In 1980 and for nearly a century before, the median age American women first married barely changed. Women got married around twenty-two years old. Today, it’s twenty-seven and still rising.
“The women’s movement in the 1970s led more women into the workforce and got them closer to pay equality,” says Rebecca Traister, a writer at large for New York magazine and contributing editor at Elle who writes frequently about feminism and politics. “The sexual revolution and legalization of birth control gave women more control over their reproductive lives. A lot of conditions changed that allowed women to be more independent without being married.”
In All the Single Ladies, a surprise hit this spring that debuted on the New York Times Best Seller list, Traister examines the numerous dynamics that changed the conditions for American women. As it turns out, when they’re financially independent and don’t face the expectation of getting married right out of college, they don’t.
Signature caught up with Traister to talk about her new book, why American women are waiting longer to get married or not getting married at all, and the effect that all those single ladies may have on this fall’s election.
SIGNATURE: I would guess that your publisher got a lot of requests for review copies based on the title and the subject matter. Did you have a pretty good sense before publication that it would be a zeitgeist book?
REBECCA TRAISTER: No. I mean, my previous book [Big Girls Don’t Cry] was about feminism and politics, and I had some sense that this was a broader topic, but my own experience in book publishing and watching some of my friends publish books has taught me that it’s impossible to guess what will catch people’s attention. I didn’t have any idea the kind of attention it would get.
SIG: How does a book like this go wide in 2016? Has it been driven by bloggers and social media?
RT: I think so, but it’s hard for me to judge that. When I write something as a journalist, I get a lot of feedback from the feminist social media and from the left social media, but it’s hard to compare that to what the broader social media may be saying.
SIG: Has Beyonce contacted you about the book?
RT: No. [Laughs.] I’m sure Beyonce does not know about this book.
SIG: Do you think some of the interest has come from women — particularly women who write about culture and social issues — holding the book up as proof that things have changed?
RT: It’s interesting. I don’t know that the book is proof that things have changed. I’ve heard from a lot of women that they feel like their experiences are being reflected in the book, that what I’m writing about resonates with them because there hasn’t been enough attention placed on the independent lives that adult women are living. I’ve been interested by how many men I’ve heard from. I expected it would be mostly women who would read it.
SIG: Do you think the book is getting a different reaction from men than Hanna Rosin’s book, which had a more intentionally incendiary title?
RT: The End of Men was an incendiary title, but the actual book was very sympathetic to men. It was very invested in a lot of the challenges men are facing with unemployment and the economy changing because of technology.
SIG: Are you using “single” as a proxy for “independent,” or do you mean “unmarried”?
RT: I use “single” very loosely. I actually critique the word in the book because it doesn’t reflect what so much of the experience is for women who are living independently. The book is not about a binary choice between married life and unmarried life. It’s more about what happens when you lift this old model when women were economically, sexually, and familially dependent on marriage and marriage was the validating norm and organizing principle of women’s lives.
Now you get the infinite variety of other paths that women’s lives might take, which might include traditional, hetero, early marriage. But it also includes later marriage, same-sex marriage, long-term cohabitation without marriage, long periods of celibacy or promiscuity, kids inside and outside of marriage. That’s hard to sum up in a book title, so I’m using “single” as a catchall for a far more varied set of experiences.
SIG: You looked at a ton of data — marriage rates, divorce rates, economic data, etc. — for the book. Was the quick rise of the marriage age the big data point?
RT: Yes. The rise of the marriage age was so sudden within the scope of American history. Until 1980, the median age of first marriage for women in the United States fluctuated between 20 and 22. In 1990, it moved about 23. Now it’s above 27. Within a period of three or four decades, that is not just a shift but an enormous shift. People are getting married later, and they’re getting married less often.
The first big impact that feminism in the 1960s and ’70s had was a big divorce boom in the ’70s and ’80s. That, in part, had an impact on how the children of that divorce boom viewed marriage. Conditions changed to where marriage was no longer the economic and social necessity that it once was, and a lot of kids raised in divorced families in the ’80s and ’90s were somewhat less eager to get into a marriage in part because they were then living in a world where they could earn their own money, live a liberated sex life, and they had seen how a bad marriage could affect them.
SIG: Would you have predicted eighteen months ago that young, single women would support Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton to the degree that they have?
RT: It has happened in a mixed way. In the first few states that voted, unmarried women supported Bernie Sanders by huge numbers. But in South Carolina, unmarried women supported Hillary Clinton by huge numbers. I would have said eighteen months ago that I was still hoping more women would get into the primary, including Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand. If you had asked me if I would have guessed that the more left-leaning candidate in a two-person primary would draw a lot of votes away from Hillary, then I would have predicted that.
SIG: Is that what happened in 2008?
RT: In 2008, Clinton and Obama were similar politicians. Obama was definitely advertised as the more progressive candidate, and that’s part of why more progressive people — including women — went for him.
SIG: How much of a risk do you think it would be for Donald Trump to inject a lot of sexist invective into the general election?
RT: I don’t think he worries about risk. He has already gone after Hillary for her husband’s infidelities. He has already retweeted someone who said something like: She couldn’t satisfy her husband; how will she satisfy the country? He has talked about her being “schlonged.” He has called Megyn Kelly a bimbo. He’s not worried about people thinking he’s sexist. It’s part of his charm. [Laughs.] He trafficks in unapologetic misogyny, xenophobia, and racism.
SIG: Are there a particular couple of issues that you see driving American feminism right now?
RT: There are a bunch of issues. Some feminists are energized by issues around sexual identity and gender identity. There are a lot of feminists who are extremely invested in the protection and expansion of reproductive rights and access. A lot of feminists are very committed to issues of sexual violence. A lot of feminists are very interested in the Black Lives Matter movement. A lot of feminists are invested in social policies like paid leave and paid sick days.
Social movements now aren’t like social movements in the past. There isn’t necessarily a centralized leader or marches in the streets. Social media and technology have democratized that and made it more diffuse, which is good. There’s not one thing that’s driving feminism toward the future. There are a lot of interwoven interests.