The 2012 Obama campaign’s cartoon about an American woman named Julia who lives (alone) with government assistance from preschool to retirement was designed to create a reaction — and it got one. Conservatives took it apart: Head Start doesn’t work! Medicare is hurtling toward insolvency! The state can’t take the place of a husband! But conservatives’ focus on government programs and social science missed the point of the ad, which was political. It was designed to court an increasingly important Democratic voting demographic: single women.
The statistics are becoming familiar. Since 2009, single women in America have outnumbered married women. The proportion of never-married adults under the age of 34 has risen to an amazing 46 percent. Just one of the by-products of this growing rejection of marriage is that single American women are closing in on a quarter of the electorate today. The question of who will get the votes of these women is settled: Single women are Democrats, overwhelmingly so. The question of whether they will vote, however, is very much open. So to rouse them to the polls, the Democratic party has sought to mainstream the life of Julia, even to celebrate going through life unencumbered by a man. To aid this get-out-the-vote effort now comes Rebecca Traister with All the Single Ladies.
Traister, who covered the 2008 Democratic primaries for Salon and sobbed when Hillary Clinton lost to Barack Obama, writes of a “revolution” in women’s life options brought on by the decline of marriage. The requirement that all women, “regardless of their individual desires, ambitions, circumstances, or the quality of available matches,” must march “down a single highway toward early heterosexual marriage and motherhood” has been lifted. The decline of marriage is the triumph of feminism — the “liberation [that] is at the heart of our national promise.”
It’s worth noting that no conservative book could make declarations of such a broad character without providing extensive social science to back them up. But many liberal writers, particularly on the subject of women, feel themselves under no such obligation. All the Single Ladies does not disappoint those expecting a largely uncritical examination of growing singlehood, particularly single motherhood.
The average age of first births for American women now precedes the age of first marriage. In 2013, half of first-time births were to unmarried women. For women under 30, that number was an alarming 60 percent. But Traister stolidly ignores the social science behind her subject in favor of the politics of it. She simply asserts that poverty causes a lack of marriage, not the other way around, and goes on to dismiss the growing evidence that shows precisely the opposite.
Traister chalks up the documented diminished life prospects of the children of single parents to “broken social safety networks and economic policies that benefit the wealthy, the white, and the educated over the poor.” In fact, the latest data show that marriage reduces the likelihood that an American woman or her child will live in poverty regardless of her race, education, or age. What’s more, fewer children are poor and the odds of escaping poverty are greatest in communities consisting largely of married families — again, regardless of race or educational attainment. Simply being married is associated with an average reduction in the likelihood of poverty of at least 40 percent over the unmarried.
In the face of such data, Traister takes refuge in a very old argument in feminism: that deep in their hearts, men fear independent women (women independent of men, that is). Anyone who sees any downside in the turn away from marriage, according to Traister, is just scared of uppity women. And on this subject at least, she leaves few bases uncovered. She goes back to the beginning, to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who first jolted the national conscience with his report about the crisis in the black family. The 1965 Moynihan report, in Traister’s fevered feminist perspective, wasn’t a prescient diagnosis of societal decline but the first stirrings of the male backlash against “independent,” unmarried women. “Moynihan boiled his argument down to one, punishing point: that the root of black poverty lay with the breakdown of marital norms for which nonconforming women were responsible” (emphasis mine).
Since then it’s all been uphill as far as Traister is concerned. Women have been shunning marriage in greater and greater numbers, preferring instead to cohabitate; to live a “sex and the city” life in which domestic chores are less onerous (cooking is replaced by takeout, and small apartments don’t need much cleaning); to find companionship and babysitting in friendships with other women; or to work, go out to brunch, attend political rallies, but never marry at all. Non-marriage has become so commonplace, Traister crows, that it’s now a no-brainer, a guilt-free act of liberation and self-actualization. One could be forgiven, after reading All the Single Ladies, for wondering whether there were ever any children at this party to celebrate women’s liberation from heterosexual coupledom.
“The most radical of feminist ideas — the disestablishment of marriage — has, terrifyingly for many conservatives, been so widely embraced as to become habit, drained of its political intent,” Traister writes. “The independence of women from marriage decried by Moynihan as a pathology at odds with the nation’s patriarchal order is now a norm.”
According to Traister, the spread of this “resistance to wifeliness” from the black family described by Moynihan to the white working classes is a good cultural appropriation, something to be lauded, like white flappers dancing to jazz invented by blacks. “It has always been the replicative behaviors or perspectives of white women — and not the original shifts pioneered by poor women and women of color — that make people sit up and take notice and that sometimes become discernible as liberation,” she writes. And it is the growing recognition of upper-class white women’s “liberation” that has conservatives crying crocodile tears over the plight of poor, unmarried mothers.
In fact, all this concern about poverty and low achievement among families headed by single women? It’s conservatives reaching for an easy target to exercise the fear and aggression they feel toward powerful single women. It’s influential single women (both real and fictional) with big megaphones who really threaten conservative men in Traister’s world. Think Anita Hill. Murphy Brown. Sandra Fluke. Lena Dunham. But what can men do to stop these powerful sisters? Poor, single mothers, on the other hand, are easy targets for their misogyny.
This is some tired, old-school gender feminism. Traister labors mightily to prop up the familiar conservative straw man so that she can inspire her new political charges — single women — to vanquish him. The stakes, she reminds us, are high. “The expanded presence of women as independent entities means a redistribution of all kinds of power,” she writes, “including electoral power, that has, until recently, been wielded mostly by men.”
And she makes no secret of the society that electorally empowered single women should build. She concedes that critics (including me) who charge that feminists seek to construct a “hubby state” in which government assumes the role of husband are essentially correct. Men, she contends, have long enjoyed the benefits of a “wifely state” in which government has supported them through policies such as tax breaks for home ownership and the right to accrue wealth and pass it to their children. She believes that these policies have somehow — though she doesn’t quite explain how — exclusively “bolstered the economic and professional prospects of men by depressing the economic prospects of women.” Single women, she asserts, now require new policies to support their “liberation.”
At the end of the book, Traister appends a list of such policies. They include, but are not limited to, a higher federal minimum wage, national health care, housing subsidies for single people, government-subsidized day care, paid family leave, universal paid sick-day compensation, and increased welfare benefits. One wonders how someone could offer such a prescription and at the same time subtitle her book “Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation.”
One also wonders how a publisher and an editor could countenance such dissonance.
And then one remembers that there is an election coming.
– Jessica Gavora is an author and ghostwriter in Washington, D.C.