There’s an old riddle that goes like this: A man is driving with his son when they are in car accident. The father is killed instantly. The son barely survives and is whisked to a nearby hospital’s operating room. The surgeon takes one look at the boy and says “I cannot operate on this child, he is my son.” The riddle is, how can this be true?
One would like to think that the answer is obvious to everyone today, and infinitely more than it was when we first heard it on All in the Family in 1972.
The fact that it is not, explains in part both the monumental task facing Rebecca Traister as she wrote All the Single Ladies, as well as the one facing your intrepid reviewer who tries to explain this book’s value to you.
So let’s start with that last. This is a great book. This is an important book. This is a book people should read and discuss and then read again in a decade’s time to see what has changed significantly. If at all.
Using herself and her friends as a starting point – single women who are successful and happy and fulfilled in 21st century America – Traister has gone in search of the answer to a question she probably never thought she’d be asking herself: “why do I feel a need to get married? Is not the companionship I have with my friends and the sex I have with my lovers and the fulfillment I have in my career enough to carry me through? Why do my friends and I feel a need to get married?”
To answer this, Traister starts by reviewing feminist history in the context of this end result, and not in the context of past goals of equal pay or equal rights. And what she discovers – or at least, what she expresses in the book – is that the past and present don’t quite align:
“As much as The Feminine Mystique was a cry against the limitations that early marriage and motherhood imposed on women, it did not assume (or even consider) that marriage itself was the problematic element, or that it might ever be optional for women. Friedan’s vision of female empowerment entailed the expansion of activity outside the domestic sphere, but it did not question the primacy of that sphere itself.”
Or said another way, the idea of successful, happy, fulfilled single women was not a part of Friedan’s equation. And Friedan was not alone:
“In fact, for some time, the intersections of the gay rights and women’s rights movement seemed mostly to provide evidence both of the strength of homophobia amongst social progressives and gender iconoclasts, and of how inconceivable it remained even to many 1970s feminists that heterosexual women might live willingly single: the only way some feminists were able to absorb the notion of a woman who didn’t necessarily want to marry a man was to understand her as homosexual.”
That was because there were some inherent, cultural expectations about women’s lives:
“they are meant, and have always meant, to be dedicated to the giving over of self to others, if not to husbands, and kids, then to priests, to god, to parents, to community. Any time women do anything with their lives that is not in service to others, they are readily perceived as acting perversely.”
Marriage takes two, of course, so Traister looks at the role of men in the context of this different end result, with equally illuminating observations:
“Back when women needed a man, truly needed one, to earn money, provide social standing and a roof, needed to be married in order to enjoy a socially sanctioned sex life or have children who wouldn’t be shunned, standards could be lower. They were necessarily lower. A potential mate could more easily get away with offering only a paycheck, a penis and a pulse.”
Which means, as Traister points out, the “traditional family unit” that so many politicians have built careers celebrating, was grounded in a culture that was buttressed by economic truths that don’t exist anymore:
“When (white) men had union-protected jobs at manufacturing plants and could get a good rate on a loan for a three-bedroom house and had a pension plan, marrying one of them – especially when women didn’t have these kinds of opportunities themselves – made sense. But when men are struggling and women are more capable than ever of economic, social, sexual, and parental independence, marriage doesn’t just become unnecessary; a bad version of it can become burdensome and deleterious to women.”
Which is precisely the independence Traister and her friends enjoy today. For women hold:
“the majority of all jobs in the country, along with 51 percent of all management positions. About a third of the nation’s doctors are female and 45 percent of its lawyers. Women now graduate from high school more often than men; they receive about half of all medical and law degrees and more than half of master’s degrees. The percentage of not just bachelor’s degrees, but also of master’s, law, medical, and doctoral degrees being award to women is the highest it has ever been in the history of the nation.”
And they influence the purchase of $15 trillion in goods and:
“are spending more per capita than any other category of women on dining out, rent or mortgage, furnishings, recreation entertainment, and apparel: $50 billion a year on food, $22 billion on entertainment, and $18 billion on cars.”
Which, a cynical person could say, is why marketers should pay attention to this book. Because where newly discovered spending power exists, marketing dollars soon follow, right?
But the smarter marketer will realize that what’s revealed here is the comprehensiveness of our biases, biases many of us don’t even know are there. Biases like the one that blinded some to the answer that the surgeon in the riddle was the boy’s mother. Biases that embarrass us with how obvious they have been all along.