” I cannot reproduce them all here but only say that some are easier to accept than others.
Many of the solutions seem to call for government having a larger role in everyone’s lives. To read “readjust” and “readjudicate” as anything other then an invitation for the state to meddle even further into the lives of individuals is difficult to do.
But because this section is only three or four pages of the book, I would prefer to wait until a fuller argument from her that really fleshes out how one goes about putting all these solutions into operation. Perhaps this will be Taister’s next book?
Less critique and more next steps would make a natural followup publication to this book. I suspect that there would be much more for this reader to argue against if such a work were composed.
However, for this book, I found that All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation to be an informative and enjoyable read. And again, unlike my own silly, stilted style above, Rebecca Traister’s prose flows easily.
Like all works that have a feminist edge to them, I always learn something new, as well as occasionally cringe in disbelief as befitting any free individual who happens to be linga-endowed. There is so much about the experience of being an individual who happens to be a woman that I shall never understand. But texts like these help in no small way to provide perspective; they are always an exercise in “consciousness raising” and that is a good thing!
So whether raised, or lowered, or knocked about a bit by new ideas, my free conscious self can very easily recommend this book to others.
In an effort to further strengthen any moderate political position, read this book!
*Reviewed by T. F. Rhoden. The image-photo credit for the top of this post via Fieldnotes From Catie. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence.