All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation

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9781476716572: All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation

* NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOKS OF 2016 SELECTION * BEST BOOKS OF 2016 SELECTION BY THE BOSTON GLOBE * ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY * NPR * CHICAGO PUBLIC LIBRARY *

The New York Times bestselling investigation into the sexual, economic, and emotional lives of women is “an informative and thought-provoking book for anyone—not just the single ladies—who want to gain a greater understanding of this pivotal moment in the history of the United States” (The New York Times Book Review).

In 2009, award-winning journalist Rebecca Traister started All the Single Ladies about the twenty-first century phenomenon of the American single woman. It was the year the proportion of American women who were married dropped below fifty percent; and the median age of first marriages, which had remained between twenty and twenty-two years old for nearly a century (1890–1980), had risen dramatically to twenty-seven.

But over the course of her vast research and more than a hundred interviews with academics and social scientists and prominent single women, Traister discovered a startling truth: the phenomenon of the single woman in America is not a new one. And historically, when women were given options beyond early heterosexual marriage, the results were massive social change—temperance, abolition, secondary education, and more. Today, only twenty percent of Americans are married by age twenty-nine, compared to nearly sixty percent in 1960.

“An informative and thought-provoking book for anyone—not just single ladies” (The New York Times Book Review), All the Single Ladies is a remarkable portrait of contemporary American life and how we got here, through the lens of the unmarried American woman. Covering class, race, sexual orientation, and filled with vivid anecdotes from fascinating contemporary and historical figures, “we’re better off reading Rebecca Traister on women, politics, and America than pretty much anyone else” (The Boston Globe).

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About the Author:

Rebecca Traister is writer at large for New York magazine and a contributing editor at Elle. A National Magazine Award finalist, she has written about women in politics, media, and entertainment from a feminist perspective for The New Republic and Salon and has also contributed to The NationThe New York ObserverThe New York TimesThe Washington PostVogue, Glamour and Marie Claire. Traister’s first book, Big Girls Don’t Cry, about women and the 2008 election, was a New York Times Notable Book of 2010 and the winner of the Ernesta Drinker Ballard Book Prize. She lives in New York with her family. 

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

All the Single Ladies CHAPTER ONE

Watch Out for That Woman: The Political and Social Power of an Unmarried Nation


The contemporary wave of single women was building in the very same years that I was heading off to college, though I hadn’t realized it. The early 1990s was the period in which reverberations of the social and political revolutions of my mother’s generation were manifesting as swiftly changing marriage and reproductive patterns, which, in turn, would create a current of political possibility for independent women in America.

On October 11, 1991, a thirty-five-year-old law professor, Anita Faye Hill, appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee to testify about the sexual harassment she’d experienced while working for Clarence Thomas, a D.C. Circuit Judge nominated by President George H. W. Bush to fill the Supreme Court seat of the retiring civil rights hero, Thurgood Marshall. A native of rural Lone Tree, Oklahoma, Hill was the youngest of thirteen children raised by Baptist farmers; her grandfather and great-grandparents had been slaves in Arkansas. She was valedictorian of her high-school class and attended Yale Law School, worked for Thomas at both the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and taught contract law at the University of Oklahoma. She was not married.

As cameras recorded every second, broadcasting to a rapt and tense nation, Hill sat before the all-white, all-male Senate Judiciary Panel and told them in a careful, clear voice of the sexually crude ways in which Thomas had spoken to her during the years she worked for him; she detailed her former boss’s references to pornographic movie stars, penis size, and pubic hair in professional contexts. In turn, she was pilloried by the conservative press, spoken to with skepticism and insult by many on the committee, and portrayed by other witnesses as irrational, sexually loose, and perhaps a sufferer of erotomania,1 a rare psychological disorder that causes women to fantasize sexual relationships with powerful men.

Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson questioned Hill’s “proclivities” (a term that the conservative columnist William Safire suggested was “a code word for homosexuality”2). One pundit, David Brock, called Hill “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty.” Called in front of the committee after her testimony, John Doggett, a former classmate of Thomas’s and an acquaintance of Hill’s, described Hill as “somewhat unstable” and surmised that she had “fantasized about my being interested in her romantically.” He guessed, based on their brief social interactions, “that she was having a problem with being rejected by men she was attracted to;” at another point, Doggett noted that Hill “seemed to be lonely in this town.”

As Hill would later write of her experience, “Much was made in the press of the fact that I was single, though the relevance of my marital status to the question of sexual harassment was never articulated.”3

The relevance of her single status was how it distinguished her from established expectations of femininity. Hill had no husband to vouch for her virtue, no children to affirm her worth, as women’s worth had been historically understood. Her singleness, Hill felt at the time, allowed her detractors to place her “as far outside the norms of proper behavior as they could.” Members of the Judiciary, she wrote, “could not understand why I was not attached to certain institutions, notably marriage,” and were thus left to surmise that she was single “because I was unmarriageable or opposed to marriage, the fantasizing spinster or the man-hater.”

The lingering assumption—born of the same expectations that I had chafed at as a kid, reading novels—was that the natural state of adult womanhood involved being legally bound to a man. Perhaps especially in the comparatively new world of female professional achievement, in which a woman might be in a position, as an equivalently educated professional peer of a judicial nominee to the Supreme Court, to offer testimony that could imperil his career, marriage remained the familiar institution that might comfortably balance out this new kind of parity, and would offer the official male validation and abrogate her questioners’ ability to depict her as a spinster fantasist.

In raising questions about her marital status and her mental stability, Hill wrote, senators were “attempting to establish a relationship between marriage, values, and credibility” and prompt people to wonder “why I, a thirty-five-year-old Black woman, had chosen to pursue a career and to remain single—an irrelevant shift of focus that contributed to the conclusion that I was not to be believed.”

Indeed, Hill’s testimony was not believed by the members of the committee, at least not enough to make an impact on their decision. Clarence Thomas was confirmed to the Supreme Court days after her appearance before the Judiciary.

But Hill was not some contemporary Hester Prynne, doomed to a life in exile. Instead, her appearance had a lasting impact on the country and its power structures. The term sexual harassment entered the lexicon and the American consciousness, allowing women, married and single, to make sense of and lodge objections to workplace harassment; it offered us a view of how behavior long viewed as harmless was actually a form of discrimination and subjugation that hurt women as a class.

Just as long-lasting was the impact that the vision of Hill’s being grilled by a panel of white men had on America’s representative politics. In 1991, there had been only two women serving in the United States Senate, an embarrassing circumstance that the hearings put in stark national relief. A photograph published by the New York Times showed a group of Congress’s few female representatives, including Patricia Schroeder and Eleanor Holmes Norton, running up the Capitol steps to stop the proceedings to demand that Hill be allowed to testify.

The spectacle of Hill’s treatment by the committee spurred a reckoning with the nation’s monochromatic and male representative body. The year after her testimony, an unprecedented number of women ran for the Senate. Four of them won. One, Washington’s Patty Murray, has repeatedly explained that the Thomas hearings had helped spur her to political action; “I just kept looking at this committee, going ‘God, who’s saying what I would say if I was there,’ ” she’s said. “I mean, all men, not saying what I would say. I just felt so disoriented.”4 Another, Carole Moseley Braun of Illinois, became the first (and, so far, only) African-American woman elected to the Senate. They called 1992 “The Year of the Woman.”

Though Hill’s life and career were certainly upended by the attention (as well as by the death and rape threats) that came in the wake of her testimony, they were not cut short or ended. She was not permanently ostracized, professionally or personally. Today, she teaches law at Brandeis and lives in Boston with her partner of more than a decade.

Part of the reason that Hill was not wholly written off as a social aberration was because by the early 1990s, she wasn’t. A generation of women was, like Hill, living, working, and occupying public space on its own. The percentage of women between the ages of thirty-five and forty-four who were married had fallen from about 87 percent in 1960 and 1970 to 73 percent in 1990.5

“Women began, in the nineties, to embrace their own sexuality and sexual expression in a different way,” Hill told me in 2013. Hill may have looked little like the recent past, but she was very much the face of the future, surely part of what made her discomfiting enough to send senators into paroxysms. As Alan Simpson urged the committee, citing the many warnings he claimed to have received about Hill, “Watch out for this woman!”6

In the early 1990s, there were so many women to watch out for.
The Great Crossover


Less than a year after the Thomas hearings, Vice President Dan Quayle gave a campaign trail speech at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, during which he offered his theory on what was behind the Los Angeles race riots that had followed the verdict in the Rodney King trial. The “lawless social anarchy that we saw,” Quayle argued, “is directly related to the breakdown of the family structure.” To illustrate this point, Quayle took an unexpected turn, laying into a television character.

The eponymous heroine of CBS’s Murphy Brown, played by Candice Bergen, was about to give birth to a baby without being married—or romantically attached—to the child’s father. Quayle was concerned that in doing so, Murphy, who he noted “supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid professional woman,” was “mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice.”7 Quayle’s comments would land him, fictional Murphy Brown, and her fictional baby, Avery, on the front of the New York Times, making the character’s unmarried status far more emblematic than it would have been otherwise.

Of course, Quayle’s concern hadn’t really been about Murphy; he had been unspooling some classic conservative rhetoric about how welfare programs discourage marriage when he’d thrown his pop-culture curveball. Quayle’s anxiety over the possibility that new models of motherhood and womanhood, unhooked from marriage, might be taking hold across income brackets was palpable. A new reality was setting in: If women could live independently, many would do so, and as they did, men would become less central to economic security, social standing, sexual life, and, as it turned out, to parenthood.

Though Quayle surely didn’t realize it at the time, 1992 was at the heart of what researchers would later dub “the great crossover.”8 Not only were the early nineties the years during which the marriage age was rising; they were the point at which the marriage age was rising above the age of first birth.

It was the reversal of a very old cultural and religious norm, purportedly a bedrock of female identity and familial formation, though not always a reflection of real life, in which premarital sex and pregnant brides had always existed. However, officially, public codes of respectability had held that marriage was to precede childbearing. Now, that sequence was being scrambled, and amongst the many Americans panicking about it were the men who had long enjoyed relatively unchallenged control of politics.

Two years after Quayle’s speech, Pennsylvania senate candidate Rick Santorum gave a speech again emphasizing the link between unmarried motherhood and social chaos, claiming that “We are seeing the fabric of this country fall apart, and it’s falling apart because of single moms.” In 1994, Jeb Bush, son of former president George H. W. Bush, then running for governor in Florida, said that women on welfare “should be able to get their life together and find a husband” and, soon after, published a book in which he argued that the reason young women have babies outside of wedlock is because “there is no longer a stigma attached to this behavior,” suggesting that maybe the stigma should return.

In 1993, Bill Clinton appointed Joycelyn Elders, an outspoken advocate of humane drug laws and abortion rights, as Surgeon General of the United States. The following year, at a United Nations conference on AIDS, Elders caused a scandal by voicing her support of teaching masturbation as part of sex education. It was a perfectly sane message, especially in the context of the AIDS epidemic. But so freighted was Elders’s simple advocacy of independent sexual pleasure, achievable without a partner and with no chance of procreation, that the president who had appointed her asked her to resign.

It was a fraught period, Anita Hill told me in 2013, in which some Americans were “still trying to hold on to the idea that we lived in the 1950s, this Leave It to Beaver world.” This imagined white universe, in which sex was hetero and always procreative and women were wives and mothers who lived in middle-class comfort and embraced designated gender roles, had “never actually existed for most women,” Hill said, but was held up as an American ideal.

Now, even in pop culture, Leave It to Beaver had given way to the irreverent Roseanne, the sitcom about a working-class nuclear family in which the eponymous heroine joked of her (loving) marriage as “like a life sentence with no hope for parole.” More broadly, nuclear families were being joined on television by a flood of images of women unbound from marriages and families altogether. Beginning in 1993, Queen Latifah anchored a group of Brooklyn roommates on FOX’s Living Single; the next year, NBC answered with the white, Manhattan version: Friends. From 1994 to 1996, journalist Candace Bushnell penned a weekly newspaper column called “Sex and the City;” it would go on to become a book and a smash HBO series.

Terri McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale, a 1992 novel about four female friends, some recently jilted, juggling the personal and the professional, remained on the bestseller list for months, and would be made into a movie. Four years later, British writer Helen Fielding published Bridget Jones’s Diary, and was credited with kicking off a new publishing genre, “chick lit,” devoted to the stories of women, whom Bridget’s best friend would, in self-parody, describe as “a pioneer generation daring to refuse to compromise in love and relying on our own economic power.”

As the millennium dawned, it was impossible to watch out for all the women who were coming to change America.
Strange Stirrings


If women slowed their rush to the altar in huge numbers starting in the 1990s, their ability to do so was built directly on political, economic, social, and sexual victories won by the previous generation, during what is commonly known as the Second Wave of the women’s movement. Several Second Wave feminists would remind me pointedly during my research for this book that my generation had far from invented contemporary habits of marital abstinence or delay; by many measures, theirs had.

And, to some degree, they’re right: Many women whose consciousness had been raised and opportunities expanded by feminism actively decided, for political and personal reasons, to postpone or forego marriage.

They didn’t do so in numbers large enough to create a demographic earthquake, to change the marrying behaviors of the masses, at least not right away. Because while its victories would transform the landscape in ways that would make it far more possible for my generation to delay marriage, the Second Wave was not built on opposition to marriage, but rather a desire to address its suffocating circumstances.

The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the Unites States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut-butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night, she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question “Is this all?”9

Is this all? Betty Friedan’s first paragraph sliced the mid-century American situation for middle-class white women to its quick: asserting that the ennui, anger, and unhappiness experienced by millions of American women was the product of the “millions of words” spilled by experts assuring women that “their role was to s...

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