Rebecca Traister: The Power of Being Single — Transcript
Ben Schuman-Stoler: Welcome to Simplify. I’m Ben Schuman-Stoler.
Caitlin Schiller: And I’m Caitlin Schiller. Simplify is for anybody who’s taken a closer look at their habits, their happiness, their relationships, or their health, and thought, there’s got to be a better way to do this.
BSS: In today’s episode, Caitlin talks to Rebecca Traister, writer, journalist, and genius connector of ideas. Traister is currently a writer-at-large for New York Magazine and contributing editor at Elle, but we wanted her on Simplify because of her recent book, All the Single Ladies.
CS: Oh yeah. I love this book.
CS: Well, like you said, Traister connects ideas. This is journalism, history, culture-studies, feminism, and memoir all in one. And it actually all works! It’s not too academic or, on the other side, wishy washy.
BSS: Totally – and you guys talked about a lot of these things, breaking down the whole idea of single women, and why that’s such an important topic. I don’t know if you heard about this actually, but our production assistant Nat told me this interview totally changed what she thinks of single life and the meaning of her relationship status.
CS: Whoa! No, I didn’t hear that. And those are big promises to start off this episode, Ben!
BSS: Yeah, but I mean it. This interview might just change the way lots of people think about their relationship status and big-picture-wise what that means in their life and for society as a whole.
CS: Yeah, this is one of those talks that was really meaningful to me and I think is a really cool interesting thing to look at. So, then let’s get into it. Listen to the interview, and then don’t forget to stick around after, because we will make a book list for anybody who wants to go deeper into these topics.
BSS: Alright then, let’s roll the tape. Here’s Caitlin Schiller and Rebecca Traister. Catch you guys in The Bookend!
Interview with Rebecca Traister
CS: Would you please go ahead and introduce yourself?
Rebecca Traister: Sure. My name is Rebecca Traister and I’m a journalist who covers women, and politics, and media, and entertainment from a feminist perspective. I am a writer-at-large at New York Magazine and I am the author of two books, the last one which was All the Single Ladies which was published in 2016.
CS: Excellent. Thank you. OK. So All the Single Ladies is about single women, a group that over the last century has grown in social and political power in the West. And All the Single Ladies treats how single women have great jobs, cultural capital and money to spend on themselves and their friends and their own priorities. Basically, they have a great deal of resources and agency to focus on whatever they want, so-
RT: Some do. I mean, one of the things that the book is about is that the economic realities of unmarried life vary greatly depending on where you’re starting socioeconomically. But that’s certainly true about amongst the most economically privileged in the United States, and I think this is also true around the world, singlehood offers sort of so far historically unparalleled freedoms and kinds of liberation that are especially that are available to those who have economic resources.
CS: Yes, I was actually going to get to that, I kind of beat around the bush a little bit though. Why did you decide to focus on this particular topic when you set out to write the book?
RT: Well, without realizing it, I’d been writing about unmarried life for women as a journalist over the years, simply by doing a certain amount of first-person writing. And so I had written, for example, back in 2004 about my best friend, you know, and sort of my partner in New York City who had left New York City and moved to Boston to live with her boyfriend and what that was like. And I’d written at that point an essay called “Girlfriends Are The New Husbands.”
And this had all come out of the fact that my life in my 20s and my early 30s was really as a single person, while many of my friends and peers were in and out of relationships, I happened not to be. I had an off again on again relationship in my early 20s and that was it, I was then single through my 20s and into my 30s. And I wasn’t great at having casual sex, though I wish that I were better at it because I would have enjoyed it. But I just didn’t enjoy it, it wasn’t something that I pursued.
And I went on a lot of dates, I went on dates and each time I was asked or whenever I was set up, but I didn’t really like anybody enough to go on more than two dates.
I was really single. It wasn’t like, “Oh, then I had this boyfriend…“ I was really single. So, my first person writing, even though it wasn’t sort of obsessing about the fact that I was single, if I was writing about my friendships, if I was writing about my living situation or my dating life, I had been writing about single life.
Then, in my early 30s, when I was 33, I fell in love. Really for the first time in my life. And when I was 35, we decided to get married.
I had just published my first book which had been about the 2008 election – about the politics of gender race and class in 2008 – I had a full career, I had a life and a network and friends in the city. And then I got married and people started treating me like my adult life was beginning and I was really shocked by it. I mean I was so happy to have fallen in love with the man I fell in love with.
And I was happy to be getting married, but people were suddenly like there was always this stuff, you know, “Don’t you want to have a wedding shower?” And I was like, “No!” “Don’t you want to register for like dishes and stuff?” I was like, “No!” I was 35, my husband was 45 at the time, and it was like, we have like double sets of dishes, we need fewer dishes, we need to register for someone to come and take away our dishes.
And I began to think about this, and I was thinking about my own sort of… I‘ve lived my whole life to that point and I was not 35. I was in the middle of my adulthood. Then the kind of stuff that came at me when I did get partnered confirmed all that for me and I was like, this is a total misreading of what adult life is for women. I did not feel, and I still do not feel, that my adult life started when I fell in love with my husband. Far from it. In fact my relationship with my husband was in part made possible by the fact that I had a full adult life.
And I thought there is a real profound misunderstanding because it wasn’t just me, it’s how my friends and my peers and my coworkers were living. I knew as a reporter that that’s how women in different cities, and around the country, and certainly in different economic positions were living. And so I thought there was a book here. That’s the most long-winded answer to a short question.
CS: I identify with so much of this.
And I was thinking how different life would be if we did start off our early 20s with the sort of ceremony where you get money and dishes and you register for things that you might need…
RT: When I was in my 20s and living in New York. Sex and the City was at its kind of peak and this vision and it was celebrated as this liberating show.
RT: Right?! And you know in the book I write about certain disagreements I had with the television critic Emily Nussbaum about it. Emily Nussbaum thinks it’s an incredibly important show and she loves it. And she wrote a brilliant essay about kind of trying to redeem it from the bad rap it’s gotten retrospectively.
But at the time I did really resent it. I did not have money and I was not having sex. And I did not have fancy clothes (and I didn’t give a shit about fancy clothes by the way.) But it had nothing to do with how I was living my life in my 20s.
But a lot of that stuff was symbolic. The shoes and the closets, and the clothes, and the drinks, and all that, that was trying to do the symbolic work of talking about new kinds of space that women had in their lives. And the story that it wound up telling was a story of commodification.
So when we have conversations and we talk about “Oh, wouldn’t it be great if there were like a party for people just at the beginning of adulthood?” which is essentially by the way what weddings used to be. The attachment to giving people stuff, right, to giving them money, to helping them furnish a home through a registry and gifts and all that sort of stuff.
If, as was the case for generations, adult life began with the union of two people, then it makes sense. You know, in the United States the median age for first marriage for women from 1890 to 1980, which is as far back as they measured it, median age for first marriage for women only slid back and forth between 20 and 22 until 1980. Now today it is over 27 nationally and it’s higher than 30 in some cities. So that’s like a massive shift after centuries really of never really getting above 22.
So all the rituals around wedding stuff make sense, if in fact that is your entrance into adult life and you need to move beyond the home in which you were raised into a home where you have some infrastructure, right?
But if the wedding is no longer the thing that’s happening to you when you’re 18 or 19 or 22 or whenever you’re sort of moving into the world on your own, then it does make sense to take that practice and apply it at the beginning of life. At the beginning of adulthood.
And that is something that Sex and the City, they had an episode that just exemplifies everything that’s right and wrong with the show. It addressed just this. It was, you know, you give all this money to everybody else, and all these gifts, and you pay for all the bachelorette parties or whatever, for all your friends who are getting married, and you’re single. You’re not gaining another income and yet all your money is going toward those who are partnering with other incomes. And so that makes a powerful economic point.
But the way they do it on Sex and the City is, she wants to have like a registry for Manolo Blahniks or something, like she wants to register for shoes. It really is actually an incredibly powerful point: the people living independently in the world need the resources that we traditionally tie up with weddings and with marital unions. And we should remake our practices around that to support the people who have the greater need and who move into adulthood on their own.
But then the way Sex and the City does it is as like extremely expensive heels with like…
CS: Caricatures of what single women are.
CS: What would that even look like if we were to begin to remake what the start of a ceremonious adult life were to look like? Would it just be…? I’m not even sure.
RT: It would be pretty normal for those of us who have lived it. But we need government policy. And that is, we need to raise wages in this country which is also, that’s really tied to our ideas about marriage, even though it seems like it’s a separate issue. Because one of the functions that marriage has had in the United States is to be an economic organizing system. It’s an institution that is meant to organize the kinds of labor and economic power that people have. So marriage combines a kind of American who we imagine earns wages.
And the kind of American who we imagine raises a family, keeps a house and makes the wage earner’s public life possible by taking care of the domestic work. And the idea there is that the domestic laborer is economically dependent on the wage earner, and the wage earner is in some way domestically dependent on the domestic laborer. And that’s how it’s been.
And so everything from the way that our school days operate so that you assume that somebody is there to pick up children at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Who do we assume is there? We can’t even begin to count the number of sort of basic daily realities in our lives that are built around the idea that we’re organized into hetero married pairs. Right?
RT: If we began to re-organize ourselves, to consider that every individual deserves economic stability and a safety net and might make choices that are different from another individual’s choices, then we would begin to provide everything from maybe a universal basic income to higher wages, to paid sick days, and paid family leave, and paid child care. And, of course, you’d have to have full reproductive rights and reproductive justice policies that permitted women across the economic spectrum to exert full control over their reproductive lives.
And all that stuff tied together, that would acknowledge really the way that women and men live now, which is simply not the way they lived 30 years ago. And we don’t have economic policy, and thus, we don’t have social practice that reflects the way that people live back at them. But it would be very humane. I mean imagine it.
You could move into the world, afford to go to college if you wanted to, have some assurance that you could make a fair wage, that you could make decisions about whether or under what circumstances to have a family or to not have a family.
And then the choice of whether or not you partner becomes entirely that’s something, it’s not minor, it enables you to make other kinds of choices where the calculations you do about like “Do I marry this person?” don’t come down to things like, you know, “Does he have insurance?” or…
CS: Oh my God… I wonder how much that would make the marriage rate drop, because if women all of a sudden making choices based upon affinity and romantic attraction and not out of necessity. I would just love to see what that would do to the world.
Ben Schuman-Stoler: Hey guys, it’s Ben.
We’re taking a quick break to hear from Caitlin and Rebecca Traister to hear from one of you.
Paige: Hi, Caitlin and Ben! First, I just wanted to say I’m loving the topics and authors on Season 2. Keep up the good work! And inspired by the holiday season, the thing that I found easier that you might initially think is gift-giving. The trick for me draws from the Season 1 David Allen episode, which is writing ideas down throughout the year. I personally keep a list of important people in my life and the things that they mention when they’re liking. And then when an occasion rolls around, it’s super easy to buy a thoughtful gift without having to wreck your brain. Thanks and happy holidays!
BSS: Thanks, Paige. And by the way, she references the David Allen interview from Season 1, which is Episode 3 in Season 1. You can find that on our landing page (www.blinkist.com/simplify) or you can find it on the Blinkist Magazine (www.blinkist.com/magazine). And you can find the transcript there, and even a video of what happened when we went to Amsterdam to talk to David Allen and you can actually see Caitlin talking to him. So, check that out if you haven’t yet.
And we’d like to hear from more of you out there! Let us know what you’ve learned, what you were curious about, something you guys have learned was easier than you initially thought it was. You can send us an email or record a voice memo and email it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alright, let’s get back into the interview with Caitlin Schiller and Rebecca Traister.
CS: You know, I’d like to go back just for a second into something you said about how life is really… or society is set up for people who are organized into pairs. But women have other pairings that are not with hetero life partners. They pair with friends as you were talking about. And they also pair with their cities in a way, which is a part of your book that I really loved. Could you talk a little bit about the symbiosis of single women and their cities?
RT: Yes, well lots of women talked about sort of loving their cities. Cities have always been a place where unmarried women go. Even if the practice is still that they get married in their early adulthood, the opportunity to earn wages, to have any kind of modicum of independence, women have always been drawn to cities where there is economic opportunity.
And the other thing that cities have provided is a kind of an infrastructure that makes life without a partner easier. Cities have things like transportation. There are streets where you can gather. There are places to go to meet. There are bars, there are restaurants. There are places to get your laundry done.
Now again this is economically dependent, right? So the other thing that cities draw is a population of low wage workers, very low wage workers, who often end up doing the work. And this is one of the sort of perilous economic questions of singlehood. Because if there was a phalanx of wives who were doing the unpaid labor of say laundry, cooking, and cleaning for husbands in exchange for you know sort of dependence on those husbands’ salaries, what you have in cities which draw a range of workers is lots of women going to cities and having sort of the cities and the people in the cities do the work of wives for them, but often for extremely low wages.
But cities have provided that kind of economy and that kind of possibility for women. You know, it was in cities that they built boarding houses in the early 20th century where women could go as the sort of labor force changed and they began to find work as shop girls and stenographers and typists. And a range of new professional opportunities began to open up to them.
So there’s long been this tremendous relationship between single women and cities.
CS: Absolutely,being single to me seems like it’s a mindset. It’s not just a marital status. You do write in the book a bit about how you had to sort of change your idea about how you could spend your time. All of a sudden you notice that you have to completely remake how you spend your time and prioritize. And it’s the first time you really want to.
RT: Right, I’m not sure I would say it’s a mindset because I think people feel a million different ways about being single. Lots of the women that I talk to in the book enjoy many of the same things that we’re talking about, but also feel lonely. I felt lonely, you know.
And you don’t want to deny that, but at the same time the fantasy that the other person waiting for you at home like there is – we have these ideas that we don’t like to examine too closely about what marriage and what partnership provides. And, of course, we know from lived experience that not all partnerships actually do provide that satisfying person at the end of the night. Like, you can be married and be lonelier than any single person.
CS: Yeah, just like you can have siblings and hate each other. It doesn’t mean you’re going to have built-in friends.
RT: Right. And you can have a partner who doesn’t have another income or who is a terrible emotional or economic or logistical drain and who exhausts you even more than the exhausting life of being single. So you want to address all these complexities.
But yes, speaking personally, the single life I had which was just my life, right? It changed in ways when I was partnered that were uncomfortable. Because it made me understand the degree to which I had been liberated in some ways. I didn’t have to answer to anybody, nobody had to know where I was. And there was loneliness in that too. But my time was really entirely my own. I had obligations to my parents, and of course obligations to my friends which were you know were wonderful. I made choices not in a vacuum, because I was being responsible for myself and for my friends. But I was the decision maker. And I could go where I wanted to go within limits.
When I fell in love, which was wonderful and is wonderful, it was really sort of understanding that I couldn’t just flit around. Of course I could. But the reality, that I wanted to be with another person as much as humanly possible, really threw me off.
And it did mean a reduction in intimacy with my friends. My friends had been my partners, and not half-assed, you know, like, knock-off partners. My friends were the people with whom I shared my greatest intimacies and fears, and frustrations, and anger, and happiness, and all of it.
But I’m also acutely aware just because I’m human, people don’t live forever. People don’t love forever. And I have heard so many stories reporting this book of like, your friends wind up prime in some ways. For many human beings, your friends – you begin and end with your intimates being your friends, especially for women who tend to be longer-lived than men. And, you know, these things are really complicated.
And so, it’s not as simple as one person standing in for another. There are plenty of people I talk to in this book for whom like the traditional romantic partner, if that person came along, was in a sense like a placeholder for going back to their friends.
But I know that from the friend perspective having both been on the other side of it and then been the one who turned toward a more traditional relationship, that it can also feel like the friends wind up as like practice runs or placeholders for like some real romantic partnership. And it feels that way. There’s no denying that that’s the model in some ways. But I also know that that’s not the whole story either. So, you know, it’s really complicated.
CS: Yeah, it seems like there needs to be some sort of greater social education about the importance of friendship. I think one of the best courses I ever took when I was an undergrad was called The Friendship Tradition. And it was about the male friendship tradition though. There was almost nothing about female friendships in there. There was talk about basically wife swapping in ancient literature. And we read this great story called “Titus and Gisippus,” but there was nothing about female friendship.
RT: I have a whole chapter in the book about female friendship. People take it really unseriously. There are some feminist scholars, Carol Smith Rosenberg has written beautifully about female friendship. But of course in earlier periods, where men and women were really raised in different spheres and marriage was in many cases, not to say that there weren’t loving or romantic marriages, but in far many more cases when marriage was compulsory, it was also an economic bargain, it was a social bargain. And it wasn’t necessarily the joining of two people who felt emotional intimacy. Women and their girlfriends remained each other’s intimates.
In a weird way, when marriage was more compulsory and therefore it was usually of a lesser quality, the people who were still closest to women weren’t necessarily their husbands.
So, in a funny way other eras in which early hetero marriage was more common, it fostered female friendship and lifelong commitments between female friends in other ways.
CS: What would you tell single women, I’d say between I don’t know 20 and 30? Would you give them any kind of advice about being a single lady now?
RT: I’m very very bad at advice.
CS: That’s fair.
RT: The one thing that I would say is that tell them that whatever it is they yearn for in life shouldn’t be determined by whether or not they’re partnered.
And that their lives are no less real or full, or adult, or complicated, or full of feeling or commitment or responsibility than lives of their peers who might by some quirk of logistics, or timing, or whatever, be married.
And they’re no less real adults. I mean that’s the thing that is so crucial: whatever the continued social cues, some of them coming from your parents, some of them coming from your own head, your Facebook friends or whatever, that tell you that you’re somehow not a complete adult if you’re not married, if you don’t have a ring, or whatever the thing is. The only thing I would tell single women right now is it that is horseshit.
CS: That is an awesome answer to end on. But before we do that could I just ask you for some book recommendations? Like, what are you reading lately?
RT: I would say read Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider. Oh, there’s a wonderful book that’s about to be published, that I read this summer by Brittney Cooper who I cite in the book and it’s called Eloquent Rage and it’s going to be out in February of 2018. It’s so good, it’s such a brilliant book. I would also go back honestly and read, something I’ve just been doing recently, about the suffrage movement, the collection called One Woman, One Vote that’s edited by Marjorie Spruill. And I’ve never really read at real length about the suffrage movement and there are a lot of married women in the suffrage movement. And you know for reasons I write about briefly in my book, but that’s pretty fascinating.
And then there is a novel that actually deals with some of the, you know, not the really profound socioeconomic differences around marriage, but there’s a great novel by a man actually named Rumaan Alam, it’s called Rich and Pretty. That’s about two single women in New York City. And I thought it’s a really smart novel about money, privilege and marriage and independence. So I guess those are my book recommendations.
CS: Awesome. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk.
RT: You’re welcome. It was a real pleasure. And I look forward to hearing the podcast.
RT: Thank you so much.
Ben Schuman-Stoler: Welcome to The Bookend, where we end…with books.
Why did you want to talk to Rebecca Traister?
Caitlin Schiller: Oh man, it’s hard to give one answer. I wanted to talk to her from the first moment I started reading All The Single Ladies. Because, finally, there was someone out there exploring in full measure a section of the population that, in the past, has been mostly stereotyped and caricatured, but not necessarily dignified by intellectual exploration.
BS: It seems to touch a lot of people personally.
CS: I identified—and still in some ways do, despite being partnered—for a long time as a single woman. I grew up making my own decisions, for myself, for the past decade, often in a foreign country. I recognize that I am tremendously privileged in being able to do so, but there are also certain challenges that don’t really get talked about. I loved seeing the economic and social roots of those challenges explored and rigorously researched.
BSS: Wow. Yeah, awesome. I’m not a single lady, but I really liked listening to this one—I mean, I learned some things here, too. So, what really stuck out to you in this interview?
CS: In this interview, and in the book, really—the interdependence of the single woman and her city, and how the move of the single, economically affluent or self-sustaining woman gave rise to a new labor force in the cities—how, in a way, there will always be a “wife.” Someone to do the drudge work.
BSS: “There will always be a wife.” That’d be an interesting title for this one. So, Rebecca Traister gave a ton of recommendations at the end of the interview and a lot of them are pretty hardcore history books, I think. We’ll have that list in the show notes, but you picked out a few more that might be a little easier to find—and we have on Blinkist, right?
CS: I did! Three, actually. The first one is The Fight to Vote by Michael Waldman. This one is about the fight for democracy in the US, from the Revolutionary War up until the present day.
BSS: It’s a great read to nuance how we think of the democratic system and really highlights the people and organisations that challenged authorities.
CS: Right, and those challenges actually secured the right to vote for the poor, for women, and for ethnic minorities.
BSS: Great. What’s next?
CS: So, in her book, Rebecca talks about marriage, but the main focus is on single women. The second book is Marriage, a History by Stephanie Coontz. This book goes into the full history of marriage, from the Stone Age up until present day.
BSS: Nice choice. It’s easy to forget the fact that the love marriage is actually a pretty modern invention, and marriage really used to be about peacekeeping and land acquisition.
CS: Right? Forever, love was just considered a side-effect of marriage.
BSS: Strange. This is such a rich topic to dive into. Maybe because relationships are something that so many can relate to, somehow. Idk. What’s the last book?
CS: Traister didn’t plug her own book, so I will. All The Single Ladies is a history of single women in America and how they’ve shaped politics and culture and what their unique challenges are. Read this—not just if you’re a single woman.
BSS: Read this if you’re anybody!
CS: Seriously. I found it to be a joy to read.
BSS: Great. Then let’s wrap this up. This is the end of season 2 of Simplify…
CS: Awww…what about the bonus episode?
BSS: Well, I guess we can reveal that we’re working on something. It could come into your feeds as early as next week.
CS: So don’t unsubscribe!
BSS: Yes, don’t do that!
CS: You’ll like the bonus, I promise.
BSS: Alright, thanks to all who helped make this podcast. It was produced by me, Ben Schuman-Stoler, Caitlin Schiller, Nat Darozhkina, Ben Jackson, and Ody Constantinou, who once opened a co-working space where there was no wifi, no tables, and no talking…it closed down after 4 months.
CS: If you enjoyed this episode or feel that you learned something cool, could you, please, do us a favor and send it to one person you like. Especially if this person would particularly get something out of this. Just send it to one person, spread the word, we really want to have more people get in touch with us and to hear what we’re doing over here. So yeah, send it to one person, we’d really appreciate it!
BSS: And a big shout out already to the people who’ve subscribed to us on Google Play, Overcast, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Pocket Casts, wherever you listen. And if you wouldn’t mind taking a moment to add a review or rating – a star, a heart, or a thumb, or a face or whatever – we’d be really appreciative, it helps us.
CS: We’re also on Twitter. I’m @CaitlinSchiller and you’re –
CS: Cool. Also, Simplify is made by the same people who make Blinkist. Blinkist, if you don’t know, is a learning app that takes insights the world’s bestselling nonfiction books and condenses them into these focused little capsules of knowledge available in audio or text that you can listen to or read in just about 15 minutes.
BSS: And we made another voucher code for this episode. You can get 14 days free if you go to blinkist.com/friends and type in the voucher code: singleladies.
CS: And last thing: thanks so much for sending in Voice Memos about the answer to the question “What have you learnt was much easier than you thought it was?” If you haven’t done it yet, record a Voice Memo and email it to Ben and I at email@example.com.
BSS: Yeah, we’d love to hear some good stories.. Alright so, we’ll be back next week with another episode of Simplify. In the meantime, be good. This is Ben…
CS: And Caitlin checking out. See you guys!