Marriage is traditionally the destiny offered to women by society. Most women are married or have been, or plan to be or suffer from not being. - Simone de Beauvoir
When I was 24, my best friend and I were invited to the wedding of a woman, our age, that we knew from the feminist punk scene. She was marrying her high school boyfriend. Britt and I wore wigs to the ceremony -- though it wasn't that kind of party. Looking back, I think we subconsciously felt like the whole idea of marriage was so peculiar, so weird, that we needed to make a statement. Why not make a spectacle at a spectacle?
For the majority of my posse of foxy, nonconformist friends, marriage was as distant and cold as Siberia. We had way more fun things to do. Bands to see. Global travel adventures to plan. Boys and girls to hook up with. Degrees to finish. Music to write. Stories to publish. Protests to plan. Weddings? No thanks. Besides, we had each other for companionship, love, and support. Sure, some were in committed relationships, but we absolutely, positively were not looking to get married. Marriage to me looked stifling, patriarchal, oppressive, and -- worst of all -- boring. Back in colonial times, we would have been referred to has "thornbacks," the word for an unmarried woman over the age of 26.
Just a generation before, things were different. My mom married my dad at the age of 19, to live with him during Army training. Her two sisters married young as well. Neither of those marriages lasted long; my parents, on the other hand, have been together since 1969.
I got to thinking about marriage, and the single life, and what it all means after reading All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, the excellent and engrossing new book by Rebecca Traister. A keen blend of history, socio-cultural commentary and memoir, the book reads as a prism of issues, struggles, and victories surrounding single women in America -- both today and throughout history. We are now living in the "epoch of single women," writes Traister. As such, it's time for government and legislators to step up to the policy plate and build a world around this new, impressive, and fully data-supported reality.
"Single women are taking up space in a world that was not built for them. We are a new republic, with a new category of citizen. If we are to flourish, we must make room for free women, must adjust our economic and social systems, the ones that are built around the presumption that no woman really counts unless she is married."
The choice to be single is not a new phenomenon. But, statistically, there are far more single ladies in the U.S. now than ever before. As of 2009, the "number of adults younger than thirty-four who had never married was up to 46 percent." For the first time in history, due to a complex political, cultural, and economic stew, single women outnumber married women. More women are also choosing to delay marriage, if they marry at all.
I didn't marry until I was 34, and not without a fair amount of trepidation. It was exciting to be engaged to a man that I loved, to make such a big commitment. It was also terrifying. I felt like a wild horse about to be tamed. I had built a life of creativity, of socializing with my friends and basking in my own agency. As such, I found much to identify with in Traister's nuanced look at the steadily increasing sexual, economic, and cultural power of single women in the U.S.
So why do people get married in 2016? Lots of reasons, explains Traister. In rural areas, being single can still be a rough path to take, and so women marry out of religious or social pressure. Many people these days marry for love, whether they are fooling themselves or not. Others marry, as one of my Facebook friends put it, "for financial aid and health insurance." Marriage, if anything, has become a more complicated proposition than it was 100 years ago, when marrying was simply the expected thing to do, for better or for worse.
I also discovered that I'm not alone in my choice to marry later in life. This is a good thing, argues Traister. Despite what conservative pundits bemoaning the dismal drop in early marriage rates might argue, the postponement of marriage, and the prolonged ability for women to be single, has actually made the whole institution a better place to live.
"The women who, for centuries, have been fighting to be able to stay single longer or forever, who have been blasting new paths and new space for themselves in the world, have made an impression on their fellow citizens. In delaying marriage, they have made it more conceivable to riff on it, to do it later, to do it differently, to do it better."
Yet there's also a range of reasons why women choose not to marry. Some, like Lena Dunham, the poster girl for single millennial creative success, most likely view marriage as an infringement on creative freedom, and not a requirement for full lady status. Or, as Traister told Jia Tolentino in a Jezebel interview: "Yes, marriage changes if you don’t just need a warm body and a paycheck. If you can get your own paycheck—if you can have a baby on your own—if you can have a sex life..." Young women now also have "alternate models of female life more visible and available to them." Others, like some of the women profiled in Traister's book, live in poor communities, where high rates of incarceration, unemployment, and domestic violence make marriage unappealing, if not downright impossible.
Another element of single life that Traister covers well is female friendship. "Among the largely unacknowledged truths of female life is that women's primary, foundational, formative relationships are as likely to be with each other as they are with the men we've been told since childhood are supposed to be the ones who complete us," she writes.
My husband sometimes comments on how easily I make friends, and how devoted I am to those friends once they are in my life. It's true. I take the Anne Shirley approach to friendship, a feverish devotion. (“It's about Diana,' sobbed Anne luxuriously. 'I love Diana so, Marilla. I cannot ever live without her. But I know very well when we grow up that Diana will get married and go away and leave me.") My old friends from my fancy-free twenties mostly live in different cities now, but we still have a love that bonds us, hopefully until the end of our lives. Not all of us are single ladies anymore, but most of us who married did so late, if at all -- shaped already by years of female bonding, sexual experimentation, college and graduate school, travel and adventure. We got our taste of freedom. It shaped us, it shifted us, and it made us who we are today. If I'd gotten married at 22, and had kids early, I don't think I'd have the same sense of self. Nor would I have these deep friendships that sustain me as much as my marriage does, in different, just-as-essential ways.
All the Single Ladies left me with one burning question. Why do women get married these days? I can count on one hand my few friends that have married for religious reasons. But most of my married friends are savvy, strong, and smart people who could easily make it through life without a husband or wife. Is everyone marrying for love?
I don't have an answer. But reading All the Single Ladies has me thinking about how we, as a society and a country, can better support and celebrate the single woman, whatever her age, class, or status. Traister shares a few suggestions for how to do this, policy-wise, and they are good. Most of all, the book handed me a new lens through which to view my single twenties, my choice to marry late, and the choice of others in my friend circle and beyond to stay permanently single. This is not an aberration. This is an evolution, and not a minute too soon.