All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister

All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister

All the Single Ladies
by Rebecca Traister
A nuanced investigation into the sexual, economic, and emotional lives of women in America. In a provocative, groundbreaking work, National Magazine Award finalist Rebecca Traister, “the most brilliant voice on feminism in the country” (Anne Lamott), traces the history of unmarried and late-married women in America who, through social, political, and economic means, have radically shaped our nation.

In 2009, the award-winning journalist Rebecca Traister started All the Single Ladies—a book she thought would be a work of contemporary journalism—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 wed by age twenty-nine, compared to nearly sixty percent in 1960. The Population Reference Bureau calls it a “dramatic reversal.” All the Single Ladies is a remarkable portrait of contemporary American life and how we got here, through the lens of the single American woman. Covering class, race, sexual orientation, and filled with vivid anecdotes from fascinating contemporary and historical figures, All the Single Ladies is destined to be a classic work of social history and journalism. Exhaustively researched, brilliantly balanced, and told with Traister’s signature wit and insight, this book should be shelved alongside Gail Collins’s When Everything Changed.


  • Before picking this book up, I read a lot of articles about it and interviews with the author. When perusing the comments sections of these articles, the criticisms that I've read of unmarried young women tend to fall into one of three camps: they are selfish leaches (the assumption here being that they're all single mothers on welfare); they're narcissistic and immature; or they’re man-hating feminists out to destroy the fabric of society.

These assumptions about single women are so frustrating and often off-the-mark, yet they remain deeply ingrained in many parts of our culture. But it cannot be denied that more women over the age of 18 are choosing to delay marriage or to forgo it entirely than ever before. Traister's goal here is to examine the reasons for this trend, as well as how the trend affects not just women – economically, socially, psychologically – but also men and society as a whole. It's fascinating, well-researched, and broad. It was so wonderfully validating to me, even (and maybe especially) as a 31 year-old woman who only recently got married. I seriously can't remember the last time that I marked up a book so much. It's the book I was looking for last year when I picked up Spinster.
This is a topic that I have lots of capital-F Feelings about. I’ve talked about this around here before, but the best advice I’ve ever received in my life was when my mother told me to wait until I was 30 to get married. She told me to live on my own first and make sure I did the things I wanted to do before settling down. I didn’t consciously decide to wait until I was 30, life just kind of worked out that way, but it was absolutely the right thing for me and I am so glad it worked out that way.

Until I was 25, I thought I was going to marry the guy I’d been dating since high school. We broke up for a lot of reasons, but one of the biggest was that I moved away for grad school and it gradually became obvious that it would not be easy to bring our visions for our lives together in a way that made sense. I was also realizing that I wasn’t experiencing life as fully as I wanted to because I was trying to make that relationship work. I’d never been in another relationship, I was just taking for granted that this one was the right one for me. It didn’t make sense to sacrifice so much for something I was just assuming was right.

By the time I did get married, I’d been around the block enough times to realize that could say with a great deal of certainty that, yes, my husband does actually have all the qualities that I want and need in a husband. I also believe that our relationship is significantly healthier because I took some time to focus on myself. I wasn’t always happy when I was single and I wasn’t always secure, but I learned how to embrace the things I liked about myself and make them shine, how to distinguish between balance and sacrifice, and how to function without feeling like I was dependent on someone else. Those are all things that make me a better person and a better wife, but I never would have learned them if I had stayed in that one relationship.

So I could probably write a review as long as this book itself sharing my many (many, many, many) thoughts on the topic of marriage in America, but to keep this from spiraling out of control, let me just say that the thing that frustrates me the most about those comment section criticisms is that they almost always throw the burden onto the women’s shoulders. Women are narcissistic or selfish if they don’t want to get married, but you rarely hear the same said of men. They just haven’t found a good woman yet. Single mothers are labelled morally deficient sluts setting bad examples for their children, but that ignores the roles that the absent fathers play in the women’s single status—it’s not always the woman’s decision to be a single mother, for any number of reasons, and, when it is her decision, it might be the better alternative to staying with an abusive or unreliable guy (and if you’re going to argue that they shouldn’t have gotten pregnant by an abusive or unreliable guy in the first place, let’s have a conversation about access to birth control). Finally, and perhaps most frustrating: women are the ones accused of destroying society when they’re not married. Not only does this imply that women are supposed to be the moral shepherds for men, it suggests that marriage is the only way to be moral or the only way to contribute to society.
There’s a quote in this book from Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, in which he expressed his concern for women who were putting off marriage and motherhood until their late thirties or forties, saying that they were going to “miss so much of life.” Which made me want to find a time machine just to punch that man in the face. Why is it so hard to wrap the conservative Christian brain around the idea that A) there’s more to life for some women than just marriage and motherhood, B) waiting to pursue those things means that you get the chance to experience the other stuff first, and C) experiencing those other things might actually make you a better partner and a better parent in the end? I'm sorry, Mitt, but if I'd gotten married to that guy I would have ultimately spent the rest of my life in the same small town and never experienced a zillion different things that I got to do instead. I wouldn't have traveled, found a career path outside of random office drone, or met people who are different from the same white, small-town Protestants that populated my high school. I probably wouldn't have learned how to better manage my budget or fix a broken showerhead or take care of myself when I am sick.

Personal growth isn't selfish. Learning to take care of yourself on your own isn't selfish. It's healthy and it's important and it's wonderful. And it's all stuff that I learned to do because I was single. I genuinely don't think I'd have gotten there if I was still focusing on that relationship.

There’s another side to the conversation here, which Traister does address to some extent: marriage among lower income women is declining, and it’s doing so for different reasons than among middle- or upper-class women. Ironically, it’s low-income women who would perhaps benefit the most, economically speaking, from a marriage that provides two incomes. I do think that this book might have benefited from even more examination of that subject and how the concept of marriage can be adjusted to make it a little more favorable towards women in poverty. Traister also spends some time looking at trends among women of color but in general, I do feel like she puts most of her emphasis on middle-class white women. (She seems to assume that many of single millennials felt primarily inspired by Sex and the City, an assumption that bothers me a bit as I was never a fan of the series. I almost wish she’d looked a little more at the representations of marriage-vs-singledom and feminism in other media outlets, too)

This book isn’t necessarily a judgement on the institution of marriage. Traister isn’t arguing in favor of not getting married—she’s actually married, though she did so later in life. She’s filled her book with anecdotes from women from many walks of life who have different approaches to marriage and how it may or may not fit into their lives. This may not provide a lot of new material for women who’ve read up on the many trend pieces and articles written on this topic over the last decade, but this is among the first books to cohesively and comprehensively tie all those trend pieces together in one place. Reading it was a great experience.

  • 4 high stars. I started listening to non fiction audiobooks about two years ago, and I continue to be blown away by the high quality of so many books. All the Single Ladies falls into that camp. A mixture of history, sociology, interviews and autobiography, All the Single Ladies makes an argument for the positive aspects of women postponing marriage or not marrying at all. In the end, Traister argues that there should not be one model for women to follow in their life trajectory. And there should be more support for those who don't follow conventional paths. While this may seem like a truism, what makes All the Single Ladies interesting are all the disparate strands of information and insight that Traister pulls together.

Oddly, while I don't fit her topic particularly well, the message really spoke to me. My husband and I married relatively young and before we had any idea what our work lives held in store. But I could still relate to what Traister had to say because what I did feel was compelled to avoid some of society's expectations about how our relationship and family life were meant to work. This has worked for us, but I recognize that I'm lucky. I've seen many female friends and colleagues over the years who have borne the brunt of achieving "work-life" balance while their male partners advanced unimpeded in their careers and unfrazzled in their home life.

This is a pretty big digression. But I think it would be hard for most women to read All the Single Ladies without reflecting on their own lives, and the lives of their friends, mothers, sisters and daughters. A powerful and interesting read. Thank you to Goodreads friend Julie for recommending this one when I asked her for suggestions for contemporary feminist writings. Highly recommend for anyone on a similar quest.

  • This is my favorite nonfiction book I read in 2016. It's just fantastic. It has tremendous breadth and depth of historical and social research, and I also liked how Rebecca Traister included examples from both pop culture and the personal experiences of her and her friends.

I listened to this on audio, but I loved this book so much I want to get my own copy and mark my favorite quotes. Highly recommended to anyone interested in the history of the women's movement, or those wanting to read more about modern social changes.

Favorite Quote
"The vast increase in the number of single women is to be celebrated not because singleness is in and of itself a better or more desirable state than coupledom. The revolution is in the expansion of options, the lifting of the imperative that for centuries hustled nearly all (non-enslaved) women, regardless of their individual desires, ambitions, circumstances, or the quality of available matches, down a single highway toward heterosexual marriage and motherhood. There are now an infinite number of alternative routes open; they wind around combinations of love, sex, partnership, parenthood, work, and friendship, at different speeds. Single female life is not prescription, but its opposite: liberation."

  • I have so many splendid female friends, and quite a few of them have felt incomplete without a boyfriend. Despite their immense amounts of compassion, intelligence, and ambition, society floods them with the message that they are incomplete without a male romantic partner in their lives. Thus, I loved Rebecca Traister's All the Single Ladies because she drives home the point that many women live without male partners and achieve long-lasting success and happiness. 
Using a compelling mixture of statistics, interviews, and critical analysis, she shows how single women have changed the United States for the better by pioneering social change in the realms of reproductive justice, workplace gender equality, and much more. With a warm and intelligent writing style, she conveys that women are so much more than their relationships with men, and that by staying single or marrying later, they can help create a more just world as well as higher-quality relationships with their friends, family members, romantic partners, communities, and themselves. One of the many quotes I enjoyed that articulates how society often conceptualizes single women:

"When people call single women selfish for the act of tending to themselves, it's important to remember that the very acknowledgement that women have selves that exist independently of others, and especially independent of husbands and children, is revolutionary. A true age of female selfishness, in which women recognized and prioritized their own drives to the same degree to which they have always been trained to tend to the needs of all others might, in fact, be an enlightened corrective to centuries of self-sacrifice."

I appreciate that Traister wrote this book, as single women endure so much stigma in society because we assume that they want a male partner or we think less of them when they do not have a man. Traister raises several incisive points to combat these ignorant and outdated notions, such as how many people in romantic relationships and marriages actually feel unhappy, but we assume the opposite because of how society glorifies romance. Furthermore, the increasing amount of single women reflects their rising economic and political power, as they can create fulfilling lives for themselves instead of depending on men as the patriarchy once forced them to. Traister also does a solid job of framing her commentary in an intersectional way, by highlighting how black women and poor women suffer even more from institutions that only value women who have male partners. One quote that captures how white people benefit from the exploitation of women of color:

"The nation's history has included many iterations of the privileged white co-option of black, and often poor, habits and behaviors, which, when performed by white populations, have drawn different kinds of attention. When white flappers danced to black jazz beats, they were culture-shifting rebels; when, in the mid-sixties, white women busted out of their domestic sarcophagi and marched back into workforces in which poor and black women had never stopped toiling, when Betty Friedan echoed Sadie Alexander by suggesting that work would be beneficial for both women and their families, that was when the revolution of Second Wave feminism was upon us. It has long been the replicative behaviors or perspectives of white women - and not the original shifts pioneered by poor women and women of color - that make people sit up and take notice and that sometimes become discernible as liberation."

Overall, a fantastic book and the best work of nonfiction I have read in 2017 so far. I would love to read a follow-up book about how men's emotional constipation contributes to the rise of single women and how men can learn to get in touch with their emotions, so that they can provide nurturing and caring, essential components of any relationship. Perhaps I will write this book myself, as Trainer and other amazing female authors have women covered. I would recommend All the Single Ladies to those who want to learn about the joys and revolutions experienced and created by unmarried women, an important demographic in contemporary society.

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