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

All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation
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Published: 3/1/2016
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.

Book Summary - All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation by Rebecca Traister

Key Insights

The institution of marriage has changed over time. For women, marriage is becoming more of a choice than before. And women are choosing to either wait to get married or not get married at all.

Still, being a single woman is not easy. People look at unmarried women with suspicion and some unmarried women struggle financially. But things are getting better.

Legal and social changes have made it easier to be an unmarried woman. There is more progress needed, especially for certain racial and socioeconomic groups. But, overall, now is the best time yet to be a single woman.

Key Points

Marriage is changing.

More than ever before, women are choosing not to get married or delaying marriage until they are older. Despite claims that millennials are killing the institution of marriage, young people are not avoiding marriage entirely. Instead, they are delaying until they have some professional and financial security.

Traditional roles within marriages are also changing. Same-sex marriages show that gender does not need to determine who is responsible for what in a household. A 2014 survey from the University of Texas found that more people valued sharing the burdens of childcare and the home equally. Also, Pew surveys from 1997 and 2013 showed that fewer people find it challenging to have wives that work.

Women had to get married because single women didn’t have rights.

If you were a woman in the 17th century, you could not legally own any property. The only exception was a widow. So, if you wanted to own anything, you had to get married and wait for your husband to die.

It was possible for a woman to remain unmarried. But they had to rely on family to take care of them. An unmarried woman could not be wholly independent.

Property laws weren’t the only things against single women. Society viewed unmarried women poorly. They were even nicknamed thornbacks, which are fish with little flesh and a barbed tail.

Realistically, women needed to get married for better treatment by society and the legal system.

Societal changes made being an unmarried woman (relatively) easier.

During the Revolutionary War, women had control over businesses and property while the men were off fighting. At the same time, American women started learning about, discussing, and debating feminist ideas inspired by the French.

Before industrialization, women were expected to get married and have lots of children. All those hands were needed to work on farms, prepare food, make household goods, and to complete chores.

Economic and social changes in the United States gave women more opportunities. By the middle of the nineteenth century, women were needed for jobs like nursing and teaching.

By this time, there were more women who remained single their entire lives. For example, author Louisa May Alcott never married and supported herself with different jobs before publishing Little Women. Another lifelong single woman was Susan B. Anthony, who fought for women’s rights and spoke out about issues with marriage.

World War II created another opportunity for more women to enter the workforce. With the men away, women stepped into new roles. This showed that women could do more outside of the home even after the war ended.

Changes during the 20th century gave single women more legal rights.

It used to be illegal for unmarried women to buy contraception. Then, an activist for reproductive rights named Bill Baird took the issue to the Supreme Court. Eisenstadt v. Baird gave single women access to contraception.

In Eisenstadt v. Baird, Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan even went beyond contraception and commented that marriage was made up of two individuals. This acknowledged a woman as more than just her husband’s property.

Access to contraception was just the beginning. The following year, Roe v. Wade made abortion legal. Women no longer had to get married just because they got pregnant accidentally. A year after that, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act allowed women to have mortgages and credit cards on their own.

These new legal rights empowered women to take control of their finances and their bodies.

People don’t always trust unmarried women.

Even with some changes making it easier for women to choose to remain single, unmarried women may be treated as if there’s something wrong with them.

In 1991, law professor Anita Hill testified before a Senate Committee considering the nomination of Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court. Thomas had allegedly sexually harassed Hill when she worked for him years before.

Hill’s status as a single woman was used to dismiss her claims. Supporters of Thomas said that this showed she could not interact with men in a healthy way and was deluded into thinking powerful men were attracted to her. The Senate Judiciary Committee, made up entirely of men, allowed Thomas to take a seat at the highest court in the nation.

Choosing not to get married often means choosing not to have children, which adds to the stigma for single women. Some people consider it selfish to not have children. Pope Francis claimed it was selfish during a 2015 speech. Surveys have shown an increase in the belief that childless women are not good for society, despite an overall higher willingness to accept childless adults.

Marriage is not always a good or healthy thing for women.

Assumptions that marriage is the best thing for women are wrong. A lot depends on the individuals in the relationship. In many cases, women can benefit from avoiding or delaying marriage.

Some studies claim that marriage makes people healthier. However, there are other factors at play. It could be that healthier people are the ones that get married, not that marriage is causing them to be healthy.

The impact of marriage on health and well-being depends on the quality of the marriage. Unhappy couples and divorces can harm health. However, people that have a chronic or serious illness can have better outcomes if they have the support of a partner.

Professionally, being married is more beneficial to men than women. Married men get promoted faster than unmarried men. Married women get promoted slower than unmarried women.

There is a perception that a family is distracting to women at work. When Janet Napolitano was nominated to lead the Department of Homeland Security, some pointed to her status as a single woman as making her right for the job.

Women who want careers and families can put off getting married.

It is challenging for women to ascend in their careers while also being wives and mothers. Traditionally, women are expected to be caregivers and not thought of as ambitious in their own rights. But women may want to have both a career and a family.

Delaying marriage gives women time to get education and establish themselves professionally. They have time to develop and be more selective about their husbands. When they choose marriage, it can be with someone who is a good partner to continue supporting their careers.

Trying to “have it all” may create a lot of pressure. Barbara Walters shared that her career required making personal and family sacrifices. Delaying marriage and children may alleviate some of that pressure, especially during the early part of a woman’s career.

Women don’t need to get married unless they want to.

Platonic friendships give single women love and support. Friends can help encourage you, help you recover from hardship, share in activities and interests, and just generally keep you from feeling lonely. These are major components of a marriage that unmarried women are able to get without walking down the aisle.

Of course, these platonic relationships do not include sex. But single women can be sexually active without marriage. Sexually liberated women may be viewed as dangerous or reckless, but it just means women are able to get what men have long been able to. The physical aspects of a relationship without emotional commitment unless that’s what everyone really wants.

Developments in reproductive technology can also impact if or when a woman gets married. Women can now get pregnant later in life. They also have more freedom to have biological children without finding a male partner. If they can afford them, these medical advances create even more options for single women.

Being single is harder for minorities and women from lower socioeconomic groups.

About half of the people in America that have to survive on minimum wage are unmarried women, but marriage doesn’t necessarily make it better. There are more than 15 million married people that live close to or below the poverty line.

It is no surprise that there is a gender pay gap. There is also a racial pay gap. So, a woman on her own may already have financial struggles because she is not making what her male counterparts make. If she is a non-white woman, she would likely be making even less. This makes it even harder to remain unmarried even if that is what you really want.

Marriage doesn’t solve financial problems, but it may feel easier to struggle with someone than on your own. Better social services and programs that offer opportunities to women of all backgrounds would help women be able to choose marriage only if they really want it.

The Main Take-away

Being single can be hard, but it can also mean freedom, empowerment, and the opportunity to live life on your own terms. Now is the best time yet to be an unmarried woman. There is no pressure to get married unless it is the right person and the right time. Women are able to develop careers, enjoy friendships, have sex, and be independent. Marriage isn’t a requirement or something you avoid, women have the right to choose what is best for them.

About the Author

Rebecca Traister is a journalist and writer focused on women’s issues. Working for New York magazine and Elle magazine, Traister often comments on feminism. Her essays on the media industry that appeared in Salon and The New York Times won her a journalism award. All the Single Ladies is her second book. Her first book, which covered the impact of Hillary Clinton’s first presidential campaign, was named a Notable Book of 2010.

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