Susan B. Anthony made the rounds on social media last week when the New York primaries led to her grave in Rochester being covered in “I voted” stickers. At the same time, I picked up Rebecca Traister’s new book, All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, in which Anthony happens to be a central figure.
Anthony predicted that women’s suffrage would give rise to an “epoch of single women.” And for the upcoming election her predictions seem to be valid; demographics suggest that for the first time in history, more unmarried women will be voting than married. According to Traister, this shift represents a tectonic shift in society, exemplified in the changes in careers, relationships, marriage, and family for American women.
Traister’s book began as a journalistic exposé about the ramifications of women marrying later in life. But in the process of speaking with myriads of women, her search took her to past generations as she discovered that single women have been a force for social change throughout the history of the United States. Jane Addams founded Hull House; Harriet Tubman led the abolitionist movement; Dorothy Day fought for workers' rights.
Their respective relationship statuses may have been the least important focus in the lives of these women. Still, occasionally, their legacy reflects a certain delighted solidarity in singleness. In one fiery missive to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony remarks on her long absence, inquiring to see if she is “dead or married?” Flippant comments aside though, they did not despise marriage; rather, they simply had other priorities.
Honestly, I picked up Traister’s book because there is a part of me that has begun to look around at my gorgeous, talented, hilarious, and—yes—unmarried friends in their late twenties and early thirties and wondering what is going on? I live in the buckle of the Bible Belt in a university town where phrases like “ring by spring” create a certain expectation that marriage follows soon after acquiring your diploma. My parents and grandparents went to university here, and that’s how it happened for them. When I got into graduate school and called to tell my grandparents, they thought the excitement in my voice was because I was calling to tell them I was engaged. The generational disconnect in that conversation corresponds to the “epoch” Anthony alluded to.
The narrative Traister presents of the lives of these historical unmarried women isn’t necessarily a triumphant account of what happens when women are unencumbered by husbands and children. The reality is much more nuanced than that.
Traister pauses to mourn her childhood heroes like Laura Ingalls Wilder and Anne of Green Gables who (in her opinion) often seemed to lose much of their spunk and fire once they married. The unwritten expectation that has prevailed among society is that, while marriage is the ultimate goal, it also is the denouement of a vivacious existence.
Modern women, while embracing singlehood and their individual vitality more and more, still cling to some idea of marriage and their fears about being alone. Traister’s interviews with modern women sometimes voice anxiety about things like the unanticipated loneliness of solitary travel or lack of a family as reasons why women seek a life partner.
But those fears aside, modern women are taking a different approach to marriage. For example, Traister shows how the shifting expectations on marriage have redefined the purpose of female friendship. Single women form staunch friendships that meet many emotional needs. One of the consequences of this is that when women do find a man who surpasses the incredibly high bar she has for her friendships, the romantic connection is much more intense and affects the friend group in turn. Or sometimes, its those friends alone rather than a spouse, that the woman sees as her support system with whom she can navigate life's challenges.
Traister also tackles tough questions about cultural changes in sexuality, examining everything from questions of sexual orientation, to hookup culture, to women who focus on the importance of virginity. She looks at how the sexual revolution of the sixties and medical advancements that have made "sex without strings" a reality for women have resulted in a particular lens through which we define sexuality. In one interview, one woman chose to medically eliminate the chance of pregnancy and responded that "this is how men must feel about sex!" The statement implies that, on some level, men's perceptions have defined what true sexual freedom looks like. Personally, I think there's a need to critically examine whether our liberation is actually that, or if it's still bias to a faulty standard we had to begin with. While some of the women she interviews revel in a sexually liberated lifestyle, others speak candidly about the costs of hookup culture. Ultimately, Traister leaves the question of sexuality open to interpretation, but her narrative provides a thoroughly researched look at modern opinions.
The reality presented in her book is that, yes, single women are a cultural force to be reckoned with. But it's also true that we're still grappling to navigate our traditional ideals and our female autonomy in modern times.
The Next Wave
Writing All The Single Ladies around the time of her own wedding, Traister does not dismiss the societal contributions of married women either. Rather, she examines what happens as the marriage milestone occurs later in life for American women. Women who marry now expect a higher degree of compatibility, and are often economically independent apart from their husband’s income.
My post-graduate life has definitely looked different than the women of generations past in my family. I've made two international moves, earned an advanced degree, found a job, had major eye surgery and have navigated the formation and dissolving of friendships—all without being married. Years of independent living have changed my expectations and desires of marriage.
My friends and I pursue vocations with wholehearted passion, travel because we can, move apartments and create hospitable spaces as we go, make decisions about major health issues on our own, and buy Kitchen Aid mixers years before we'll ever make a wedding registry. Sure, I go to weddings and dance until the heels of my shoes are worn off, but often I find myself standing at the edge of the dance with a cadre of fantastic single women.
It was refreshing to read Traister’s take on the contributions of single women throughout history. The book encouraged me in my path and made me grateful for the strong female friendships in my life. It prompted further thought about what my single friends and I truly want in marriage. We can be liberated women and still desire to have a husband and a family, but it’s also OK if that looks different for me than it did for my mother and grandmother.
I can’t imagine what Susan B. Anthony would think of her “epoch of single women”—probably some combination of pride and excitement with a twinge of confusion and shock. Regardless, it’s nice to know that I can take inspiration from her life and writings and continue to enjoy the company of spirited women, married and single, like her.
Photo Credit: Andreas Moulis