When Rebecca Traister decided to write a book about single women, she knew exactly how she wanted to begin:
"I always hated it when my heroines got married."
She mourns for Laura Ingalls Wilder, the happy hoyden of the Little House books who used to hop barefoot on her horse and dash across the prairie, but ended up "stationary and solidly shod, beside her husband."
Alas, Traister writes, for Anne Shirley and Jo March, resisting marriage and enjoying themselves — until they surrendered. And, oh, Jane Eyre: Reader, she married him — the guy who kept his first wife locked in the attic.
"That beginning was the beginning I knew I wanted," Traister says by phone from her home in Brooklyn. And that's the beginning that All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, published last week, has. But much of the rest of it came as a surprise to its author.
She decided to write the book five years ago, just before she got married herself. At that time, her mother, who had married at age 21 and put off a career as an educator to raise a family, was on her mind.
Traister says, "I was thinking about not only how marriage is different, but how my life was different from hers."
Traister was 35 then and had just published her first book, Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women, about the 2008 presidential campaign. A journalist and cultural critic who has written for New York magazine, Salon, Elle, the New Republic, the New York Times and other publications, she had been flourishing personally and professionally as a single woman in New York City with a strong circle of friends.
Then she met the man who would become her husband. "I was used to being single, independent, on my own," she says. "Meeting my husband and falling in love was an absolute shock to my system."
Now 40 and the mother of two, Traister has written a fascinating and deeply researched look at the rapid growth in the percentage of American women who are single — never married, divorced, widowed or in unmarried relationships, straight or gay — and the complex impact that has on our society.
The numbers tell part of the story. "In fact, in 2009, the proportion of American women who were married dropped below 50 percent," Traister writes. "Perhaps even more strikingly, the number of adults younger than 34 who had never married was up to 46 percent, rising 12 percentage points in less than a decade." The median age of first marriage for women, which hovered between 20 and 22 for a century from 1890 to 1990, is now 27.
Traister notes that now only about 20 percent of Americans are married by age 29. In 1960, that number was 60 percent. "For young women, for the first time, it is as normal to be unmarried as it is to be married, even if it doesn't always feel that way."
Traister says that at first she thought her book would focus on single women in today's world. "When I wrote the book proposal, it was definitely a proposal about a contemporary phenomenon. I thought I'd write about my generation and the generation before that who are now in their 50s. I'd make a nod to the Salem witch trials, and I'd be done in a year."
That was five years ago.
"Then I sort of opened the books," she says, and discovered "that all the witches were married." More importantly, as she researched her subject and talked to historians, sociologists and other experts, she discovered that there have been large populations of single women at other times in American history — and that those women often helped to make that history.
In the latter half of the 19th century, for example, the percentage of white single women soared. "The Civil War was incredibly deadly for American men," Traister says — some 3 million men went off to fight it and more than 600,000 of them died, resulting in legions of widows and never-married women. Before and after the war, the nation's Western expansion sent many more thousands of men (and a much smaller number of women) to the frontier. The war and the move West led to "a shortage of men, especially on the East Coast and especially for middle-class white women," Traister says.
On the other hand, after the war the rate of marriage for black women rose steeply. Under slavery, black people were not usually permitted to marry; after Emancipation, many of them did. High rates of marriage for black women — often higher than those for whites — were a trend that would continue for more than a century, until the 1970s.
Traister writes that large numbers of unmarried women in the 19th and early 20th century turned to political activism and influenced everything from the abolition and suffrage movements to the shift of population to cities, the expansion of secondary education and the rise of labor unions — with teachers, who were then almost all women, often leading the way.
"They radically changed the Constitution of the United States," Traister says. "The foundations of the country were altered."
The book traces the rise and fall and rise again of the influence of single women in the 20th century, with the post-World War II era summed up in a pithy quote from Nora Ephron: "We weren't meant to have futures, we were meant to marry them." Traister devotes more space than she anticipated to history, but she still ended up writing mostly about the contemporary side of her subject.
The book looks at the many factors that have led to the growing numbers of single women, such as more opportunities for higher education, sexual liberation and birth control, and changing attitudes about singlehood. As more women work outside the home, Traister says, marriage becomes a choice rather than a necessity: "There are other ways to have economic stability."
Traister also looks at the effects of those changes, among them the importance of friendships to many single women. When she married, she says, she found it difficult to give up the close ties she had with female friends.
"Those friendships had been the primary relationships of my life," she says. "It was a very painful switch."
But such friendships, she says, can also have a positive impact if women do choose to marry. "You learn from them what intimacy can be. You gain a healthy expectation of how to support other people. It sets the bar higher for marital relationships."
After her first book, Traister says, she didn't want to write about politics again. But the subject of single women inevitably led back there.
"We'll probably see a huge impact" in the upcoming elections, she says. "Single women vote Democratic. Single women vote to the left. They've been voting in huge numbers for Bernie Sanders.
"I think that's how the Democratic platform moved to the left. We're crediting Sanders, but I think it's young women who require a different deal from their government after all the breaks it's given to men.
"You have a new country with a new category of citizens."
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.