After two months, my copy of Rebecca Traister’s new book is already dog-eared, wine-stained, and train-battered. All the Single Ladies is essential, careful, bold, and rigorous; it’s a warning and a celebration, and I loved it. Traister and I talked on the phone last week.
Jezebel: Your book starts with a big first line.“I always hated it when my heroines got married,” you write. You talk about Laura Ingalls Wilder, and how as soon as you look at the book cover for The First Four Years, you know her story is over now: she’s a mommy, she’s a wife. There’s Jo March, who suddenly phones it in, gets married and opens a school for boys; there’s Anne Shirley, who passes the narrative to her daughter.
I’m wondering when you noticed that marriage was the end of our heroines’ stories. As a kid, or later?
Rebecca Traister: I was four or five when my parents read the Little House books to me, so I certainly wasn’t putting together a critique of the marriage model, but I do remember being bizarrely sad when the stories ended. When I was nine or ten, I read the books again on my own, and the same sadness came back: my friends, my funny friends—they got married, and they were done with their wild adventures.
Of course, these are coming-of-age novels. Of course their stories were over when the characters came of age. But the fact that their adventures ended when they marry became what, as an adult, I understood to be a truth of female life.
Right. The true stories and the literary ones are mutually reinforcing.
That opening line was the first line that I wrote, way back in the early stages when I’d just said, “Yay! I got a book deal! I’m going to write a book!” and then stared at my empty screen for six months. The only thing I knew back then was that I wanted that to be the first line. I always hated it when my heroines got married.
I was pregnant when I got the book deal. Now, the book is done, and my daughter’s almost five, and I’m back to the Little House books, reading them to Rosie. A few months ago, we were reading By the Shores of Silver Lake, this chapter where Laura meets her cousin Lena, who’s this wild girl, and they take a horseback ride to deliver laundry. They’re riding as fast as they can; it’s the most exciting scene, so beautifully rendered. And they find the homesteader’s wife with the basket of washing, and she said—I just grabbed the book, because it’s just so stunning that this is in here:
“You must excuse the way I look,” she said. “My girl was married yesterday.”
“You mean Lizzie got married?” Lena said.
“Yes, Lizzie got married yesterday,” Lizzie’s mother said proudly. “Her pa says 13 is pretty young, but she’s got her a good man, and I say it’s better to settle down young. I was married young myself.”
It gets better. I’m reading you Little House over the phone, I’m sorry.
“Laura looked at Lena, and Lena looked at her. On the way back to camp, they did not say anything for some time. Then both spoke at once. “She was only a little older than I am,” said Laura, and Lena said. “I’m a year older than she was.” They looked at each other again, an almost scared look. Then Lena tossed her curly black head. “She’s silly! Now she can’t ever have any more good times.”
Laura said soberly, “No, she can’t play anymore now.” Even the ponies trotted gravely.
After a while, Lena said she supposed that Lizzie did not have to work any harder than before. “Anyway, now she’s doing her own work in her own house, and she’ll have babies.”
“Well,” Laura said, “I’d like my own house, and I like babies, and I wouldn’t mind the work, but I don’t want to be so responsible. I’d rather let Ma be responsible for a long time yet. Besides, I don’t want to settle down.”
[...] “May I drive now?” Laura asked. She wanted to forget about growing up.
You should see my face right now!
I watched Rosie absorb every word of this. Now, she has no historical context. For her, this could be down the street in Brooklyn, and she’s absorbing every word like a sponge. Thinking back, I don’t have a memory of this passage specifically, but I took in the message that Laura learned, and then taught us: that marriage was the end of fun.
And as you said, this is not a purely fictional narrative. In the book, you talk about having been a trio with two other girlfriends who got married at the same time; as all of you guys saw it to some degree, they’d moved on together, leaving you behind.
For a long time—after a year in which I was invited to 18 weddings—I’ve been afraid of the way marriage often stands for the point at which your life closes in, rather than looks outwards. It’s only within the last couple of years that I’ve grown up enough to understand fundamentally that A) that’s not true for everyone and B) there is no way around the question. As with kids, there’s no avoiding marriage’s cultural importance, even if you avoid the fact itself. You quote Simone de Beauvoir saying women are “either married, or have been, or plan to be, or suffer from being.” That still seems true, even as other truisms (Susan B. Anthony saying marriage either turns you into a doll or a dredge, depending on your husband’s wealth) fade (slightly) from relevance.
We haven’t escaped the idea that marriage remains the organizing principle of female adult life. But, we are certainly complicating the idea, which means we have to account for the lingering pressure and stigma.
And so, one of the interesting things that’s happened coterminously with the decline in marriage rate is the rise of the wedding industrial complex and the fetishization of marriage as the signal achievement of female life. That’s happened even as women have been marrying less and less, and for a couple of reasons. One, the economic strata of women who still most consistently marry are the wealthiest women: you have a whole industry that’s built up around selling them very expensive weddings, and this industry now crosses classes. There’s a diffuse but very strong pressure to correct women’s move away from marriage by fetishizing it.
This, in turn, is possible in part because marriage is no longer the thing that kicks off a woman’s adult life. As sociologists put it, marriage is now a capstone event instead. It’s the thing you do when your life is in shape, when you have the right amount of money—and particularly in middle and lower-income communities, when you know you have the right partner, and in many cases, when you already have a kid. Marriage is popularly a sign that your life is in order, which contributes to this renewed positioning of marriage as aspirational.
Right. It’s the fairytale narrative run through a late-capitalist filter. You make your money, you formalize your ambitions, and then you still get rewarded with the kiss and the ring.
Despite all this, women are still not marrying at the same rate they were. You can bombard women with messages that they should be aiming for this; that they should be doing that. But you know what? They’re still not doing it. You might be able to make them feel bad about it—but this mass behavior no longer applies.
Pretty good proof that marriage has historically been awful for us.
And I’m not saying there won’t be a countermovement. But so far, even with all the fetishization of marriage, with all of the pressure being applied by conservative politicians claiming that the cure for poverty is marriage—women still seem to be happy to stay single for longer, even if they’re being bombarded and, in many cases, tortured by this kind of messaging.
They still seem to be acting in what they feel to be their best interest, which is not marrying unless it makes sense to them and in their lives. And when they are marrying, they are remaking this institution into something better by acting like their lives have value outside of it.
Right. Marriage, under these terms, is better. In Single Ladies, you talk about this new kind of conflict marriage brings up: you get into a serious relationship, let’s say in your late 20s, and then all of a sudden you’re having to make room for an actually stable, fulfilling, complicated thing in a way that 19th century women didn’t have to. Your friendships are legitimately disrupted, your story is maybe hijacked—but for good, new reasons. We have to make room for a person in a way we wouldn’t if we were getting married to find a provider, or to have a father for a child.
That was certainly my experience. I was shocked by it, as someone that had always been single. In college I was single, really not even having flings, and I was in and out of a relationship in my early to mid-20s that was not particularly replenishing or stabilizing, and then after that, I was really single. I lived like a nun. I often wished I hadn’t, but it’s just my temperament and my chemistry.
Because of that, one of the things that I became convinced of in my late 20s, early 30s, was that I would have a really hard time making room for a partner. When I went on dates with people and they called me too much, it was truly like, “Get out. I don’t have room for you.” My life was really full; it was already complicated; it wasn’t perfect, it was full of loneliness and frustration, but it was very much a valid life. But of course I wanted to fall in love, too, so I was mad at myself for this. My friends were like, “Rebecca, you’ve got to open up a little bit more. You are getting too set in your weird single ways.”
But in a way, the fullness of my life was a prophylactic against relationships that I probably shouldn’t have been in. When people came in who probably weren’t right for me, it was like, “Oh, I’m sorry. I don’t have time for you.” Then when somebody came in who was right for me, I was like, “Oh, I have all the time in the world.”
So that relationship did then become competitive to my friendships. I had been married to my friends for years and years; these were my full, domestic, social, romantic partnerships. The things we associate with spousal relationships are often carried out by our friends, especially on the other side of marriage, because there is another side of marriage for a lot of people—whether through divorce, separation, or death. We have all the recognition in the world for spouses; we have no recognition for the friendships that are like partnerships through all, or a significant part, of our lives.
And, the other part that you were mentioning is that: yes, marriage changes if you don’t just need a warm body and a paycheck. If you can get your own paycheck—if you can have a baby on your own—if you can have a sex life...
If you can have credit, and if you can have a job that isn’t taking care of people! I cannot imagine my life without any of these things.
The Equal Opportunity Credit Act was in 1974.
It’s absolutely fucking insane.
Marital rape was legal into the ‘90s! The notion was upheld, all the way into the ‘90s, that you belong to your husband, that you have no sexual rights.
Work and money seems crucial in this change, and I loved how you wrote about work. We spend a lot of time talking about how work is exploitative, which it is, and how it’s increasingly strenuous and punishing, which it is. But we rarely talk about how—as with marriage—the structurally awful parts exist alongside the good. You write:
“A job may very well love you back. It may sustain and support you, buoy your spirits and engage your mind, as the best romantic partner would, and far more effectively than a subpar spouse might. In work, it is possible to find commitment, attachment, chemistry and connection.”
Embarrassingly, I loved that.
There are a couple levels of this issue. On the one hand, when you talk about people who are pursuing rewarding careers, you’re often talking about an extremely privileged set of people who enjoy economic stability while doing something that they love. I don’t want to discount that experience, or the way the content of work can offer all kinds of rewards.
But I would also argue that work itself provides similar rewards: that the ability for women to pursue economic independence in the world can be rewarding even when the content of the job may not. It is an enormously rewarding possibility for women, to earn their own money, to support themselves, to not having to be dependent on fathers, on husbands. It is rewarding to meet people, to have colleagues, to be in the public world.
Of course, as you say, lots of people are terribly overworked, and our culture of work is broken and abusive. Of course it is a moral and practical imperative to raise the minimum wage and address the pay inequalities across fields. Historically, women’s professions—nursing and teaching—have been undervalued, and still are: take home health aides, a population that contains mostly women, and women of color. If you look at the incredibly exciting paid sick days legislation that was passed in California a couple years ago, it excludes home health aides. Certainly that’s working on racial and gendered lines.
But we accept this truism that there’s nothing more rewarding than your family without acknowledging: work can be rewarding too. You can have chemistry with your job. You can have chemistry with your coworkers. You can have jobs that keep you up all night thinking about them all the time. Work has the power to satisfy, and organize, and motivate, and reward women. We just don’t give it the credit that we knee-jerk give to wifeliness, and motherhood.
Yeah. There’s this part where you’re discussing so-called hookup culture, and you talk to a college student who very matter-of-factly is like, “I don’t want to be married, it’ll hurt my career if I settle down.” There’s also the fact that college-educated women who stay unmarried till their 30s will earn $18K more on average than if they married earlier.
This reminded me of a part where you wrote that single women pave the way for working women, as well as a theme that runs throughout Single Ladies—that what’s seen as a liberation in rich women and white women is seen as a pathology in poor women and women of color.
There is such stark difference in terms of resources that this country offers its wealthy and its poor, which then in turn leads to a stark difference in opportunity and possibility. Doors that are open for women in high-earning strata in the United States are totally closed to women in low income strata.
And so, when people rail against women who are working, or who are unmarried, there are two directions. To the higher-earning women, it’s, “You’re spoiled, selfish, silly, brunching, Sex and the City characters.” To low-income women, it’s, “You are poor victims making choices that are irrational.” Even when people look at unmarried women in middle and working classes and don’t intend to be negative about it, the tendency is to cast them as victims.
Which isn’t to say that women in these circumstances are not worse off because of economic equality—it’s not wrong to point out the disadvantages that low-income women face.
Right, but like you say, it’s money, not marriage, that’s the cure.
The thing that is too little acknowledged is that unmarried women who are struggling are—even though they have many fewer resources to work with—very conscious in their choices about marriage and family formation. We too often treat poor women and rich women as if they’re different species. In fact, they’re motivated by very similar impulses: acting in response to the possibilities that are in front of them, wanting to fill their lives with things that offer reward, that give them motivation.
For poor women who don’t have doors open to graduate schools and rewarding careers and brunches—in many cases, they have kids. They have them single and young for a whole host of very rational reasons. Kids give them order, and drive, and ambition, and love, and fulfillment, and family. Those are the same things that wealthy women are seeking out. It’s just that wealthy women have 45 doors open to them.
We also don’t talk very often about how the “liberation” of rich, white women often sits on the backs of poor and non-white women.
Right. Poor women, women of color, have been working outside the home for ages, out of necessity. When the behavior is adopted by privileged, predominantly white women, it’s like, “Oh, women in the workforce! It’s a feminist revolution!” It becomes legible as liberation, when it’s a behavior pioneered by women who are still regarded as victims because of it.
The same is true for not marrying. The contemporary wave of not marrying perhaps started in the post-war years when white middle-class women were being nudged, often by the government, out of the workforce and out of colleges where they’d gone at the beginning of the 20th century. They were being shoved into what we now know as the Norman Rockwell hell of the suburbs. It was a life with a lot of resources, but it was stifling.
At the same time, the way that domesticity was being built—the way these suburbs were physically constructed—was cutting off women of color from housing, job opportunities, transportation, education. The GI Bill did not serve black returning soldiers the way that it served white returning soldiers, and this created an economic condition where marriage started to make less sense for black women.
That’s how you get to a point where Betty Friedan writes The Feminist Mystique as the great, white, middle-class eruption for the domestic sarcophagus in 1963, and, coterminously, you have the Moynihan Report, which diagnoses black women as this pathological center of economic hardship for black communities. And that pathologizing that has remained intact through Reagan, throughout welfare reform.
Single Ladies is so good at consistently untangling what behaviors are evidence of a problem, and what behaviors are evidence of the solution to that problem—what’s established out of necessity, and when necessity and liberation overlap. The one hard and fast throughline, I thought, was that any time there’s been either a need or an opportunity for women to be able to act in their economic self-interest, we do it.
I read this collection of academic essays on early modern Europe in researching this book, and look, to paraphrase it badly: when a lace factory would open up in rural France, women from all the farms would rush to go to the lace factory so that they could earn some wages and not have to get married right away. They were like Laura Ingalls, at 13, wanting to be free.
And this gets reinterpreted—as in the blowback to the Obama “Life of Julia” ad—as women wanting a hubby state, which is true inasmuch as it’s also true that men have enjoyed a free, invisible wifey state for essentially forever.
It’s true that, now, with stagnant wages and pressed industries, everyone needs more support than is available. You write:
“Marriage may be a historically constricting institution, but it’s also provided a system for divvying up life’s work, admittedly often on unequal terms: You do the earning, I’ll do the cleaning. But when we do all the earning and all the cleaning ourselves—and then earn and clean and earn and clean and earn and clean some more, by the time we hit midlife, we are beat.”
It’s not fair for anybody. It’s not fair for single people that the only acceptable times to back off work and prioritize yourself are around marriage and kids; it’s not fair that women are only celebrated when they are about to devote themselves to a spouse or a family.
We need to basically reimagine our citizenry. And I know I’m making a wish list—a higher minimum wage, a more robust welfare state. None of it is immediately realistic.
But that difficulty points to the fact that we are really dealing with a significant reorganization of the nation. Our schools, our government, our schedules, our tax breaks, our housing policy—all of it was designed with one typical unit of citizenry, which is the married unit. (Interestingly, all these things accommodated single men. People may have looked at you askance, but the world made room for you. You could still earn.)
So what we need is very daunting: we need a top-to-bottom rethinking of how all of our structures are built, and around what. I do think that the understanding of this need is one of the reasons that we’re seeing a leftward shift towards—even if we don’t know this is what we’re aiming for—a more socially democratic system, one that better supports independent individuals, whether they are men or women.
The last time we talked, you said something that stuck with me. I was worrying about the way that individual narcissism can pass as leftist solidarity—which is something I think about mostly as it relates to women, because of my job—and you said, “Do not worry about overcorrection. Do not worry about selfishness. Don’t forget that the whole story of women, for as long as anyone can remember, is being told too much, not yet, do it perfectly or don’t do it at all.”
You said that the real thing to fear is the backlash that’s inevitable to today’s moment—particularly under a Clinton presidency. You said, never ever fear that women will claim too much.
Women are not going to start claiming too much. Women are just getting closer to claiming something closer to their share. What looks like overreach is simply reach.
Any time that a woman acts in her own interest or in the interest of her gender, she is accused of selfishness. Look, even, at the language of “having it all,” which is my most loathed phrase for a million reasons, namely that it’s a cliché. But it’s a perfect example of what we’re talking about here. “Having it all” has been the default state of male life.
But when women make any kind of move towards having a full life that has many dimensions in many different directions, it gets framed as an issue of greedy acquisition. Every move toward equality for women has always been framed as narcissism, self-interest, vanity, self-regard, piggishness.
I don’t want to get into a whole thing about defending Hillary Clinton, but, you know: we’ve never had a woman president, and now, we’ve got one lady who’s kind of close. She is constantly talked about as a “queen,” that she was “coronated,” that she’s acting like she’s entitled to the presidency, and anyone who supports her is acting out of vain self-interest. We only want to see our own images, our own bourgeois images reflected in Hillary. As you know, that’s a lot of the stuff that you’ve been hearing from the left.
Well, and I think that idea is getting applied to both the “female Bernie voter” and the “female Hillary voter.” The critique of both of them, magnificently, is that they’re self-interested and incorrectly so—that they’re both imagining the wrong way towards the same goal.
Right. With young women who support Bernie, it’s, “You’re naïve. You think you’re just going to get free college.” No, they don’t! Listen, the smallest move a woman makes is always going to be cast as going too far, so just fuck it.
All the Single Ladies is available for purchase now.
Images courtesy of Simon & Schuster/Rebecca Traister