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The family is changing. Will the social contract catch up?
Photograph: Vince (via flickr)
All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation
Simon & Schuster, $27 (cloth)
State of Insecurity: Government of the Precarious
Verso, $12.95 (paper)
After Marriage: Rethinking Marital Relationships
Elizabeth Brake (ed.)
Oxford University Press, 29.95 (paper)
Two weeks after I left the United States for a stay in Germany, I found myself nearly incapacitated by nausea, pain, dizziness, and fatigue. I had moved to Berlin on my own. I knew no one in the city and barely spoke the language. My American health insurance did me no good, and I had not yet set up German coverage.
Alone, with no one to care for me, I dragged myself to daily doctor appointments. I stumbled around grocery stores, trying to cope with the nationwide lack of Saltine crackers when everything I ate immediately came back up. And every day, I worked from my bed, with my laptop laid warmly on my chest. Freelance writers do not get sick leave. After about ten days of this, I had a quick outpatient surgery, paid for with cash. I woke up from the anesthesia, still alone, in a small, curtained cubicle, only to find the clinic would not release me unless someone picked me up. I called the only local whose phone number I had, a German guy I had met at a party on one of my first days in the country. “This is going to sound weird . . . .” But he was a war photographer, and he handled it well. “I once had to have surgery in rural Nigeria,” he told me as he bundled me into his car.
While reading Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, I often thought of this episode. In her examination of America’s fast-growing unmarried population, Traister makes single life sound so romantic. She is married now, but she looks back on singlehood as a period of ease and freedom. If bad things happened to her, it was only the universe demonstrating how much she could overcome. Her great challenge was transporting an air conditioner to her apartment. Turns out, it wasn’t that hard. She got a taxi, and then her landlord helped her carry it up the stairs. She felt empowered.
There is a kind of Protestant-lean-in-bootstrap-feel-the-burn vibe to Traister’s narrative, where providing for yourself is the only goal that matters.
My story does not make me feel empowered. It makes me feel lucky. I was lucky that German law allows even uninsured people to obtain treatment at a price I could afford. I was lucky to have had surgery early enough to fix my problem. But with luck comes fear. What will happen if I get sick again? I’m back in the States, and I have health insurance, but even the insured face major financial hardship. And, even in the age of the Affordable Care Act, many still lack that safety net.
In these conditions, are single women powerful or imperiled? Where Traister sees independence, I see vulnerability. Where she sees political and personal strength, I see women making do with limited options and difficult circumstances.
It is indeed important that women can be independent from men, and the social revolutions enabling that condition were necessary to the advancing cause of women’s equality. But the process of social change has not been accompanied by serious effort to replace the good in what was lost. We broke the intergenerational home into the nuclear family. We broke the nuclear family into the individual. But we have not done enough to replace the security and safety of the family with a social equivalent. Thus we are left with individuals solely responsible for their own care—and precarity.
• • •
Politically and socially, unmarried women remain curiosities. For conservatives, the unmarried woman is a menace, draining public resources with her insistence on breeding recklessly and her brazen rejection of male financial support and companionship. For traditionalists, she is an object of pity, too misguidedly selfish and independent (a bad thing) to know the true joy of partnership. And for Traister’s strand of feminist, she is fierce, fabulous, and independent (a good thing), bucking cultural pressures to create a new kind of life.
All of these observers are, at least, addressing a real trend. Demographic research shows that unmarried women, once an anomaly, now represent normality. As of 2012, unmarried adults were some 47 percent of our population, and that number is rising. American women are waiting longer to get married, more are raising children without cohabiting with a romantic partner, and more are living alone.
Why is this change happening? Traister, who has covered women’s issues and politics for venues such as Salon, The New Republic, and The Nation for years, looks at the numbers and assumes a choice is involved. Women are choosing to delay marriage, raise children as single mothers, and live alone. And that seems to be true of the women Traister profiles in her book, but it is not necessarily the case for the majority of women who stay unmarried longest.
All the Single Ladies means well. It aims to empower and uplift, much like the Beyoncé anthem that gave it its name (though, if one wanted to be humorless and didactic about it, one might point out that this song urges the importance of marriage). After all, single women live in a hostile culture. Tabloids and gossip rags shame unmarried women and suggest that, no matter how successful they are, if they don’t have a husband they are failures. Politicians routinely accuse unmarried women of eroding the social fabric, from President Reagan’s myth of the “welfare queen”—the single mother parasitically luxuriating on social services—to the Republicans who pilloried attorney-activist Sandra Fluke, a single woman who in 2012 testified before a House committee in favor of health insurance coverage for contraceptives. The pro-marriage propaganda machine is strong and thorough, and Traister understandably wants to counter it.
But, disturbingly, she treats independence as an unquestioned virtue. There is a kind of Protestant-lean-in-bootstrap-feel-the-burn vibe to Traister’s narrative, where providing for yourself is the only goal that matters. Other effects of your choices are left unexamined. For example, Traister is enamored of the city, which, she writes, provides the kind of spousal care that a romantic partner might have. Here you can easily pay someone to launder your clothes, cook your meals, get you from place to place. What goes unmentioned is that the laundry workers, cooks, transit employees, and so on—many of them young, unmarried women—increasingly are unable to live within the cities where they are employed. These service workers are being priced out in part by single women moving into what was once cheaper housing. In other words, independence costs money, and it comes on the backs of caregivers and service workers who don’t have that money.
An illuminating example of Traister’s unmarried woman is twenty-three-year-old Caitlin Geaghan. An interior designer in Washington, D.C., Geaghan aspires to run her own firm. She also wants to travel and to take flying lessons. When asked about her plans for marrying, she tells Traister, “I don’t anticipate it being anytime soon.”
In the appendix, we learn that Geaghan “did take flying lessons and became engaged to her instructor.” So it goes for most of the book. The women here are almost all employed and financially independent. Most are dating, but those who aren’t chose not to; they are not involuntarily celibate. Most do want to marry at some point. At the very least, they probably will live with a partner and share a household and financial responsibilities. They are in control of their futures, and any mishaps along the way are just charming anecdotes to be laughed about one day.
Traister provides an idealized portrait, in which hardship largely disappears not because it doesn’t exist but because she ignores it. Both single men and women appear to have lower survival rates when stricken with cancer and other serious diseases, but none of the women in All the Single Ladies get cancer. Single mothers are at especially likely to be poor or homeless, but none of the women in All the Single Ladies work three part-time jobs and yet live out of their car. And so on. The book seems deaf to the challenges singledom can present when the rest of society is not there to pick up the slack.
It is telling that only one chapter in All the Single Ladies focuses on the financial instability of the unmarried. And in it, Traister, who is usually assiduous about dramatizing her story with real-life cases, finds no single, poor women to profile. (By contrast, in the preceding chapter, on ambition, she profiles almost a dozen women.) In “For Poorer,” she talks to one mother who had a stable, unmarried relationship with the father of her child. He was employed and supported her as she went to college and worked her way into a career. There is another formerly poor woman, but the rest of the chapter is filled with experts explaining in an abstract way the precarious lives some unseen women lead. The vividness with which Traister conveys independence and ambition is replaced, when discussing poverty, with a more clinical approach. Perhaps we are meant to delight in the victories and forget the downsides. If a woman finds success in the modes of money and career, she is given the space to tell her own story. If not, she becomes a statistic, and others tell her story for her.
Among those who stay unmarried, black, Hispanic, and poor women are over-represented. Traister acknowledges this, and she does an admirable job presenting a wide range of voices across ethnic and racial groups. But these women are of one class. The stories here are mainly from the majority of women who will get married, even if they weren’t when they were interviewed.
That is to say, the women Traister celebrates are relatively insulated from what Isabell Lorey, in State of Insecurity: Government of the Precarious (2015), calls the “return of mass vulnerability.” Housing, employment, and care structures have become less stable, while safety net measures to protect individuals from poverty, homelessness, and premature death have been undermined. Though men are hardly immune from this vulnerability, women—especially single women—face even worse conditions thanks to the wage gap, overrepresentation in lower-paid care and service jobs, and lack of subsidized day care, federally mandated paid maternity leave, or even reliable, affordable family planning services such as contraceptives and abortion. No one is entirely safe from today’s political-economic reality, but certain segments of the population are at higher risk.
The removal of state welfare protections is not the only source of this risk. Consider also low interest rates that discourage saving, an education system that saddles young people with enormous debt, a barely regulated housing market where rents rage endlessly upward, and the increasing reliance on self-employment and the gig and sharing economies. All conspire toward life on the edge, like a house of cards: each component has to be kept in perfect balance lest the whole structure fall.
“Precarious living and working conditions are currently being normalized at a structural level,” Lorey writes, leading to a kind of internalization of insecurity. The precarious subject takes on the anxiety of her position as a private burden: work harder and longer, look out for number one, and blame yourself if things go wrong. The flipside is the selfish mindset that takes over when people internalize the idea that they are in it only for themselves.
Where to turn for help? The women in All the Single Ladies credit their friends as their new family and caretakers, but individuals cannot reasonably expect their friends to fill this role. In many of the anecdotes, women complain about losing friends when they chased jobs to other cities, coasts, or countries. Americans are increasingly mobile; it is too much to ask that everyone recreate their support structures with each move or change of heart. At one point Traister intended to raise a child on her own and move in next door to a friend who would do the same. As neighbors, they could share responsibilities and assist one another. However, before the plan came to fruition, Traister met her soon-to-be husband and decided to raise her child within a nuclear family. We do not know what happened to her friend.
• • •
Traister’s book has been praised for promoting a kind of revolutionary politics on the basis of single women’s power. Yet her goals are sometimes quite conservative. Singlehood is presented as merely an interlude before marriage. One of the great successes of the single women “movement,” according to Traister, is that eventual marriage is more satisfying and less likely to end in divorce. No radical societal reorganization is required if the assumption is that entry into a nuclear family will in time bring these women the stability and security they need.
As a growing demographic, single women are increasingly pandered to by both Republicans and Democrats, but their political power is expressed passively. Voter turnout for young women and men is low, and once they get married, their votes trend to the right. Single women also appear unlikely to run for office. The societal changes Traister tracks are made mostly through consumer or lifestyle choices rather than political organization.
This is a logical outgrowth of her focus on women’s “independence.” When the goal is autonomy, one need have little interest in social change. Personal triumph is the order of the day, not the improvement of the whole; if one’s status is fragile, it can be overcome with hard work. A call to activism can be satisfied by voting in one’s self-interest.
This lack of social concern may reinforce the fairy tale of marriage, in which two people—perhaps with a smattering of friends and out-of -town in-laws—meet each other’s financial, emotional, physical, and sexual needs. Even the rise of the unmarried, high divorce rates, and decades of feminist and queer critiques have not finally dispelled the fantasy. Marriage as an institution may be corrupt, broken, doomed, but my marriage . . .
Take as an example the many women in All the Single Ladies who express trepidation and confusion about one day becoming mothers. They seem stuck between a choice of single motherhood, with all the attending financial, social, and emotional instability; waiting for an ideal romantic partner to come along at the right time; or forgoing motherhood all together. Traister offers no alternatives, other than her fleeting idea to band together with a friend.
But alternatives are possible. In the anthology After Marriage: Rethinking Marital Relationships, philosophers Samantha Brennan and Bill Cameron argue that we should stop legally organizing our society through marriage contracts and instead replace them with parenting contracts, thereby helping to divorce reproduction from romance. A group of men and women could enter into a contract to parent a group of children together, or two friends not intimately involved could become co-parents of one child. Members of a romantic couple can create a legal bond to their child rather than to each other; if their relationship breaks down, the legal framework for continued child-care responsibilities will still be in place. No need to leave the child’s fate up to family court during an already-tumultuous time. Anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy argues that giving children more access to alloparents—non-related adults in the community—might improve children’s emotional security and sense of community.
Another much-needed response to precarity is more housing. Here again, though, Traister betrays a lack of class-consciousness when she praises micro-housing. Cities are turning to smaller apartments in order to solve shortages, albeit for single people only. They will need a good deal of money. In New York City, a recently opened building rents 302-square-foot apartments for more than $2,500 a month. Resident use an app called Hello Alfred, which arranges their grocery deliveries, laundry, and pet walking. Every unit is sealed off, with care services provided by some unseen other who most likely cannot afford to live even in these small rooms. In Seattle, a company called aPodment will rent you a place as tiny as ninety square feet.
Reading about these apartments took me back to an experimental micro-housing model I toured in Berlin, where the effect seemed to be cooperation rather than isolation. Each loft had its own bedroom, workspace, and bathroom, but there was a communal kitchen and laundry, as well as shared storage and living spaces. Care tasks were distributed among the residents, who nonetheless maintained acceptable levels of privacy. Each building would house a range of people who could support each other: retirees would provide and be compensated for child care on behalf of younger parents, college students would be mentored by the working residents, and if someone fell ill, another resident would run errands or check on them. This was not a state-run organization but a proposal made by architects, community organizers, and artists in an effort to address Berlin’s growing housing crisis.
As someone who recently backed out of a vegetable share upon learning that volunteer hours would be required, I know how resistant an independent-minded American can be to communal anything. And yet the environment in Berlin seemed nurturing and secure, especially compared to the cold blandness of Manhattan micro-housing. The Berlin model offers one creative response to the maldistribution of care in a world with fewer marriages and extended families on which to rely. Of course, no one here is arguing that those arrangements should be put back into place. The concern is that we not leave so many people alone and vulnerable in their absence.
Traister is not unaware of that vulnerability. She sees the need for strengthening welfare with mandated, paid medical leave and other state guarantees. But the state can only do so much to replace the stability lost as we removed the individual from the context of her family. A cultural shift may be most important: redirecting this conversation from individual to society. We would make more progress by focusing on responsibility for one another rather than empowerment of oneself. Subsidized day care does not do enough to fight off the neoliberal version of feminism, where you, and you alone, are your responsibility.
Overcoming single women’s vulnerabilities will require organization, transformation, and re-imagining traditional forms of care. “In their everyday practices of resistance and political struggle the precarious have the potential to refuse to allow themselves to be divided,” Lorey writes. If we want to create a society of mutual care and respect, rather than one that rewards the rapacious and self-oriented, we must stop acting like dependence is a degraded state, or like real independence is even possible.
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