Review: Rebecca Traister’s ‘All The Single Ladies’ is a singularly triumphant work
When I was in college, I did a semester internship at Mother Jones magazine in San Francisco, and one of my side hustles (because the internship paid almost nothing) was as a researcher for Susan Faludi’s then book in-progress, “Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women.” The book’s ultimate success after its 1991 publication was buoyed by a vital feminist climate largely generated by Anita Hill’s testimony against future Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. And yet Faludi, whose analysis argues the existence of a media-driven “backlash” against the advances of feminism, fails to address the issue of race really at all. I remember feeling in awe of Faludi as a journalist and a feminist but not for one minute thinking her book was aimed at women who looked like me.
And now we have “All The Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation” by Rebecca Traister. That the book takes its title from a Beyoncé hit might be subject to criticism for its ostensible appropriation of a song that was written by, about and primarily for black women, were it not for the fact that the book is so keenly mindful of race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status.
Beyoncé herself, although no longer a single lady, has never more than now marched into the extant fray of sexuality and gender politics with guns blazing. And as a black woman who lived well into her adult life as a single lady (I married at 34), I was surprised to find that this book was talking directly to me — a rare thing in mainstream works by white authors examining the lives of women in America.
Traister, an acclaimed journalist, writer at large for New York Magazine and author of 2010’s “Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women,” is both deliberate and conversant in her language of inclusion. “All the Single Ladies” aims to trace the history and current landscape of expanding options for single women in America — a narrative that is ultimately about liberation, a manifest and revolutionary freedom. “This makes it all the more important to acknowledge that while the victories of independent life are often emblematized by the country’s most privileged women,” Traister writes, “the war was fought by many Americans who have always had far fewer options to live free: women of color, poor and working-class women.” Amen.
“All the Single Ladies” opens with Hill’s story, and by the end of the first chapter, Traister has effectively cited Eleanor Holmes Norton, Queen Latifah, Terry McMillan and Shirley Chisholm (four black women) alongside Gloria Steinem, Candace Bushnell, Betty Friedan and Sandra Fluke (four white women). “The story of single women,” writes Traister, “is the story of the country.” She continues, “The intensity of resistance to these women is rooted in the (perhaps unconscious) comprehension that their expanded power signals social and political rupture as profound as the invention of birth control, as the sexual revolution, as the abolition of slavery, as women’s suffrage and the feminist, civil rights, gay rights, and labor movements.”
Throughout, Traister considers the disparity in choices and realities experienced by white women and women of color (not just black but also Latina, Asian and others), whether discussing education, employment, money, marriage (heterosexual and same sex) or motherhood. It’s both sad and telling that what should be the standard approach with any book or dialogue about American culture emerges as so unique here.
Traister devotes an entire chapter to women who are happily committed to their work above all else in their lives, and then begins the next chapter this way: “For many women, the pursuit of work and money has far less to do with fulfillment, excitement, or identity than it does with subsistence. ... for most Americans, work is the center of life, not because they yearn for it to be, but because it has to be.” She expands on the point in part through Chinese American Ada Li, who worked “six days a week from seven in the morning until nine at night” when she first moved to the U.S. just before 9/11. She had not come for a husband, as her Chinese family and friends had hoped, but to live her life — and it was hard.
As impressively well researched as “All the Single Ladies” is — Traister references everyone from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Daniel Patrick Moynihan to Paula Giddings — 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. In particular, the chapter about friendships among women, especially poignant for those of us who have loved our womenfriends to the point where we wonder whether it’s even healthy. Turns out, it is. “Among the largely unacknowledged truths of female life is that the women’s primary, foundational, formative relationships are as likely to be with each other as they are with the men we’ve been told since childhood are supposed to be the people who complete us.”
Traister demonstrates the force of female friendship most vividly through the funny, smart and heartfelt union between white, Midwest-born journalist Ann Friedman and black, Guinea-born digital strategist Aminatou Sow, who says of her platonic betrothed: “I always tell Ann she’s the single most important relationship in my life, not to put pressure on her, but because it’s true.” Subsequently, you will find out in the “Where Are They Now” section at the end of the book that Friedman and Sow, who currently live in different cities, went on to launch a podcast called”Call Your Girlfriend.”
Some of what’s covered in the book is already well-trod ground — financial solvency is central to independence; marriage is still considered the end goal for many; white male conservatives still think single women are ruining everything — but the exemplary framework of cultural inclusion, the personal candor and palpable desire to lift up each and every one of us, is what makes “All the Single Ladies” a singularly triumphant work of women presented in beautiful formation.
Carroll is the author of five books, including “Saving the Race: Conversations on Du Bois From a Collective Memoir of Souls.”
All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation
Simon & Schuster: 352 pp., $27
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