Put Your Hands Up, Single Ladies

Warning: Long post!

Around this time last year, I read Kate Bolick’s Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, a feminist take on how it is to be a single (i.e., unmarried) woman in this day and age. Spinster is based on the author’s own experiences and is thus more of a memoir than a sociological or psychological study into the phenomenon of the single woman.

Now, because I like to annoy myself by reading works from authors whose points of view I don’t share, I picked up a similar book: Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies.* (Yes, named after that Beyoncé song, which I’m sure is now stuck in your head. You’re welcome.) This book is a slightly more historical, sociological/psychological view of what it means to be single in the modern age, but it is supplemented by personal anecdotes from a variety of women from different socioeconomic/demographic backgrounds, so in that way, it has a personal touch and makes for easier reading than it would if it was strictly a history book or sociological study.

Single Ladies opens with the author’s dismay at The Little House on the Prairie series ending with Laura Ingalls getting married. The author goes on to voice her disappointment that fictional heroines such as Anne Shirley and Jo March also ended up getting married, and their paths became “narrowed and now seemed to lead only to the tending of dull husbands and the rearing of insipid children…” That’s harsh. I’ve read several books in which the female protagonist’s life becomes even more of an adventure once she is married, because she and her husband team up and fight the forces of evil together. (Barbara Hambly’s Winterlands series instantly comes to mind.) I would say that Ms. Traister is possibly reading the wrong types of books. 🙂 So I did not get the greatest impression of the book after reading its introduction.

Throughout, the author cites statistics showing that it is not so unusual for women to remain single into their 30s and that, with the marriage rate dropping, the “never-married woman” demographic will probably get larger and larger. It seems like part of Traister’s argument throughout the book is that the single woman’s lifestyle should be more accepted because our society no longer gives a valid reason for a woman to be married. The glass ceiling has been broken, birth control is freely available, there is little stigma about living with a romantic partner outside of marriage, single motherhood is to be celebrated as a victory of the strong, independent woman (no longer reviled as irresponsible), and so on. I believe in traditional marriage and that the natural law dictating such is eternal and unfading, but that’s the subject of another post.

Two things about the book bothered me most: the implied definitions of freedom and serviceFreedom is described as a great and ultimate good. I am single; therefore, I am free to do whatever I want. I have no children and husband to tie me to a life of boring domesticity, so I am free to pursue higher education, give back to my community, have sex with whomever I please, stay out late at night, work tons of hours in an effort to climb the corporate ladder… I am free. I am liberated. I am independent. I can do whatever the *bleep* I want, with no one to tell me otherwise.

But is a person ever truly free? Many times, people confuse feelings with rights. They automatically perceive themselves as enslaved and that an intrinsic personal right is being violated if they are not satisfied with life at any particular moment. I imagine that a single woman with a full-time job might feel enslaved to her work just as much as a married woman with full-time childcare responsibilities might feel enslaved to her family. No matter what a person’s lot in life, there are times when he or she does not feel completely free… and that’s natural. Here in the United States, we are far more free to do what we like than people in other countries, and no matter what path a person chooses, she is limiting her freedom to choose other paths. Complete and utter freedom may be a chimera.

As for service… one quote from the book struck me: “Any time women do anything with their lives that is not in service to others, they are readily perceived as acting perversely.” (Italics in original.) As I wrote a couple years ago, I believe being in service to others is a good thing. Service can liberate (one who serves is removed from the world in her own head), just as much as freedom can enslave (one can be paralyzed by too many choices). I suppose that what the author is getting at is that women have historically been the people-pleasers, the selfless, the ones who have sacrificed their own wants and needs so that others’ wants and needs may be obtained… and this should not always be the case. Service does get exhausting, and yes, women (and anyone who regularly serves others) absolutely deserve an occasional break. But to completely disown the value of service to others is foolish. Service brings forth humility and can make a person look at his or her freedoms with more appreciative eyes.

*Disclaimer: As of this blog post, I am only halfway through reading the book, but I’m writing a review anyway because I’ve skimmed the rest.

4 thoughts on “Put Your Hands Up, Single Ladies

  1. I recently read a related research article on those who feel they are living/have lived long fulfilling lives and this turned out to be those who felt a connection to their community. So, to have “a place” in life seems to be more important than whether one is “free” or not. Perhaps linking “freedom” to “happiness,” as seems to be the American way, is not a perfect approach.

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  2. I think you’re right about “freedom” and “service” (though obviously there’s a huge difference between choosing to be of service and having it forced on you), but in general the book sounds very determined to shove a wide varity of experiences and lives into an either/or structure.

    Single=freedom and married=in service? What about women who have never married but have several (possibly insipid) children? What about women who have careers and no children but are married (my parents were married for 20 years before they reproduced, and my mother had a very challenging career)? What about women who live in cultures where they have no choice at all about who they marry or whether they have children?

    Oh, and for things potentially getting more interesting after marriage? I did a whole blog survey about that once, which you may remember becxause you were part of it 🙂 ): http://u-town.com/collins/?p=4374

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    1. Maybe they touch on that stuff in the other part of the book, but I think it is mainly geared toward the experiences of women who live in American cities. And yes, I remember that blog post. 🙂

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