If you’re like me, you may have just updated your ultimate Beyoncé playlist with Lemonade. And you can’t have a Beyoncé playlist without All the Single Ladies. The reality is that today, more women in their twenties and thirties are walking around without rings on them.
I am one of those women. And so are most of my girlfriends. And I get anxiety thinking about how, at my age, my mother was already in wonderful marriage and a beautiful mother. One of the most common questions my friends and I wonder is why we are all (or almost all) single. Is there really something about living in NYC? Is it our fault? Are we too busy, too ambitious, or not ambitious enough, are we spending time on the “wrong” activities? Why, are there so many more women today that either choose, or fall into, spending longer portions of their lives as independent single women?
Traister details key legislations that were passed to allow women to gain independence and break the triangle of sex, marriage, and childbearing. She discusses the power that came with the legalization of birth control giving women control of their reproductive lives and sexual freedom. She also discusses the shift of portraying women as close companions to creating the backstabbing stereotype of women in competition for male attention in and out of the workplace. Issues that immediately reminded me of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay and Ted Talk, We Should All be feminists.
“Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important. Now marriage can be a source of joy and love and mutual support but why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage and we don’t teach boys the same? We raise girls to see each other as competitors not for jobs or accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing, but for the attention of men. We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are.” --Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists
What I thought was one of the most interesting points Traister makes is the link of singlehood to education. Today, there are more female high school graduates than male. There are more women receiving bachelors, master’s, law, and medical degrees than ever before. And looking at their marital status, “In 1890, over half of all female doctors were single, and of those women who earned PhDs between 1877 and 1924, three-quarters would not wed.” I was surprised to learn that in fact, women profit by delaying marriage –even in academia. Where is takes 6.7 years for a single woman to achieve tenure, it takes the married woman 7.8 years. Most interestingly, for men the opposite is true. It takes married men less time to get tenure than single men. [Editor's note: stay tuned for a critical look at something that we believe is critically intertwined with the success of women in academia: parental leave policies at academic institutions.]
Timing of marriage and children while pursuing careers in STEM is something my peers and I discuss. We’ve even tossed around the idea that if you want to have children, graduate school may just be the perfect time for its flexible hours. Because imagining doing so during post-docs, positions in industry, or as assistant professors is pretty hard. We’re afraid of the battles around maternity leave, and how taking “time off” for our personal lives will affect our reputations, relationships, publication rates, career prospects. And we have very few female professors to seek advice on how they approached building family lives. It seems that even our mentors will, consciously or unconsciously, encourage us to choose either the lab or motherhood. One of my peers, when deciding to apply for PhD programs, was asked “Why?” After all, she was going to be in her mid-twenties in a few years, and would only have babies on the brain. Surprisingly, what I learned from Traister’s book was that these fears may actually help our careers. As we delay marriage or motherhood, we’re more likely to achieve greater success in our careers. It’s a continuous circle that has motivated us to rethink the values we place on marriage and starting families. And it almost seems that the opposite is true for men. Because the traditional roles of marriage where the woman provides emotional and domestic support at home, gives men more opportunity and ability to focus and dedicate time in the workplace. We’ve grown up seeing these expectations played out in books, tv shows, and movies. That also doesn’t mean all marriages, or partnerships, are like that. And part of the new wave of feminism, is redefining –and even eradicating --the stereotypical gender roles in our relationships.
Traister expands on the new definition of companionship and our intimate relationships, how single women are making their impact in the space previously dominated by males, and the battles single women across all racial, social, and economic lines face in doing so. She lays down the notion that single women are a new republic, and claims it’s time for revisions in the social expectations and government policies to provide support for all women regardless of marital status.
I think the book is a great read, and really made me think about all of the single women that I am surrounded by in graduate school! I wonder how significantly being a woman in STEM influences our decisions when forming our family life. I was shocked to learn that being a single woman gives you an advantage in pursuing a tenured professorship as well as economic gain in industry. Issues of feminism are constantly present around me today from my Beyoncé playlist to my Instagram feed. As this new wave of feminism surrounds us, it’s challenging what being a female means and redefining the structures of our intimate relations, marriage, and parenthood. It’s likewise challenging the definitions of what being a man, husband and father is. The triangle of sex, marriage, and childbearing was broken with birth control. And now, all three points of the triangle are being revolutionized. Rebecca Traister’s book doesn’t fully answer my question of why my friends are all single. But it did unveil the history of feminism, and made me feel more empowered to be able to choose IF I want to be married or a mother, and WHEN I want to do that. Traister also showed me that the battle isn’t over. There is still more to do in our social and economic structure to support women, such as myself, who choose –or fall into –being single for longer portions of their lives than previous generations.