2016. Simon & Schuster. ebook. 352 pages.
As a life-long single woman (as in, have had dates but never a dating relationship), I had perked up when Kate Bolick’s book Spinster came out last year. Like, hey, there may be something relatable in there for me. Before I got around to reading it though, reviews came out that revealed that Bolick’s book wasn’t really about single women. All of the women she profiled were married at some point, and Bolick’s autobiographical sections – framed as a metaphorical spinsterhood – apparently still involved a fair amount of dating. I contented myself with Briallen Hopper’s excellent essay on spinsters instead.
Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies is closer to the real deal. Her book looks at single women from a variety of angles: social history, economic factors, the role of urban life, the value of female friendships, and cultural views of single women, sex and parenthood.
The chapter on the history of single women was one of my favorites. Traister finds some great source material revealing how single women have been discussed throughout the ages. Traister refers to a 1904 article called “Why I Do Not Marry” written by a “Bachelor Maid” that I wish I could find in its entirety. The bits that I have found online reveal a young woman snarkily rejecting the cultural norms of her day and it’s quite cheering.
But even more than the history and the cultural review, what I loved about Traister’s book was reading about single women like me talk about being single as a way of life, not a waiting period. Whether it’s in fiction or in nonfiction, single life is rarely addressed without regarding it as some precursor to another stage. But I’m certainly not living my life like it’s a precursor to anything. From the book: “After all, unmarried life is not a practice round or a staging ground or a suspension of real life.”
And here I’m going to divert into personal story for a bit:
I remember when I was 22 or 23 and in graduate school. I participated in a Christian campus group and there was a slightly older guy who seemed to be giving signs of interest. We went to a museum together once. I think that was only the second time in my life that I’d gone on something resembling a date. There was an engaged couple in the campus group as well, and the girl unexpectedly invited me to lunch one day. I knew instinctively that she had deputized herself to talk to me about this guy and I was right. I remember that she clumsily tried to relate to my singleness by saying that she understood how it was to be single, as she had been single in high school. She said that the guy, being older, was probably looking only for serious relationships. I expressed that I didn’t have any particular plans at this point. She said something to the effect that at our age, it was time to move beyond casual dating. It was completely ridiculous and fortunately, I took none of it to heart.
As Traister’s book underscores repeatedly, there is no universal life-script that we should all be following. Anita Hill was interviewed for this book and is quoted as saying: “And I want everyone to understand that you can have a good life, despite what convention says, and be single. That doesn’t mean you have to be against marriage. It just means that there are choices that society should not impose on you.”
I identify strongly with the single women in this book who expressed ambivalence about dating. First, from Traister’s own life (this story ends with her finding a relationship, but I include the quote because the rest echoed my own feelings so well):
I felt smothered by suitors who called too often, claustrophobic around those who wanted to see me too frequently, and bugged by the ones who didn’t want to try the bars or restaurants I liked to go to, or who pressured me to cut out of work earlier than I wanted to cut out. I got used to doing things my way; I liked doing things my way. These men just mucked it all up. I knew how I sounded, even in my own head: picky, petty, and narcissistic. I worried about the monster of self-interest that I had become.
In retrospect, however, I see the fierce protection of my space, schedule, and solitude served as a prophylactic against relationships I didn’t really want to be in. Maybe I was too hard on those guys, but I am also certain that I wasn’t very interested in them. I am certain of that because when, after six years without a relationship that lasted beyond three dates, I met a man I was interested in and didn’t think twice about Saturday mornings, about breaking my weirdo routines or leaving work early; I was happy every single time he called.
More simply put, from one of Traister’s interview subjects (Elliott, from D.C.):
Mostly, I didn’t pursue people I wasn’t crazy about because I was busy doing other things that I enjoyed more than I enjoyed being with men I wasn’t crazy about.
In conclusion, this is a book well worth reading. I know so many single ladies – not just never-marrieds like myself, but also divorced and widowed – and the tyranny of the romantic narrative has meant these other life narratives have been regarded as not worth much coverage in fiction or non-fiction. Traister has done some good work in filling in that gap. May there be even more books to come on the subject.
Here’s excerpts to others’ reviews:
The 3R’s Blog – “I give Traister credit for getting beyond her own demographic and including the voices of single mothers, college students. seniors, and women from a broader range of economic and cultural backgrounds–she really has made the effort to consider all the single ladies.”
Running N Reading – “For those of you who may think, “well, I’m not single, and I don’t want to be single, so I’m not sure how interesting this will be,” let me assure you that you can lay those worries to rest; this is a remarkably accessible account of women’s history in our nation.”
Shelf Love (Teresa) – “This is as comprehensive a book on single womanhood in America today as you’re likely to find, especially if you want to something that’s just 350 pages and written for a general audience.”