Before "All the Single Ladies," There Was "Singled Out"
A fabulous new book on single women, and a book that preceded it
Posted Mar 07, 2016
I just wrote a rave review that will be published in the coming weeks. It begins like this: "Some books are not just books, they are events. Rebecca Traister's All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation is among them." For making a compelling case for single women's role in some of the most significant progressive achievements in the nation, Traister deserves all of the accolades that have come her way, and many more that I'm sure will follow.
In my review, I describe about a dozen additional consequential contributions that All the Single Ladies makes to our understanding of single women and single life. The book is going to be a classic, and deservedly so. I hope it continues to sell zillions of copies and that Traister is recognized with a whole slew of awards.
I've been thinking for days about how to say what I want to say next without seeming ungrateful. I am grateful for All the Single Ladies. It has the potential to recast the place of single women, from the margins to the very center of American life. I love the book. I'm also grateful that my book, Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After, was mentioned in passing here and there. But I think it has more than a passing significance to many of the issues that were addressed in All the Single Ladies. Readers of All the Single Ladies who had never read any other books about single people would come away with no sense that Singled Out was an important intellectual predecessor of Traister's book.
I care about this for several reasons, which are probably obvious. First, Rebecca Traister's All the Single Ladies is going to be the definitive work on the topic for years to come. I wish the book had accorded my book more than a bit-player status. Second, I have lived and breathed these issues for nearly two decades. I've written scholarly articles, as well as books and articles for broader audiences. I've done teaching, research, and advocacy. Since I started blogging at Psychology Today in 2008, I don't think even one week has passed when I have not written at least one article about single life. But with just a few exceptions, I have been excluded from the proliferation of reviews and articles and conversations about All the Single Ladies that have poured forth in just the 6 days since the book was published.
Maybe all that is appropriate. Maybe Singled Out really is just a bit player in the story of research and writings about single life. Maybe Kate Bolick was wrong when she said in her Atlantic article with the same title as Traister's book that I am "America's foremost thinker and writer on the single experience." There is probably no worse judge of that than me.
The central argument of All the Single Ladies, about the role of unmarried women in "the rise of an independent nation," is one that I never made in Singled Out. I do think, though, that Singled Out anticipated some of the other arguments that Traister made. Here are some examples:
#1 Traister makes the important point that the way Americans practice coupling is not universal. For example, she notes that:
TRAISTER: "The majority of Americans will wind up married, or seriously committed to another person for some portion of their lives. And right now, that sets the nation apart from many countries around the world." (p. 238)
Here's what I said in Singled Out:
DEPAULO: "…the way that coupling is envisioned in contemporary American society is not universal, it is not timeless, and it is not human nature. Instead, the reigning American worldview may well represent one of the narrowest construals of intimacy ever imagined. Where once the tendrils of love and affection reached out to family, friends, and community, reached back to ancestors, and reached up to the heavens, now they surround and squeeze just one other person – sometimes to the point of asphyxiation." (p. 25)
#2 About the hopes we invest in marriage, Traister said this:
TRAISTER: "…it's awfully easy to see marriage as the elusive solution, the institution where loneliness is ameliorated and solutions to personal challenges can be found." (p. 147)
Here's what I said in Singled Out:
DEPAULO: "As much as I find the soulmate concept sappy and silly, I also understand its appeal. The soulmate promises an all-in-one solution. Find that one perfect person, and you have – for starters – your best friend, your sexual partner, your comforter and care-taker, your cheerleader, your escort to every social function, your consultant on matters large and small, and the one and only teammate you will ever need in home management, money management, and vacation planning. And that list doesn’t even include any of the potential co-parenting possibilities. The soulmate mythology is the ultimate seduction: Find that one right person, and all of your wishes will come true. Find that one perfect person, your All-Purpose Partner, and your path through the rest of your adult life is set. And it will be a happy path, indeed." (p. 247)
#3 Traister describes the belief that:
TRAISTER: "if a woman is not wed, it's not because she's made a set of active choices, but rather that she has not been selected – chosen, desired, valued enough." (p. 136)
In Singled Out, I described what other people make of single people this way:
DEPAULO: "The simple distinction, you have a serious partner or you don’t, maps onto the golden rule of singlism, the way of thinking that has become the conventional wisdom of our time: You have a serious partner or you lose. If you are single, then you lose by definition. No matter what you can point to on your own behalf – spectacular accomplishments, a lifelong and caring convoy of relatives and friends, extraordinary altruism – none of it redeems you if you have no soulmate. Others will forever be scratching their heads and wondering what’s wrong with you and comparing notes (he’s always been a bit strange; she’s so neurotic; I think he’s gay). It is like having a gymnastics routine lacking a key element that qualifies it for a perfect score; no matter how skillfully and gracefully you perform your routine, it will always be judged as lacking." (p. 4)
#4 Many pundits delight in casting single people as immature. Traister is having none of it. For example:
TRAISTER: "There is nothing automatically adolescent about moving through the world largely on one's own – working, earning, spending, loving, screwing up, and having sex outside traditional marriage." (p. 135)
That's my position, too. In Singled Out, I described the research my colleagues and I did documenting the ways in which people stereotype singles as immature. I also said this:
DEPAULO: Married people "can expect a specific other person to be there for them in a way that a single person typically cannot. Does that make married people more mature than single people? Or in terms of pure, raw maturity, don't you have to hand it to the people who can live their lives fully, joyfully, and fearlessly without the crutch of a signed and sworn statement of support to have and to hold?
"Married people are on training wheels. Singles are riding the bikes for grown-ups." (pp. 130-131)
#5 Traister points out the hypocrisy in criticizing single women for spending money on themselves while married women can do so with nary a harsh judgment from anyone. For example:
TRAISTER: "I myself judged Sex and the City for its reliance on expensive shoes and meals as symbols of female independence. But we are used to the idea of expenditure on familiar domestic trappings. I might have reared back from the scene of Carrie Bradshaw dropping hundreds of dollars on a pair of shoes, but would I have batted an eye at Carol Brady writing out a check for drapes?" (p. 132)
Here's how I made a similar point in Singled Out:
DEPAULO: "Many children are endlessly indulged on their birthdays. They are the special person, and it is their special day. They get their favorite cake, sometimes grandly decorated, along with all sorts of other tasty treats. Lots of friends and relatives come and bring them presents. The birthday kid will often dress up for the occasion and the other kids who come to the party might dress up, too. Occasionally, one of the special friends cannot make it, and the birthday child might pout. That’s allowed. It is a special day. Others may try to comfort and cheer the child. Some kids like to go someplace special on their birthdays, and that wish, too, is often granted.
"How, I ask you, is this scenario any different from a wedding?
"Okay, that is unfair. To the children and their parties. In the race to ever more staggering displays of self-celebration, weddings beat birthday parties hands down. Couples planning their nuptials can be far more self-indulgent, self-centered, and self-promoting than most children could ever get away with. In extravagance, newlyweds also leave “parasite singles” in the dust. But they are rarely called on it. Their splurges are not deemed selfish, but romantic." (p. 114)
Later, in my critique of sociologist Masahiro Yamada's labeling of Japanese unmarried women as "parasite singles," I said this:
DEPAULO: "Think back, now, to the singles I described at the beginning of this chapter – the ones who were castigated as “parasite singles” and as selfish. Their gatherings – dinners out, travel adventures, shopping trips – really were communal. Whole groups of women participated as equals. No one woman, and no pair, was singled out as special and above all the rest. The bonds they cherished as lasting were with each of the other women. These women were not narrowly linking themselves to just one other person…
"It is true that the single women described by Yamada buy themselves pricey handbags and clothes. Unlike bridal wedding ware, however, the adornments purchased by singles are worn over and over again." (p. 119)
#6 Traister discusses the happiness of single and married people (pp. 149-150) and also considers the oft-repeated conclusion that the children of married parents fare better than the children of single parents (pp. 289-290). I have written about these claims, and what's wrong with the research supposedly supporting them, at great length in Singled Out and in many other places as well. What I had to say would have strengthened Traister's points.