It’s Time to Stand Up for the Single Ladies

A new book advocates for the unmarried.
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The working woman gets a lot of marriage advice. There’s Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg’s manifesto for high achievers, which advises readers to find a supportive husband; Marry Smart has words of wisdom from Susan Patton, aka the Princeton Mom, on meeting your mate in college; and Spinster, a memoir by Kate Bolick, offers a road map for how to avoid the ball and chain. All the Single Ladies doesn’t belong on this list, even though it takes its name from a Beyoncé song that tells men to “put a ring on it.” The book from New York magazine writer Rebecca Traister avoids defining single women as women who aren’t married. Rather, she sees them as a distinct group with their own agenda—which, of course, isn’t news to them. It’s just taken this long for society to start catching up.

The world is difficult to navigate as a single woman; it’s made for married people. Today only 20 percent of Americans wed by age 29, and yet our workplace practices have remained essentially unchanged since about 1960, when 60 percent of young people tied the knot. “By simply living independently,” Traister writes, single women “face an additional set of challenges.” Until the mid-20th century, wives mostly stayed home. The workplace didn’t have to account for what we now call work-life balance: Men made money, and women took care of everything else. But as of 2011 there were more than 30 million unmarried female workers in the U.S. (Not because they’re getting divorced, either. The proportion of women younger than 34 who’ve never gotten hitched is up to almost 50 percent, 12 percentage points higher than it was a decade ago.) These trends are concentrated in cities, but they span classes, races, religions, and regions. Add in the gender wage gap, and the single lady’s position becomes precarious.

Single Ladies’ vision of workplace reform starts with equal-pay protections and a higher federally mandated minimum wage—guarantees that a woman’s labor isn’t discounted because of the presumption that she won’t be alone forever. It also calls for shorter workdays and guaranteed paid vacation—“If we want to account for growing numbers of unmarried people in the professional world,” Traister says, “we must begin to also account for the fact that it is not just brides, grooms, and new parents who require the chance to catch their breath”—as well as federally mandated maternity leave, family leave, and sick leave. Traister stops short of attaching actual numbers to these ideas. The book is more a declaration of rights than a policy proposal.

Not all of Traister’s ideas are mere fantasies. Two-dozen municipalities, including New York and San Francisco, have adopted paid sick leave, and California, Rhode Island, and New Jersey mandate paid family leave. “Like a lot of things, when left up to states or municipalities, there will be very uneven adoption,” says Mary Tavarozzi, who leads group-benefit practices at HR consulting firm Willis Towers Watson. Both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton are running on paid family leave, but Tavarozzi doesn’t think we’ll see a change at the federal level anytime soon. Partisan gridlock and simple inertia are working against it.

All the Single Ladies isn’t making a case against matrimony. Most Americans marry at some point in their lives; Traister did so in her mid-30s. More people, however, are spending a bigger chunk of their lives solo. Making their lives livable in the meantime, she argues, gives people the choice to wed because they want to, not because they have to.

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