n 1915, Charlotte Perkins Gilman published Herland, a utopian novel about an all-female society of accomplished and powerful yet peaceful women. In Herland, war is nonexistent thanks to a proto-feminist form of eugenics that has bred out aggression, defiance, and other presumably unpleasant male traits. Children are born via asexual reproduction and reared communally, and crime and conflict, like that of the “savages” in the outside world, is unknown. Everyone is a vegetarian. Marriage doesn’t exist.
Herland is upon us, evidently. As of 2009, fewer than half of American women are married. Single ladies are the new normal, we are told, and are ushering in a new era of activism and social change. As the National Center for Family and Marriage Research noted in a recent report: “Marriage is no longer compulsory….It’s just one of an array of options.”
The journalist Rebecca Traister, who confesses she “always hated it when my heroines got married,” has appointed herself amanuensis to All the Single Ladies (which is also the title, borrowed from a Beyoncé song, of her new book). “Abstention from or delay of marriage may have been a conscious choice for some women in the 1970s and 1980s,” Traister writes. “But it has now simply become a mass behavior. The most radical of feminist ideas—the disestablishment of marriage—has, terrifyingly for many conservatives, been so widely embraced as to have become habit.”
The expression of this habit takes unusual forms.
New York magazine recently featured “Single Ladies Week,” with essays about the challenges of being single and childless in a world that encourages couples and kids. Authors meted out advice about how to survive decades on the dating scene. “I Feel Destined to Be Single, and That’s Okay,” was the title of one essay. Elle magazine’s recent “Special Report” on being single included helpful tips such as “Always have sex on the first date,” and “If a man says ‘My Mom is so nice,’ don’t walk—run,” since evidently this is a “fail-safe indication that this man has unrealistic expectations for a woman’s emotional range.”
Girls no longer need to look far to find cultural heroines like the fiercely independent Elsa in Frozen, or unmarried and childless female television leads such as Olivia Pope on Scandal. Even the married women on notable shows, like Alicia Florick on The Good Wife and Claire Underwood on House of Cards, are more likely than not to be scheming to undermine their husbands and seize power themselves than meekly supporting them.
But the most important expression of this single-ladies revolution, according to its celebrants, is liberal: When Barack Obama ran for reelection in 2012, single women voted for him 67 to 31 percent compared with married women. “Women, perhaps especially those who have lived untethered from the energy-sucking and identity-sapping institution of marriage in its older forms, have helped to drive social progress of this country since its founding,” Traister notes. The message is clear: Today’s single woman can—and ought to—do the same.
Although writers like Traister are very happy that the cultural image of the single lady has evolved from sad-sack Cathy cartoons to sex-positive gals such as Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City, what they really pine for isn’t a nude-selfie-posting Instagrammer who complains about body-shaming; they want a 21st-century version of Carry Nation, wielding petitions for paid leave in lieu of a hatchet destroying barrels full of alcohol. In their view, if women cast their ballots as they should, the future of single ladies will be a social-justice nirvana, like some mashup of an undergraduate women’s-studies seminar and an episode of The Golden Girls.
The revolution begins to seem a little less revolutionary when you realize it’s a Sisterhood of the Portable-Health-Benefits Pants. Wedding oneself to government benefits is as potentially restrictive as wedding oneself to the bonds of traditional marriage.
In truth, this is less independence than it is a trickle-down theory of female empowerment that willfully downplays the costs of being single—and especially the cost of single motherhood. As Traister concedes, “Almost 50 percent of the 3.3 million Americans now earning minimum wage or below are unmarried women.” Not to mention “more than half of unmarried young mothers with children under the age of six are likely to live below the poverty line,” a number five times the rate of married women.
For the single-ladies narrative to be “empowering,” it must include increased state power in many spheres—and increased spending on the social support single mothers require. For a movement so heady with its own feelings of independence, its blueprint for the future focuses on government dependence. Traister’s book includes a list of policy recommendations that will be familiar to anyone who supports Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton (higher minimum wage, more federal spending on health care, federally funded day care, paid family leave, increased welfare payments). It’s not clear how taxpayer money will pay for all of this when she also argues for “shorter workdays,” but no matter. We are skipping along the edges of utopia, after all. Details aren’t important.
And, as Traister argues, it’s high time the ladies got their fair share of government largesse. “In looking to the government to support their ambitions, choices, and independence through better policy, single women are asserting themselves as citizens—full citizens—in ways that American men have for generations,” she writes. It’s hard to take seriously the claim that this is an “army of free women,” as Traister calls them, when all they are likely to do is exchange a traditional social safety net (marriage) for a new one (government benefits). The revolution begins to seem a little less revolutionary when you realize it’s a Sisterhood of the Portable-Health-Benefits Pants.
Wedding oneself to government benefits is as potentially restrictive as wedding oneself to the bonds of traditional marriage these single-lady activists are so eager to denounce. Consider that in European countries with these policies in place, women are in fact less likely to reach management positions than men and less likely to be employed full time.
In Herland, when men stumble upon utopia, they decide they must either protect or conquer its female inhabitants. The same lack of nuance plagues much of the contemporary cheerleading for the supposed chutzpah of all these single ladies. These single-lady boosters are the ideological equivalent of the fluffer on porn sets, constantly keeping up enthusiasm for the idea of independent women when in fact, for a vast number of women, such independence is a fantasy. Traister’s “revolutionary rupture” begins to look more like an exercise in wishful radicalization, especially when one considers that in the last presidential election, 40 percent of unmarried women didn’t even bother to register to vote.
Embracing the single ladies also means celebrating the disappearance of fathers from children’s lives, and ignoring the social consequences of what that disappearance means—especially for boys, something Traister and others downplay with blather about accepting that we are “living in a new world.” And what of men, who are more likely than women to have never been married (23 percent vs. 17 percent in 2012, according to the Pew Research Center)?
What made Gilman’s Herland utopia succeed (as with most utopias) was its isolation from the rest of the world. What makes the message of Traister and other boosters of single ladyhood work is the way it willfully ignores the less palatable side effects of going it alone—and an assumption that women share common interests. The idea that single women will, by dint of their being female and independent, exercise a more just, peaceful, low-carbon-footprint form of power is a direct affront to the evidence of history and human nature. Women now enjoy freedom from certain expectations (about marriage, having children). Assuming they will all use that freedom for pursuing a particular political or social agenda, however, is worse than utopian; it’s dangerously foolish. The mere presence of unmarried ovaries does not a radical make.