All the Single Ladies

Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation

LIST PRICE $12.99

About The Book

* NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOKS OF 2016 SELECTION * BEST BOOKS OF 2016 SELECTION BY THE BOSTON GLOBE * ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY * NPR * CHICAGO PUBLIC LIBRARY *

The New York Times bestselling investigation into the sexual, economic, and emotional lives of women is “an informative and thought-provoking book for anyone—not just the single ladies—who want to gain a greater understanding of this pivotal moment in the history of the United States” (The New York Times Book Review).

In 2009, award-winning journalist Rebecca Traister started All the Single Ladies about the twenty-first century phenomenon of the American single woman. It was the year the proportion of American women who were married dropped below fifty percent; and the median age of first marriages, which had remained between twenty and twenty-two years old for nearly a century (1890–1980), had risen dramatically to twenty-seven.

But over the course of her vast research and more than a hundred interviews with academics and social scientists and prominent single women, Traister discovered a startling truth: the phenomenon of the single woman in America is not a new one. And historically, when women were given options beyond early heterosexual marriage, the results were massive social change—temperance, abolition, secondary education, and more. Today, only twenty percent of Americans are married by age twenty-nine, compared to nearly sixty percent in 1960.

“An informative and thought-provoking book for anyone—not just single ladies” (The New York Times Book Review), All the Single Ladies is a remarkable portrait of contemporary American life and how we got here, through the lens of the unmarried American woman. Covering class, race, sexual orientation, and filled with vivid anecdotes from fascinating contemporary and historical figures, “we’re better off reading Rebecca Traister on women, politics, and America than pretty much anyone else” (The Boston Globe).

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for All the Single Ladies includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Rebecca Traister. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

In a provocative and groundbreaking work, Rebecca Traister traces the history of unmarried and late-married women in America who have radically shaped our culture through political, social, and economic means.

When award-winning journalist Rebecca Traister started writing about the twenty-first century phenomenon of the American single woman, she thought that it would be a work of contemporary journalism. But over the course of more than a hundred interviews with social scientists, academics, and prominent single women, Traister discovered that the phenomenon of the single woman in America was far from new. In fact, she found that women having options beyond heterosexual marriage resulted in massive social changes, from abolition to temperance and beyond.

Destined to be a classic work of social history and journalism, All the Single Ladies is a fascinating look at contemporary American life and how we got here, through the lens of the single American woman.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. In her note about the interviews, Traister writes, “when I realized, late in the process, that I had written more than three hundred pages of a book in which only a handful of men were cited, I felt bad” (p. xii). What do you think of Traister’s disclosure? Do you think including more male voices and scholarship changed the book? If so, how?

2. Fredrick Douglass wrote that women would occupy a large part of the true history of the antislavery movement because “the cause of the slave has been peculiarly woman’s cause” (p. 48). Although, as Traister notes, “Marriage and slavery were not equivalent practices” (p. 43), the intersection between the two illustrates how marriage could be used as a means to control a population. In what ways did slave owners use marriage to both control and further exploit their slaves? Why might women have been particularly involved in the cause of abolition?

3. Writer Dodai Stewart says, “My long-term relationship is with New York” (p. 83). What does she mean? What does New York represent to Dodai? Many young, single women settle in cities. What do women gain from urban spaces? Have you ever felt about a city the way that Dodai Stewart feels about New York? Talk to your book club about the experience. Why did you feel so connected to that location?

4. Traister writes “Female friendship has been the bedrock of women’s lives for as long as there have been women” (p. 97). How was the role of friendship in women’s lives changed as the age of marriage has been delayed? What have female friends historically offered each other that husbands cannot? Discuss Ann and Amina’s friendship. What do they mean when they describe each other as “my person”? Do you have any friendships in your life like Anne and Amina’s?

5. When Traister first moved to New York City, HBO’s Sex and the City had captured the national zeitgeist. She recalls nursing a “seething grudge” (p. 92) against the show. Why was Traister resentful of the show? Did it change the perception of single women living in cities? In what ways? Traister takes umbrage with Sex and the City’s reliance on expensive consumer products as symbols of female empowerment. How might the act of buying an expensive item for one’s self be an expression of independence? Compare Traister’s reaction to the show to that of television critic Emily Nussbaum.

6. Amina Sow says “It takes a lot to qualify a man as selfish” (p. 134) whereas women are chastised for being selfish if they choose to focus on themselves. Discuss the roots of this double standard. How does this double standard contribute to the message to women that they are to blame for their single status?

7. According to psychologist Paula J. Caplan, the combination advent of the birth-control pill and Second Wave feminism created “a strange combination of liberation and disturbing pressures with regard to sex” (p. 217). Discuss this statement. How did attitudes toward sex change with the invention of the birth-control pill? What are some of the pitfalls that women experienced as a result?

8. According to Traister, Gloria Steinem’s “most powerful gift was her ability to synthesize radical sentiments into appealingly pithy, era-defining sound bites” (p. 26). Discuss Steinem’s role in the feminist movement. How did the way she lived her life—with male suitors and a healthy sexual appetite—make her particularly useful to the movement? What was the general reaction to Steinem’s marriage, at sixty-six, to David Bale?

9. Sara, Traister’s best friend, begs her, “please don’t make it sound like the wedding was the end of my story” (p. 295). Why is this so important to Sara? How does Sara’s story reflect a seismic shift in ideals of marriage? Why do you think that Traister chooses to end the penultimate chapter of All the Single Ladies with this statement?

10. Discuss the impact that Anita Hill had on the national discourse. How did her allegations against Clarence Thomas lead to a dialogue about sexual harassment? How was Anita Hill treated by the Senate Judiciary Committee and the press? What was the effect of bringing up her status as a single woman?

11. In June 2013, The Defense of Marriage Act was overturned by the Supreme Court, enabling gay and lesbian couples to marry. Traister notes that the successful fight of homosexual couples to enter an institution that many women are struggling to distance themselves from only appears counterintuitive. Do you agree? Why may gay couples want to partake in the institution of marriage? What makes gay marriage so radical, according to Traister?

12. How does Traister define “hookup culture”? Contrast the media depictions of hookup culture with the reality that Traister outlines. Why do you think that there is such a stigma against hookup culture today?

13. Traister writes, “Having a baby is its own way of exerting control over the future” (p. 200). How does having a child give a mother a sense of control? Why might women make the choice to have a child out of wedlock? Describe some of the ways that single mothers have been vilified by popular culture. Do the arguments made against single motherhood have merit? Explain your answer.

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Traister writers, “Austen’s novels had been as much ambivalent cries against the economic and moral strictures of enforced marital identity for women than they were any kind of reassuring blue print for it” (p. 7). Read one of Jane Austen’s novels with your book club and discuss it within the context of Traister’s statement. In what ways does Austen’s writing condemn the institution of marriage?

2. That Girl starring Marlo Thomas and The Mary Tyler Moore Show were groundbreaking at the time they premiered. Watch old episodes of the shows with your book club and discuss what made them so revolutionary? If you watched them when they initially aired, discuss if your perception of them has changed. If it has, in what ways? Are there any television shows today that are similarly groundbreaking? What are they?

3. In a commencement address at Wellesley College, writer Nora Ephron recalled how she and her classmates “weren’t meant to have politics, or careers that mattered, or opinions or lives; we were meant to marry them” (p. 65). Read some of Nora Ephron’s work and discuss the feminist aspects of it. How is her reaction to the pressure to marry reflected in her writing?

4. To learn more about Rebecca Traister, read reviews of All the Single Ladies, and to find out if she’ll be in a city near you, visit her official website at www.rebeccatraister.com.

A Conversation with Rebecca Traister

You thank “all those [you] interviewed, on and off the record, who were so generous with their stories” (p. 312). Can you tell us how you found your subjects? How did you ensure that you had a diverse cross section of women who were contributing to your research?

At first, I went through colleagues and friends who brought me their own colleagues, friends, and friends of friends. I interviewed many people who had written or spoken publicly about living singly (which is part of why, as I acknowledge in my introduction, there are more writers represented here than there are in the real world). I put out feelers in specific areas of the country—the south, the west. Especially as I got deep into work on the book I simply began talking to people everywhere I went; I interviewed women I met on buses and in airports and on the subway. And then, I worked with a remarkable researcher, Rhaina Cohen, who was more than ten years younger than I and went through completely different channels. She tracked down dozens of subjects from around the country.

Was there anything you found particularly surprising while conducting your research? Can you tell us about it?

As I describe in the book, the richness of the history of single women in America came as a surprise to me. I went into this project thinking I was writing a book of contemporary journalism and wound up writing a book that covers an enormous amount of this country’s history. Of course, that added about three years of research and writing to my timeline.

Although All the Single Ladies relies almost exclusively on the scholarship and experiences of women, you note that men are crucial part of the story about female independence. Did you consider adding more male voices to the book when you realized only a few were included?

No, I didn’t consider adding men's voices just for the sake of gender balance. This is a book about women. There are a lot of books about men and about the male experience and there remain many more to be written, including a chronicle of men’s lives in a world in which heterosexual marriage has become rarer. But this was not that book. This is a book about women’s experiences and perspectives and place in the world.

The New York Times lauded All The Single Ladies as “an informative and thought-provoking book for anyone—not just the single ladies—who wants to gain a great understanding of this pivotal moment in the history of the United States.” Were you writing the book with a specific audience in mind?

I probably assumed it would be read mostly by women (and have been surprised by how many men have read it!) but I didn’t assume it would be read exclusively by single women. There are millions of women (including me) who have been single for long periods or in formative ways but are now married; there are plenty of people who know and love single women—their friends and parents and grandparents and children. And plenty of women (and, it turns out, men) who, married or unmarried, are simply curious about the history of women in America.

Your first book, Big Girls Don’t Cry, was critically acclaimed and named as a New York Times notable book when it was published. How did the experience of writing All The Single Ladies compare? Since your first book was so critically acclaimed, did you feel added pressure while writing it?

The nice thing about my first book is that it was critically acclaimed but didn’t sell, so I had plenty of room for improvement. I always feel pressure when I write to make it good, fresh, and accurate, and to say something new. The real pressure here was that the book took so long; with every passing month and year I felt more and more driven to make sure it was worth the time and effort. And also, of course, something I think people don’t acknowledge enough: books that take a long time to write take up work time over years, which produces an enormous financial pressure, too.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers and journalists? Is there anything that you wish you had been told at the start of your writing career?

Well in part because I feel the aforementioned pressure to always be good, I often cling to something an editor told me fifteen years ago about regular journalism: “If a quarter of your pieces are great, you’re ahead of the game.” I haven’t really internalized this, but I say it to myself sometimes to remind myself that it’s just a job, and some days you’ll do the job better than other days. As far as advice for young journalists, unfortunately, my best advice isn’t always achievable in today’s media climate: it’s to treat journalism as a learned, practiced skill, like plumbing: learn the rules, the ethics, the structure, how to write on deadline. Then when you get really good at that you can start writing with more voice and authority. But there aren’t so many places anymore, such as local papers, where you can learn those skills. Mostly, these days, the best advice I can give is: if you can find a job, great! Take it seriously, work hard at it, and help take the profession into the future.

Gloria Steinem has said that getting married made her understand what “she feels to be ‘the biggest remnant of old thinking’ about the institution: idealizing and valuing it above all other types of loving relationships” (p. 265). Did your experience of getting married as you were writing All the Single Ladies cause you to see marriage in a different light? If so, how?

The way I feel about marriage as an institution is wholly separate from how I feel about my husband. To me, “marriage” as a concept is almost meaningless except insofar as its legal implications; people’s marriages are all so different from each other; their quality and meaning depend on the two people involved and their individual dynamic as a couple. The huge transition in my life was simply falling in love with the person I fell in love with. He is an extraordinary man, and I’m very much in love with him. But that doesn't mean that marriage provided me happiness, just that this particular man and I happen to make each other very happy. It also doesn’t blot out or diminish the life, years, and relationships I had when I wasn’t married or in love with a partner: my connections to my friends and family and my work and city are no less central to who I am or who I became than my connection to the man who is now my husband. Also, being married has allowed me to personally witness how isolating marriage can be, which is the opposite of what everyone tells you. But when I fell in love and then got married and had kids, my world turned inward. I saw less of the outside world, was able to spend less time with friends, stayed in my home more. Everyone says that single people are isolated, but I participated much more in the outside world when I was single than after I was partnered.

Paramount Television has acquired the rights to develop All the Single Ladies for television. Can you tell us more about that? What has that experience been like?

It’s still in such early stages that I can’t tell you anything except that it’s an exciting possibility.

What do you like your readers to take away from All the Single Ladies? What compelled you to write it?

I am happy when readers take away anything of value. If they find their own experience reflected, great. If they gain insight into the lives of loved ones, great. If they learn about history that interests them, terrific. I suppose I’m extra excited if the book makes them rethink women’s relationship to the government and to economic and social policy because I believe that that’s the stuff that must change if we’re to move into a more equal future: we need higher wages, pay equality, subsidized daycare, and paid family leave and sick days—a stronger welfare system. And of course partisan leanings can make plenty of Americans dubious about those kinds of shifts, but I hope that this book offers an argument about why they make practical sense in today's world.

Are you working on anything now? Can you tell us about it?

I’m covering the presidential election! My day job is as a journalist who writes about women and politics, so I pretty much can’t see into the future beyond November 9, 2016. After that: who knows. I can’t even talk about after that, because the possibilities are too frightening.

About The Author

Photograph © Victoria Stevens

Rebecca Traister is writer at large for New York magazine and a contributing editor at Elle. A National Magazine Award finalist, she has written about women in politics, media, and entertainment from a feminist perspective for The New Republic and Salon and has also contributed to The NationThe New York ObserverThe New York TimesThe Washington PostVogue, Glamour and Marie Claire. She is the author of All the Single Ladies and the award-winning Big Girls Don’t Cry. She lives in New York with her family. 

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (March 2016)
  • Length: 352 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781476716589

Raves and Reviews

PRAISE FOR ALL THE SINGLE LADIES

NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOKS OF 2016 SELECTION * BEST BOOKS OF 2016 SELECTION BY BOSTON GLOBE * ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY * NPR * CHICAGO PUBLIC LIBRARY * 

“Fascinating, entertaining, surprising—and heartening. A brilliant book that is also warm, funny, and a pleasure to read.”—Katha Pollitt 

"Traister is a triple threat--essayist, journalist, and polemicist--bringing a seismic shift to light, hunting down its implications, and showing how it changes politics, and how policy needs to change to reflect it. Her book demands not just reading but discussion and debate. —Boris Kachka, Vulture

"For explicitly feminist writing, turn to Rebecca Traister’s canny, insightful “All the Single Ladies,” a book to match your taste for journalistic prose and your desire to read about a range of female life. Traister’s appraisal of unmarried women in “intellectual and public realms” — that is, their friendships, their solitude, their economic gains and shortfalls and their sexuality — rooted in both contemporary and historical research, will inspire you to seek out more stories. This is just the beginning."—New York Times

“A singularly triumphant work of women presented in beautiful formation... Keenly mindful of race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status…[Traister] is both deliberate and conversant in her language of inclusion…As impressively well researched as All the Single Ladies is...it's the personal narratives drawn from more than 100 interviews she conducted with all manner of women that make the book not just an informative read but also an entirely engaging one.”—Los Angeles Times

“A well-researched, deeply informative examination of women’s bids for independence, spanning centuries…Traister provides a thoughtful culling of history to help bridge the gap between, on the one hand, glib depictions of single womanhood largely focused on sexual escapades and, on the other, grave warnings that female independence will unravel the very fabric of the country…[she] brings a welcome balance of critique and personal reflection to a conversation that is often characterized more by advocacy and moral policing than honest discovery…All The Single Ladies is arriving just in time. This is an informative and thought-provoking book for anyone – not just the single ladies – who wants to gain a great understanding of this pivotal moment in the history of the United States.”—New York Times Book Review (Editor’s Choice)

“Powerful and convincing…we’re better off reading Rebecca Traister on women, politics, and America than pretty much anyone else. [Traister is] one of the nation’s smartest and most provocative feminist voices.”—The Boston Globe 

“The enormous accomplishment of Traister’s book is to show that the ranks of women electing for nontraditional lives…have also improved the lots of women who make traditional choices, blowing open the institutions of marriage and parenthood…This rich portrait of our most quietly explosive social force makes it clear that the ladies still have plenty of work to do.” —Slate

“A monumental study of the political, economic, social, and sexual consequences of the rise of unmarried women.”—New Republic

“Lucid and well-researched…[Traister] vividly illustrates the collective power of single women in guiding legal, economic, and social progress and in ‘asserting themselves as citizens—full citizens—in ways that American men have for generations.’ A chapter on female friendships satisfyingly conveys the complexity of a significant, and often dismissed, relationship.”—The New Yorker

“Personal and relatable…[Traister’s] assessment of single women’s sex lives is so balanced and ordinary-sounding that it becomes extraordinary in a world where Tinder is supposedly bringing a dating apocalypse…I’ll swipe right on that message any day.”—Washington Post

“Though Traister is no longer one of us, she retains her memories and her empathy, as well as her feminist commitments…Drawing on, historical and contemporary sources, as well as her own reporting, she has produced a wide-ranging, insistently optimistic analysis of the role of single women in American society.”—Chicago Tribune

“I can’t begin to count the number of conversations I’ve had in my adult life about my lack of enthusiasm to marry… Thankfully, with the publication of Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, I can stop explaining and buy her book for all the busybodies in my happily unmarried life. Traister blends history, reportage and personal memoir to propose that the notion of marriage in American life has been and will be written by unmarried women.”—The Guardian (US)

“Traister’s illuminating history of women who haven’t put a ring on it, whether by choice or by chance, is smartly placed in a larger historical context and enriched by compelling personal narratives.”—Entertainment Weekly, Best Books of 2016 So Far select

“Traister is one of the sharpest journalists writing about feminism today, and her look into the link between eras with large numbers of unmarried women and periods of drastic social change is absolutely riveting… It turns out the history of unmarried women in this country is a fascinating one, which Traister recounts in compulsively readable detail, combining facts with personal stories from single ladies across racial and financial spectrums. What’s left after she joyfully dismantles conservative arguments about the death of wifely servitude is hope: ‘Ring on it’ or not, the paths open to women today are varied and bright.”—Entertainment Weekly

"It takes a gifted writer to conjure an addictive, fascinating read out of centures of dense facts and census data, but that's exactly what journalist Traister does in this illuminating history of unmarried women. Using wide-ranging research as well as interviews, she delves into the different ways singlehood affects women of varying races, socioeconomic brackets, and sexual orientations--and explains how surges in the numbers of single women throughout history have coincided with social change. —Isabella Biedenharn, Entertainment Weekly

"In this intelligent book, Traister looks at the many reasons for choosing a patch that would have been cultural and economic suicide 50 years ago. She wants single women to recognize themselves as a political force and to celebrate unmarried life for what it can be: an excellent option.”—People Magazine

“Wonderfully inclusive, examining single women from all walks of life—working-, middle-, and upper-class women; women of color and white women; queer and straight ones…With All the Single Ladies, [Traister] brings her trademark intelligence and wit to bear, interspersing her own experiences and observations with dozens of interviews with women all over the country, plus historical context, from so-called Boston marriages (the nineteenth-century name for women who lived together) and the Brontë sisters to Murphy Brown and Sex and the City.”—Elle Magazine

“No husband, NP…In All The Single Ladies, an exhaustive examination of independent women and how they shaped the world we live (and date) in today, Rebecca Traister explodes the centuries-old notion that mirage is compulsory to living a happy, fulfilled life and reveals the inestimable power of being blissfully unattached.”—Cosmopolitan
 
All The Single Ladies is essential, careful, bold, and rigorous; it’s a warning and a celebration, and I loved it.”—Jezebel

“[All The Single Ladies] has the potential to become a seminal text on female identity in the West…Traister expertly paints a modern portrait of American life and how we got here, with an intersectional approach that accounts for class, race, and sexual orientation. Even more impressive is how Traister pushes a feminist agenda without the book ever feeling like it has an agenda, or that it's pointing the finger at the reader to make him or her feel guilty.”—VICE

 “A well-written and unabashedly feminist analysis of the history and current situation of single women in America.”—Newsday

“Exploring all aspects of single life—social, economic, racial, and sexual—Traister’s comprehensive volume, sure to be vigorously discussed, is truly impressive in scope and depth while always managing to be eminently readable and thoughtful.”—Booklist (starred review)

“[Traister is] a thoughtful journalist…This fast-paced, fascinating book will draw in fans of feminism, social sciences, and U.S. history, similar to Gail ­Collins’s When Everything Changed.”—Library Journal

“Incorporating a lively slew of perspectives of single ladies past and present, Traister conducts a nuanced investigation into the sexual, economic, and emotional lives of women in America and the opportunities available when marriage is no longer “the measure of female existence.”…Traister is funny and fair in how she deals with the prevalent stereotypes and remaining stigmas attached to being an unmarried woman in society…an invigorating study of single women in America with refreshing insight into the real life of the so-called spinster.”—Publishers Weekly

“Cogent and provocative…a persuasive case for why unmarried women have grown into a potent political and social force…Readers will also appreciate Traister's willingness to recount, with candor and humor, experiences in her own life that fit into the larger national story. This is a fascinating book—and an important one.”—Bookmark/Politics & Prose Blog

“Part social and cultural history, part anthropological and journalistic investigation, part memoir, and total investigation into the phenomenon and political power of single womanhood.”—Flavorwire

“Timely and important…a significant addition to the literature of sociology and women’s studies…Clearly this book belongs right up there with those by Gloria Steinem, Gail Collins, and other feminist writers who shine a light on contemporary life as few others can.”—New York Journal of Books

PRAISE FOR REBECCA TRAISTER

"Visionary."—The New York Times Book Review

"One of the most powerful voices in a new generation of American feminist writers."—Walter Russell Mead, Foreign Affairs

"The most brilliant voice on feminism in this country."—Anne Lamott, author of Bird by Bird

"A clear-eyed, whip-smart observer of the political scene."—Daphne Merkin, author of The Fame Lunches 

"Brilliant."—Maureen Corrigan, NPR's Fresh Air

"Clever, caustic, [and] wickedly funny."—Slate.com

"The heir to the tradition of Mary McCarthy and Joan Didion."—Eric Alterman, author of The Cause

"Provocative and insightful."—Curtis Sittenfeld, author of Eligible
 

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