The last decade has seen the flourishing of a genre we might describe as “Sociology Porn,” a form of pop-culture social studies that emerges from the incomprehensible minds of people like David Brooks. These are the richly rewarded ramblings eagerly consumed by a public that wants to appear learned without doing too much of the work of actually doing the research. Nuggets like the sort offered regularly by Brooks are like bacon-wrapped dates: Tiny morsels of fact wrapped in a rich coating of fatty nonsense.
Of late, Sociology Porn has turned its attention to Women and, in particular, Single Women. In the last few years, we’ve seen books like Moira Wiegel’s Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating, Jessica Valenti’s Sex Object: A Memoir, and Kate Bolick’s Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own. As the (actual) sociologist Bella DePaulo began pointing out over a decade ago in Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After, single people — not just women — have been on the rise for many years. Yet society and the laws governing mundane-but-deeply-important matters like taxation and housing have yet to catch up with the reality that fewer people than ever before see marriage as their lives’ crowning glory. (In addition, social benefits like childcare, healthcare, and paid sick leave remain entirely inaccessible to all but the most privileged single people.)
The newer books take such sociological analysis and numbers and turn them into fun, peppy narratives about how incredibly great and awesome it is that so many women are now resolutely single. Such a surge of interest in The Single Woman should bring joy to the millions of women who have borne the hardship of centuries of stigma. Single Women were once feared as witches (and then summarily executed), and they have been rendered Sad Sadies so desperate for sex that they take to hallucinating partners (recall The Unmarried Woman in Rear Window). The times are a-changing and today Single Women can take heart in the fact that they exist in numbers large enough to attract the attention of so many. Presumably, singletons read such books avidly and want to know: Will there now be more men to fuck? More women? What do I do with my infinite spare time? Will a Cat Cafe open in my neighborhood?
The latest in this body of pop sociology is Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, based on a number of interviews with single women and a history of marriage drawn from several sources. The title, derived from Beyoncé’s hit single, firmly locates the book in popular culture, immediately signaling its affinity with the now, the hip, the happening. The subtitle is reassuring: It’s not that Unmarried Women (note the emphasis on marital status) are on the rise, because that would imply they were acting in solidarity and, perhaps, against the general (and married) public. Rather, their growing presence is proof that America is, true to its storied (if entirely fictional) history, The Land of the Free. We Americans have allowed these women to remain unmarried and they add to our national identity and reaffirm that which has served to define us since the Boston Tea Party, our Love of Independence.
All the Single Ladies is an earnestly researched project, written by someone who is acutely sensitive to the political sensibilities of every single population. Much like the campaign of Hillary Clinton, a woman Traister has admired and written about for nearly a decade (her first book, Girls Don’t Cry, was about Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign), this book reads like it went through multiple focus groups. It is careful never to offend and, in the process, offers little of substance that has not been said before.
“Single status is now no longer a blight upon the land but a set of Very Useful Functions that keep the economy running smoothly.”
Like any decent research project, it is not without a few useful bits. Traister carefully points out, for instance, that in the years following World War II, the freedom from domesticity that so many white suburban women were able to enjoy in the late 1950s and onwards was enabled by the fact that so many black women could only find employment as domestic labor in their households. In terms of policy changes, her goals, which include more childcare resources and better pay, seem laudable enough.
But, ultimately, Traister has no real interest in Single Women except as a foil to the Married; she’s more interested in maintaining, not disrupting, the primacy of coupledom itself. The biggest flaw in the book, and in Traister’s vision as a whole, is that she ultimately sees singles not as independent people, valuable in and of themselves, but as those whose value is created by their usefulness to married couples and the state. So, for instance, single women are amazing because, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, they “spend more than a trillion dollars annually.” According to another report, “single, childless, non-cohabiting women over the age of twenty-seven are spending more per capita than any other category of women on dining out, rent, or mortgage, furnishings, recreation, entertainment, and apparel: $50 billion a year on food, $22 billion on entertainment, and $18 billion on cars.”
But more than anything else, single women are now making for better marriages. What does Traister mean by this puzzling assertion? Well, it turns out that single women are not necessarily abandoning marriage altogether (phew!), but simply pursuing it later. In the process, according to Traister, they’re actually helping make marriage better. And they’re not just making their own marriages better, by being more sure and confident of their needs, she tells us excitedly: They help improve other people’s marriages by modeling what confident women should be like, for their married male coworkers. She quotes Susan B. Anthony: “Once men were afraid of women with ideas and a desire to vote. Today, our best suffragettes are sought in marriage by the best class of men.” Traister’s happy conclusions about the usefulness of unmarried women come much after she explores their rise in numbers. Which is to say: First, she gives us the bad news, that there are more of them, and then she reassures us that it’s all, actually, good news.
All of this will no doubt be a huge relief for millions of Single Women. Their single status is now no longer a blight upon the land but a set of Very Useful Functions that keep the economy running smoothly. They spend more! They eat well! Goodbye to stale cheese and rice and beans! They tap into the housing market! They make other women’s husbands better, like training wheels on a bicycle!
Traister’s utilitarian view of single women explains the kind of single women she interviewed for the book. Of course, in keeping with her earnest adherence to a focus-group-like-laser-focus, they are culturally and racially diverse. But none of these women are anything but secure and successful, and they all have stable incomes.
And none of them are so gauche as to dislike or, Goddess Hera forbid, hate or be opposed to marriage. Instead, in the spirit of modern bourgeois feminists, they cast their decisions within the penumbra of “choice” — not rebellion, not revolt against an institution that has historically enslaved women and children, not a desire to strike a path away from the economic and political constraints foisted upon them, not an angry demand that the state should do better about the needs of a marginalized population, but merely a choice, like picking the shirt or handbag that suits you best. She approvingly quotes Anita Hill, who says she wants people to understand that, “you can have a good life, despite what convention says, and be single. That doesn’t mean you have to be against marriage. It just means that there are choices that society should not impose on you.”
In Sex and the City, which lurks in the background for all works in this genre of Sociology Porn about Single Women, Charlotte famously shouts, while justifying her decision to become dependent on her husband, “I choose my choice, I choose my choice!” The much-quoted lines are symptomatic of the attitude towards marriage among bourgeois feminists. The mantra of “choice” is taken to mean that there are multiple kinds of feminism, including the sort where women relinquish their economic independence, or support the erasure of abortion rights. The feminism Traister upholds, as Hillary Clinton upheld, is what we might call a “Big Tent Feminism,” the sort that makes allowances for every possible variation of “feminism” under the logic that If Women Want It, It Must Be Feminist. No matter how poisonous the effects may be (such as Hillary Clinton’s vote to authorize a brutal war that killed many thousands of innocent women), an empowered woman’s act is always a feminist act.
But what if Traister had interviewed those feminists who don’t see a separation between their economic interests and their gendered interests? What about the feminists who are single because they are resolutely against marriage? What about those who aren’t an economic benefit to everyone else, or who hate shopping? And what about those who think marriage is a terrible, rotting institution, yet eventually succumb to it because everything about American society, from healthcare to childcare to housing rights, is still organized to shut down women’s aspirations toward independence?
What if, for instance, we heard from the single woman in New York, also the epicenter of Traister’s world, who isn’t able to make rent but can’t stomach the idea of marrying that person with access to a rent-controlled apartment so she can stay? What of the single woman pushed into a homeless shelter and separated from her child by the Department of Child and Family Services, which deemed her an unfit mother because she was too poor because the city wouldn’t help her to find housing? Try telling these women how wonderful being single is, what a truly liberating choice they have freely made.
At the end of the book, Traister provides a section titled “Where Are They Now?”, with updates from some of her interview subjects. These are chirpy and chipper: “Happily single and living in Atlanta.” “She is happy.” “While finding work-life balance and managing finances remain ongoing challenges, Letisha wouldn’t trade her experiences of being a mom for anything.”
But those “ongoing challenges” eventually wear many women down, unless they become independently wealthy. As DePaulo astutely pointed out, the lives of married people are often literally subsidized by Singles — it’s Singles who are still expected to take up the (often un-or-underpaid) slack when married colleagues won’t work overtime, for instance. Even when tenured, single female academics are often expected to take on additional roles of nurturing students and extra unpaid administrative work.
In a section on wealth and poverty, Traister recognizes that there is a sticky underbelly of economic displacement and exploitation. She sees that the absence of wealth makes marriage coercive, and that being single is great if you’re rich and sucks if you’re poor. Yet on the whole, she paints a relentlessly sunny portrait of what it means to be Single in America. She knows that unless women are well-off, their single status is actually a source of material hardship. But this does not alter her generally rosy assessment, nor does it cause her to believe that a fundamental change in the economic order is necessary.
Broadly speaking, what Traister offers in her book is not an expansive history of a growing social trend, but a reassurance to a certain class of women and men that singledom does not threaten either the state of marriage or the state that requires people to be married and, most crucially, that the rise of singles will never threaten the stranglehold of capitalism. But a politically sharp diagnosis of singledom would not simply show that singles are rising in number, it would indicate the potential for their growth to actually disrupt the political status quo.
What would a more disruptive view of Singles look like? What if we actually took gender out of the picture altogether? To consider those questions, we have to first understand why Traister’s work and bourgeois feminism have been so appealing in the first place.
Traister’s book is, as far as these things can be accurately gauged, wildly successful. It has been talked about a great deal and she has appeared in and on several venues, like Real Time with Bill Maher, CBS’s This Morning, Elle, and NPR’s Fresh Air. The blurbs for her work are full of a level of praise unusual even in the world of blurb-writing: The New York Times describes her as “visionary,” while Annie Lamott declares hers to be “the most brilliant voice on feminism in this country.” It’s not simply that Traister’s book has sold a lot of copies, but that her vision of Singles is an influential one. But what explains the over-the-top praise? Why would something making rather basic observations be hailed as “visionary” and “brilliant”? What’s with these gushing blurbs?
In fact, the blurbs make perfect sense. Bourgeois feminism has a strong hold on the liberal and progressive imagination. Traister’s analysis echoes every principle of this feminism, and it explains why an unremarkable book which reads like a homework assignment is praised as “visionary.” All the Single Ladies and its particular version of feminism appeals to the upper middle-class feminist sensibility: It appears to empower, while in fact reaffirming power as it already exists. It flatters people into thinking that the existence of single women is revolutionary in itself, even though its whole argument is that they don’t disrupt the economy or anything else. But being single is no more revolutionary or interesting or world-changing than marrying; the point ought not to be what people are doing in their personal lives, but what changes we can bring about in their political and economic lives.
As we saw too clearly in the last election, this kind of feminism is incapable of thinking beyond the symbolic, and of creating meaningful changes in women’s lives. One cannot discuss Rebecca Traister without discussing Hillary Clinton, since Traister’s support for Clinton has been the source of much of her dispute with fellow feminists. Clinton is the exemplar of a “non-threatening” feminism, one that gets women into boardrooms (and into public office) without actually changing the underlying structure of companies or governments. The reason rich Democrats overwhelmingly favored Hillary Clinton in the primary is that Hillary Clinton offers their ideal political platform: symbolic gains for the gender, without the actual material gains that might require sacrificing some wealth.
Yet wealthy feminists like Traister, because they do not understand how women’s interests can actually conflict based on economic class, cannot understand opposition to Clinton as anything other than sexism. Thus when fifty-three percent of white women voted for Trump against the first female major-party presidential candidate, it created a puzzle for Traister. She was among those who saw Trump’s victory squarely as a result of racism and sexism. As she wrote in her diagnosis for New York magazine, Trump “was made possible by voters threatened by the increased influence of women and people of color.” For Traister, it is impossible that these women had a class identity, that they disliked Hillary Clinton for her ties to Wall Street. The logic of bourgeois feminism is that if you don’t vote for a woman, there must be something wrong with you. Implicit in this summation is a nasty bit of class-based innuendo: Only White Trash would vote for Trump against a female candidate. On this reasoning, women who don’t vote for women are essentially betraying their sex. We might recall here Madeleine Albright’s infamous statement in support of Hillary Clinton, that “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!”
But Albright, Clinton, and Traister’s feminism is not the feminism of working class or middle class women; it is inherently about solidifying the interests of wealthy women — consider, for instance, Hillary Clinton’s deep, expressed contempt for baristas. In October of 2016, a taped speech of Hillary Clinton speaking to her wealthy fundraisers emerged, in which she described Sanders supporters as delusional “basement-dwellers.” Her comments are worth quoting at some length:
“They’re children of the Great Recession. And they are living in their parents’ basement. They feel they got their education and the jobs that are available to them are not at all what they envisioned for themselves. And they don’t see much of a future….If you’re feeling like you’re consigned to, you know, being a barista, or you know, some other job that doesn’t pay a lot, and doesn’t have some other ladder of opportunity attached to it, then the idea that maybe, just maybe, you could be part of a political revolution is pretty appealing.”
This is the same contemptuous logic echoed by Traister, who can’t be bothered to interview any of these baristas who “don’t see much of a future,” and who might also be resolutely single women. Clinton could not, does not, and will not conceive of the fact that someone who is her daughter’s age and a barista might actually want to be one because she loves the job. Perhaps she just wants to get paid so well that she never has to take a second job. She wants to be unionized to guarantee she will not be fired because she refused to give her (married) manager a blowjob behind the fridge. And she doesn’t want to have to leave abruptly because she had a child, unwanted or not.
In Clinton’s remarks about baristas, one can sense the values held by this kind of feminism. One is “consigned” to being a barista, because being a barista is not what the successful people do. To the extent there is a problem, it is that people are not getting to run startups rather than pour coffee. But a socialist looks at the situation differently: The problem is not that people are “stuck” being baristas, it is that baristas are not accorded the respect and economic security that they should be given. For Clinton/Traister, there should be a meritocracy in which anyone can rise from their lowly, pitiful, underpaid position to become the boss. For someone committed to actual material equality, there shouldn’t be bosses, or lowly, underpaid positions, to begin with. It’s not that everyone should be able to get to the top of the hierarchy of female success, it’s that the hierarchy must be destroyed, so that people can do what they want with their lives without having to worry about whether they will be able to feed themselves or their children.
This lack of a serious vision of economic equality for women explains why Traister has massively overpraised Hillary Clinton’s significance for women. In her book on the 2008 election, Traister calls it “the election that changed everything for American women,” and has a chapter entitled “Hillary is us.” But Clinton’s 2008 campaign changed literally nothing for American women. They were still working the same jobs the day after she conceded as they were the day before she announced her run. And she definitely isn’t us in any important way. She’s not us, first and foremost, because she has several hundred million dollars of wealth, and because she doesn’t recognize that our lives are defined by the constraints of our economic conditions.
Clinton and Traister’s bourgeois feminism therefore absorbs the logic of capitalism — the accrual of wealth by the few — and vomits it out again as the affirmation of gender. In Traister’s worldview, single women are defined largely by their gendered interests, with economic interests being secondary. Traister makes feminism about empathy, desire, and shopping. But feminism is not something that comes about simply because of the presence of women; it is fundamentally about changing the world so that everyone, regardless of gender, has the same access to material benefits without needing to perform some economically useful function to the state and society. Gender is the tunnel through which we travel and understand one set of very, very stark oppressions. But a feminist revolution that simply ascribes “proper” functions to women alongside men or other women is not a revolution; it is simply a realignment of the status quo.
Feminist principles are not, ultimately, simply about making things better for women. They are about paying attention to gender in order to think about policies that make things better for everyone. So, for instance, a feminism that is simply about ensuring that women at the top get bathrooms with diaper-changing stations means nothing if the women and men who are cleaning those bathrooms — and presumably wiping baby shit from the walls — get neither time off nor the ability to place their children in care while at work. A policy that ensures that female professors get to take a year off after having their babies is useless if the system continues to simply hire adjuncts of all genders — who get no such benefits, no matter how well paid they are — to fill in for them.
Rebecca Traister and Bourgeois Feminists like her neither understand nor want any of this. And there is a Special Place In Hell for women who refuse to consider a feminism meant to ensure freedom for all, regardless of gender.