By Danielle Kurtzleben
It used to be that marriage was when adulthood began for American women. Moving straight out of their parents’ house (or a college dorm) and into a house with a husband was simply the expected, preordained path for many women.
But in the past few decades, wedding rings have become optional accessories. And as the American single woman flourished, she also profoundly changed (and is still changing) the economy, politics and the basic social fabric of the U.S.
At least, that’s what Rebecca Traister argues in her new book, All the Single Ladies. Traister, who considers herself a “liberal feminist,” spoke to NPR about the political shifts that single women are creating, as well as how feminism is factoring into the 2016 election.
What are the biggest ways single women are shaping the country?
It shifts all kinds of things about the country. It certainly shifts our definition of what family looks like. There’s been what they call the “great crossover,” where the median age of first childbearing is now lower than the median age of first marriage.
The notion of having a baby without being married has moved from being something that’s so stigmatized — now, of course it is still stigmatized; I don’t want to pretend that it’s not — but this is a total revision when it comes to social expectations, the notion of what makes a family, how to design parenthood.
So it shapes our idea of what families can look like, and I think it’s done that in tandem with a gay rights movement that obviously has expanded definitions of families and parenthood and marriage to include same-sex couples.
And then there’s this whole world of social policy, which I argue is really tied to changing marriage patterns, and in ways that don’t seem obvious perhaps.
For example, I can’t believe how central it is to what we talk about regularly, because it was third rail like five minutes ago, but for example, the push for paid family leave.
In part, this comes from it being pushed by people who are close to power. In part, this comes from when changed marriage patterns sort of trickle up and become a mass behavior that is now happening within more economically privileged realms, and what you get are women and men who have these careers and they’re marrying later, and their children are coming in the midst of these careers, and they’re hitting the bump of, “Wait a minute. We don’t have paid leave.”
You’re also seeing an enormous number of low-income women who are having kids on their own, and the fact that they don’t have paid leave is far more economically devastating for them because they have to go back to work right away.
So you have this kind of crisis that is born of a normalized female independence. And that is forcing a crisis, where it’s actually forcing us to address it with social policy.
I would say also things like rise in the minimum wage. I believe almost two-thirds of minimum wage earners are women, many of them single.
So the drive to raise the minimum wage in part comes from a country in which women are now supporting themselves independently.
And even when it comes down to how long are American school days? School gets out at 3. Tax breaks for people who are married.
Those policies assume that there is a wage-earning person, presumed probably to be a man, and a domestic person in a given household. And the person who does the domestic labor is doing so for no wages or for low wages. That is no longer the case.
The flip side of the discussion of the social safety net is the idea that marriage solves poverty.
Well and that’s the big push from conservatives. Look, there are lots of factors that combine. Women’s entrance into the workforce all by itself is a big part of this. Of course, women’s entrance into the workforce also enables women to live outside of marriage much more freely.
But one of the ways you know that it’s changing marriage patterns that might be at the heart of this is because that’s what Republicans are freaking out about. So the enormous conservative push for not only everyone should get married but you should get married early, which is something Mitt Romney has emphasized. Jeb Bush … wrote a  book saying that the reason that we have a problem is that more single mothers aren’t shamed to have their out of wedlock children. [On the campaign trail last year, Bush said he wanted to shame fathers who abandon their kids, but not mothers.]
The amount of money that during the Bush administration — and then it’s continued into the Obama administration — has poured into marriage education programs, with the idea that marriage would solve poverty. This is a completely backwards policy idea. [The Obama administration has continued to fund marriage education but has also shifted the focus more directly onto fatherhood, as the Christian Science Monitor has reported.]
You know, some Republicans are trying to take playful aim at unmarried women. You saw that with the Republican gubernatorial ad campaign from 2014, I believe, where it was like “Say Yes to the Dress,” but it was “Say yes to Rick Scott.”
Oh right. I remember that.
And that was also the year that [Fox News’ Jesse Watters] called single women “Beyonce voters” and said they just want to use the government as their husband. This is the right-wing talking point about privileged single women, which is they just want a hubby state where the government does what husbands used to do.
By the way, that’s not untrue! Because the government for a long time has supported men. This is a thing we never talk about. The government has supported male dominance in a whole lot of ways, by not effectively protecting equal pay [and] through housing loans and subsidizing men’s college educations through the G.I. bill for a long time.
There are all kinds of ways in which especially white men in this country have been helped by the government.
But on the flip side you’re seeing some ways men could use a boost these days — specifically, the argument that the Earned Income Tax Credit should help single, childless men more.
That’s exactly right, but that’s another example of a readjustment of social policy in response to totally altered marriage and familial patterns.
And there’s this sense of like, wait a minute — our government benefits must better reflect what the citizenry actually looks like.
And so to some extent, if the idea is that women, for example, would have kids and get to take their time to be with their kids because they would be dependent on an earning husband who is getting tax breaks for being married and having a kid — that is no longer the case. Women are no longer necessarily married to that husband — they are maybe themselves the earner. They are either single or they are a crucial half or more of their marital economy.
Then you have to demand different kinds of support from the government than the kinds that just supported the male-breadwinner-female-domestic model.
Clearly all women aren’t the same — it feels wrong to lump all single women together when there are huge class divides. But what’s interesting is that you talk about it trickling up, as opposed to down the chain.
But that’s true of so many things, and it’s a pattern that’s repeated over and over again — so for example, the act of women working for wages, which has been an economic necessity for women, and certainly most poor women forever.
There may be many benefits to working outside the home for wages, but it’s certainly not been done as an act of liberation. It’s an act of economic necessity and has been since the beginning of time.
However, when that behavior trickles up to middle class and often predominantly white women, it becomes discernible as liberation.
When the women for whom it’s not an economic necessity can see that there are various kinds of freedoms in it and power, then we can see it as part of the feminist revolution of the 1970s that white women moved into workplaces.
So I would argue that there’s a very similar pattern in terms of not marrying. Once you get wealthier women — who by the way with their singlehood, because they have more resources, are able to capitalize on many of the benefits of independence — on getting higher educations and bigger jobs and making more money, then it becomes a sort of glamorized thing.
And I understand the temptation to say, “Right, well, the way that those Sex and the City women are living has nothing to do with the way that poor women are living,” but I think that’s a disservice both to the poor women and the wealthier women.
It casts poorer women just as victims, when in fact they were the pioneers of changing America’s assumptions about how women’s lives are supposed to go and about marriage patterns. And they were doing it because it’s what they needed to do for their lives.
And the other thing that it does is it says, “These flashy women don’t count either, because they’re just living this stupid, flashy life that’s just about high heels and drinks.”
That’s not true either. You don’t want to discount the power that is wielded by privileged independent women, who are first of all closer to having influence when it comes to things like government and social policy, and also who are challenging powerful men for all kinds of power as they become more independent and their independence becomes more threatening.
So I have to back up and switch topics to Big Girls Don’t Cry [Traister’s 2010 book about women’s prominent place in the 2008 election], because it seems so relevant today considering the “mother-daughter divide” everyone talks about among Democratic voters. What has changed since eight years ago?
Oh we’re repeating a lot of what’s true about what happened in 2008. Last month, [after controversial statements about gender from Gloria] Steinem and [Madeleine] Albright and Bill Clinton, it felt like a reunion of the not-helping brigade from 2008.
But I think the biggest positive change I can identify about [Hillary] Clinton’s campaign this year is actually Clinton herself. I think she’s running a much better campaign this year. I think her campaign is more functional. [But] it still has its challenges, especially sometimes with surrogates.
The reception of her continues to be very mixed and very difficult to talk about, especially when you’re in the midst of it.
Because once again, everyone is still on a hair trigger. If you start to talk about the way gender plays into her self presentation or her reception or, for example, some of the things Bernie [Sanders] gets to do like promise revolution and shout, that probably a woman — and certainly not the first woman to come this close to the White House — would ever do.
That lady would not be a plausible presidential candidate: the one who’s telling you you’re going to have a big socialist revolution.
So if you start to talk about that, then tempers are so hot right now because people are lined up behind their candidates. And there are two really exciting candidates. Bernie and Hillary are both thrilling candidates.
I think it’s wonderful that we have this contest right now. But people are so angry that if you begin to talk about the gender very quickly there’s a reflexive “this is not about sexism. This is about her shortcomings.”
I’ve loved [Clinton’s] lines that she’s given in debates and town halls where she’s said, “I’m very excited to see people so passionate about Bernie Sanders and so engaged in politics, and I hope to work to earn their vote.”
But then you have something like Steinem’s I think accidental remark on Bill Maher that seemed so disrespectful to young women. And certainly Albright, who I don’t think would have gotten as much play had it not happened after Gloria Steinem, because Madeleine Albright says that [“There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other”] like every day of her life. And as has been reported, it’s on a Starbucks cup.
I mean, it feels like a quote I’ve seen people Facebooking or social-media-ing or whatever for years. But in this context, it became a cudgel.
Well, I never thought the quote was inspirational. It’s always one of my least favorite. I don’t think total gender solidarity is ever a requirement. And I hate the notion that sisterhood somehow is supposed to quell disagreement between women.
Look. There is not a special place in hell for people who didn’t support Sarah Palin. Do you know what I mean? It’s ridiculous. And there is certainly not a special place in hell for women who don’t support Hillary Clinton.
However, the fact is [Albright] says it Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday-Friday of every week, and it doesn’t get much play. It was not invented by the Clinton campaign, nor was it invented for the Clinton campaign.
When I asked a Bernie Sanders supporter in Iowa if she had at all been tempted by the possibility of voting for a woman, she told me, “I’m not voting with my vagina.” That phrase is kicked around these days, often in a bad way. So I’m wondering: Is it OK to vote for someone because she’s a woman?
Sure. Of course. It’s OK to vote for anybody for any reason.
This is the fog of war stuff. It’s the middle of a very heated campaign. Everybody is very invested in their candidate.
When I was going through this in 2008, I felt crazy. Like, Oh my God. You’re not even allowed to say it’s important to you that she’s a woman, and we have literally our entire American history with no women in executive power?
It’s certainly not the foremost reason that anybody I knew supported her, but of course it played into lots of people’s excitement about her, right? But you couldn’t say it. It was considered a dumb thing to say. It was considered a super feminized thing to say. You were thinking with your ovaries. It’s just because you were a girl, blah blah blah.
And I remember thinking, Since when is it progressively OK that a country that’s 51 percent female has only been governed by men? And that more than 80 percent of Congress is male? Why is it OK to not care about that?
And then by the time I published my book in 2010, everyone was like, “Oh, yes, that’s very true. We did do that.” There’s a distance.
And now we’re back in it and again it’s like — you might as well just like put giant ovaries in your eyes with hearts if you’re going to say, “It matters to me.”
Many of the people who are critical of Clinton but who are feminist and who are progressive, one of the things they say is, “It’s important to me to have a female president, but it’s not the overriding concern for me, and it’s not going to drive my vote.”
That’s a really fair thing to say.
It then gets transmitted very often — and especially if the person who has a really legitimate beef with Clinton, is very angry, or has also been made to feel like they are somehow betraying their sex if they’re a woman or that they’re not a real feminist — then it gets transmitted and amplified into “I’m not going to do this stupid thing of voting with my vagina.”
So part of it I think it comes from well-intentioned progressives.
And in part it’s just a larger cultural message. If there weren’t a lot of cultural and social resistance to having a woman president, we probably would have had one in the past 225 years. The resistance to this comes in many forms and from many directions.
And I’m not saying that to oppose Clinton is a sexist move. I’m not equating opposition to Hillary Clinton with sexism.
However, there are some people whose opposition to Clinton — on totally valid and legitimate grounds — some people reach for kind of dismissive or misogynist language to convey their distaste for her.
Are you supporting any particular candidate at this point?
No. I’m not shy about it: I do a lot of defense of Clinton. But my job is to put her candidacy in a gendered and historical context, which means I’m often left doing the work of doing feminist defense for her.
I like [Clinton and Sanders] both. There are scenarios in which I could see myself voting for either one of them.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.