Women no longer need to be married

We talk to the author of a new book making the case for the single woman


In 2010, aged 35, Rebecca Traister got engaged. Friends and family were delighted, but their reaction made her feel uncomfortable. "Some of the social approval I was getting really bothered me - the hearty congratulations - as if getting married was the greatest thing," she says.

Traister grew up on a farm, daughter of a Jewish father and a Baptist mother. She wasn't raised in either tradition, but "the family celebrated lots of holidays… Not religiously: secularly, familial-ly." She was the only Jewish child at her mostly Catholic primary school. "I was acutely aware of my own Jewishness," she remembers. "I had tremendous identity as a Jewish kid. It made me singular and unusual."

After college, Traister moved to New York where, for 15 years, she remained single. This, too, felt unusual to her. Indeed, many of the unmarried women whose stories are threaded through her fascinating and timely book All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation feel as if they are on the outside. But they are not. As Traister tells me, "it doesn't feel normal to be unmarried - but it is."

All across America, urban women are postponing or avoiding marriage. Why? Because they are no longer dependent upon it for financial, social, sexual or reproductive gain. As Traister says in quiet understatement, "women have come to understand that marriage, as a binding legal commitment entered into at the start of adulthood, may not be an institution that best serves their needs."

From the mid 19th century onwards, greater access to employment and higher education gave women more economic autonomy. However, as Traister documents, true independence came in the 1960s and 1970s, when women gained access both to reliable contraception and to assisted conception. In addition, rising divorce rates significantly reduced the stigma of being single and of open cohabitation. So, by the end of the 20th century, the "iron triangle" linking marriage, sex and childbearing was shattered.

All the Single Ladies is essentially a celebration of American women's financial, sexual and reproductive independence. It provides a social history of unmarried women in the US including their enormous impact on social change. It documents the wide variety of ways in which these women now freely plan and live their lives.

Interestingly, Traister could equally well have made her case in the UK. British women have fewer tax incentives to marry than their American counterparts and also benefit from mandatory paid sick leave and parental leave. The impact of these longstanding social policies is unequivocal. The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that the median age for a woman's first marriage in this country is 29, up from 23 in 1986 and 22 in 1956. Half of all women aged 18-49 have never married.

We talk at some length about the institution of marriage. While the benefits of marriage for men are well known, Traister's research adds to the weight of evidence that it has the opposite impact on women.

Marriage often damages a woman's promotional prospects and earnings, since both women and their employers are conditioned to anticipate family needs that will require them to take breaks from employment. For many of the lower-income women Traister speaks to, a husband is seen as an economically unstable partner who may be an encumbrance rather than a source of support. In addition, ease of separation and divorce means that marriage nowadays is a very weak bond. Pamela, one of Traister's interviewees and a single mother, makes this clear. "Marriage won't keep a man around. If I did get married and he wanted to leave, he would leave."

Despite this, Traister's view is a positive one: because women have higher expectations, and because they're holding out for better partners, "that's how we're improving, and thereby saving, marriage." Women are marrying when they are older, professionally more established, and more self-assured: "marriage is now a sign that your life is in order, which contributes to a positioning of marriage as aspirational."

I take my courage in both hands and ask why she - the woman who's just written about the validity of women's lives outside of marriage - decided to marry. Her answer is pragmatic. "The tax laws here do still privilege married people tremendously. And you don't want to take away from the familial rewards, they're very real.

"I was 35, he was 45, and we were so keenly aware that, by some miracle, all of our parents were still alive. We wanted to have a party! And here is this scripted way to have a celebration."

Marriage as pragmatism and pleasing parents? There is an irony here: isn't this what women spent hundreds of years being subjected to when the choice wasn't theirs?

As we discuss the practical implications of her findings for policy makers, Traister turns her thoughts to the current Presidential race. When asked how Hillary Clinton might contribute towards a more equitable society, she is non-committal. "Hillary has never been a radical politician."

She clarifies: "I'm not saying that she pretends to be a moderate. But there's a selection process, which means that the most successful 'others' on a political spectrum that still normalises white male candidates as properly political and conventional, are going to be selected for [their tendency towards being] a non-radical 'first'. America is not going to warm to women who yell about revolution."

Traister is not sure what the future will bring for her two young daughters but is clearly excited by the knowledge that there is no clear vision of what their lives will look like. "Centuries of structural development around gender inequity can't be wiped out overnight. But their future is not prescribed, there are no expectations. That's an exciting and positive prospect."

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