“In 1960, 59 percent of American adults between 18 and 29 were married; in 2011, it was just 20 percent,” journalist Rebecca Traister writes in her New York Times bestseller All The Single Ladies.
Traister, who’s a writer at large for New York magazine and a contributing editor at Elle, has long brought her feminist perspective to her writing about women in politics and pop culture. In All the Single Ladies, she masterfully weaves history, present-day interviews, and personal anecdotes to tell the nuanced story about the rise of single women and their profound effect on our society.
Throughout history, Traister argues, unmarried women have sparked social change, specifically through the temperance, suffrage, and labor movements. Now, as women increasingly choose to marry later or not to marry at all, they’re once again redefining the institution of marriage and the division of domestic labor. According to Traister: “… when we delay marriage, it’s not just women who become independent. It’s also men, who, like women, learn to clothe and feed themselves, to clean their homes and iron their shirts and pack their own suitcases.”
Traister, who’s a Brooklyn-based mom to two young daughters, married her husband, a public defender, at age 35. She says that her life is a “hell of a lot better” and her “marriage far more equal” than her mother’s or her grandmother’s.
We sat down with Traister to discuss how the demographic shifts surrounding female singlehood are influencing marriage, family, and feminism.
“All The Single Ladies” is a great mix of interviews, personal anecdotes, and historical narratives. What first inspired you to write the book?
Well, it was actually when I was getting married. I was 35. So many people treat marriage as the beginning of adulthood. I’m so in love with my husband; I am thrilled to have fallen in love, but I didn’t think that getting married was a pinnacle achievement. It was so not the beginning of my adulthood. I already built a career, which has taken a huge amount of my energy, driving focus, and passion. I had incredible friendships. I had a relationship with my city. I had a home. I made a full life for myself. I wanted to tell the story of how women got this way—what our lives are right now. And what the history is and what it means for the definition of families, for our social policies, for the expectations about what femininity is, what womanhood entails, what adulthood entails.
In your first book, Big Girls Don’t Cry [which investigates the 2008 presidential election’s impact on American politics, women, and feminism] you said that your mother was a feminist who “led by example.” Is the same model that you intend to use at home, or do you plan on being more vocal about feminist issues with your kids?
I don’t think instruction on thought ever works well. I just feel like I can look into the future and see them rebuking me. “I’m going to think the opposite of what you told me to think.” So aside from the results-oriented concern, you don’t want to tell them what to think. You just want to give them the information and let them decide their own. Let them follow their own processes. My mom was my example. Her career was really important to her. I saw her as a working mother and that was unusual in the neighborhood where I grew up in the 1970s and 80s. She was the breadwinner of our family. In my family, there was also a very traditional breakdown of domestic responsibilities.
It’s different in our house on a number of levels. I work, and I work a lot. It’s interesting this year in particular, when I have both been out reporting…and I’ve been on my book tour. [Rosie] seems to just be anxious that I’m doing too much work. Her father also has a really demanding job. He’s a public defender. He’s in court. She sees him going off to court. She hears him talking about his cases. I would say that her dad does more of the domestic work. She hears me talk about politics all the time. She’s interested. She asks questions about Hillary, and somebody told her that we’ve never had a woman president. [She said,] “It’s not fair. We should have a woman president.” My work leads to all kinds of conversations that are about gender and women, but kids are really interested in the stuff naturally.
As women are staying single and/or staying single longer and procreating later, how is this changing family dynamics? You imply that this is improving the institution of marriage. How so?
I think making [marriage] less important is actually good for making it stronger. I think a world in which men and women live more as equals makes for more equitable partnerships and a better distribution of labor and responsibility. I think that our willingness to be flexible about gender and power in this country, even though it often feels that we’re not, is putting us in a better situation.
I count all kinds of families being given equal weight and acknowledgement as good for human beings in their ability to thrive, love, and commit to one another. And what we need now in order to make those families stronger are the social and economic policies that support this variety of commitment, not just hetero married commitments.
How has parenting and the division of domestic responsibilities changed with this trend
of marrying later?
When you are men and women living in the world as peers, as friends, as colleagues—drinking beers together, working on projects together—you begin to acknowledge each other as peers and as equals. When you’re living out there in the world on your own and you don’t have a spouse to do some of your labor or the earning, you end up learning to do it all. So, increasingly, you get men and women who have both learned to be earners and who have learned to cook their own eggs and do their own laundry.
In the book, you cite statistics showing that when men get married and start a family, this often helps them enhance their professional standing. But, when women get married and have children, this often has the opposite effect. How can we help both men and women continue to advance in their careers after having children?
We need to mandate paternity leave and to use it to actually take care of the kids. That’s easier said than done, but it’s true. We also need to raise wages for women. Because right now, so much of the determination of who (if you’re talking about a hetero two-parent household) winds up taking more time to do the parenting depends on who’s making more money. As long we see very active [gendered] wage gaps and racialized wage gaps—what you get is a population of people who have far less economic power. And also raising wages, including the minimum wage, because two-thirds of minimum wage workers are women. We need to subsidize daycare and early childhood education. Having affordable, high-quality daycare for young children would alleviate a tremendous burden that very often still falls on women, as the people who are typically making less money.
Do you think IVF and other reproductive technologies are playing productive role in these demographic shifts ?
I think that the extension of reproductive intervention and reproductive technology by many senses is terrific and that it expands the options for women. I think we need insurance that covers reproductive technology. I love the possibilities that reproductive technologies open for more women. I just think they need to be made available and accessible to all kinds of women and not just very privileged ones.
In the appendix of All The Single Ladies, you listed ways that we can continue to make positive changes for women in society, and you mentioned that we need to come up with the idea of a “new normal” for our family structure. What would this process entail, and how would we go about creating this new normal?
It’s about rewiring all of our social and economic policies, and especially with regards to how they treat what a family unit might be in the United States. That means raising wages. It’s about reworking our economic and social policies to account for the way that families actually live in the United States right now.
What do you and your family like to do in your spare time?
We like to eat! Rosie is 5 and Bella is 16 months. We’re a tiny bit limited in terms of what we like to do in the city because they’re young. Rosie likes museums. She loves to bike in Prospect Park. My husband and I are people who love to cook, we love to eat out, and we love food. We have a whole series of restaurants where the kids love to eat, and we were determined to teach our kids how to eat in restaurants. It’s much harder than we imagined.
How can we teach our children (our girls specifically) to be independent, and how can we continue to encourage them to change the course of history?
You can’t tell them to change the course of history. A lot of it is about not telling them what their future is going to hold, right? I think that it’s about not imagining what your daughter’s or son’s lives are going to entail, or how they’re going to live, or who they’re going to love, or what kind of bond they’re going to make, or what kind of path they’re going to follow. You want to steer them away from danger, but it’s about not imposing a set of expectations, so that things stay more open to them.
To learn more about Rebecca Traister and All the Single Ladies, visit rebeccatraister.com!