Thursday, August 24, 2017

All the Single Ladies, by Rebecca Traister

Today I'm looking at a book that happened to catch my eye at the library, All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation. I wasn't sure what it was about but I thought it would be something interesting to look at. In this book Traister chronicles the growth of single women as a demographic in the United States, especially within the past three decades. In many cases this is because women are choosing to forgo marriage for a variety of reasons, although not necessarily keeping them from having children. And on the surface it looks like the situation is improving for single women in the United States, but as Traister digs deeper it reveals there are a lot of issues and women are the targets of backlashes by conservative establishments.

The sources for this book are rather eclectic. Partly it's an autobiography of the author, talking about her own experiences, as well as the experiences of her close friends and family. Partly it's made from interviews with other contemporary women from various walks of life, and partly it draws upon a variety of historical sources, touching on the life of women from the colonial era to the present. Because the selection is so wide, I don't feel like there's just one narrative that Traister presents. And truly, the story of women in America is not a single narrative, but many narratives based on race and class. What was true for white upper and middle class women was not true for working class whites or the disproportionately poor non-white populations in the United States. And in an era of increasing income disparity, the experiences of upper class highly educated white women is very different from the experiences of working class women with only a high school, or sometimes even less, education.

Because of the diffuse sources of the book, which are highly anecdotal, I'm not sure if this book is really good as a source of information for the single woman's experience. There are statistics and mapping of general trends, including an increase in the average marriage age while the average age of first birth has now gone below the marriage age. Which means more women are having babies without getting married first. There are a variety of reasons for this, whether women who don't want their marriage to end in divorce or women who just don't see the economic benefit to getting married. In addition, women are having on average less children, leading to a declining birth rate in the United States, at least compared the the post-war Baby Boom which Traister argues is an aberration and should not be utilized as a baseline for accurate statistics in the United States.

All of this has led to some conservatives going into a full-blown panic and accusing the decline of America on unwed mothers. Again and again, conservatives argue that people need to get married before they have children, a woman's place is as a wife and mother in the home, and she should produce lots of babies. Conservatives also argue strongly against the use of contraceptives or abortion, seeking to restrict women's reproductive rights. But as Traister counters, there are considerable problems with this viewpoint. First it removes women's autonomy and places them in an economically dependent state on men. Second, it's unrealistic, especially with income stagnation for many American workers. And for many women who fear abusive or destructive relationships, marriage and the potential for painful divorce does not make an appealing future. These women are not the ''welfare queens'' of Reagan-era rhetoric, but working women who are choosing to remain single for a variety of reasons.

Overall I think this book is informative but I don't know if it does a great job of showing the larger picture. There are a lot of interesting stories about people in this book and how culture tries to force women into the box of heterosexual marriage, but because some of the evidence is so anecdotal I don't know how well it works on the macro scale. But it definitely does a good job of showing the complexity and diversity of life for American women in the current era.

- Kalpar

No comments:

Post a Comment