"Reader, I married him."
So begins the last chapter of Jane Eyre, a statement meant to be romantic but is merely incomplete. Her "quiet wedding" to Mr. Rochester is a hard-won happy ending, triumphant even though the novel's fiery conclusion costs her new husband his eyesight, his estate and his first wife, who torches the home where she was imprisoned before killing herself. "And?" is the question I'd like to ask Jane, although I'd accept the addition of because – anything that could explain why. For instance, "Reader, I married him, because he is hot and I'm, like, 80-per-cent sure our love will last forever," is one possible answer. Or, when taking into consideration the era in which the novel is set, "Reader, I married him, because I had to, since being an unmarried woman is so restrictive I would do almost anything else, including marrying a man who trapped his wife in an attic and lied about it." That does not have, I admit, quite the same ring to it.
Charlotte Bronte was neither coy nor romantic when she wed Arthur Bell Nicholls, eight years after she published Jane Eyre. In Rebecca Traister's latest book, All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, she writes that Bronte accepted Nicholls's proposal only because he would provide her father with "good aid in his old age." Bronte wrote about her marriage – disappointing and depressing – in detail to her best friend, Ellen Nussey. Nicholls, reading over Bronte's shoulder, insisted that his wife either stop writing or that Nussey burn the letters, terrified about what such sincere answers to the question of their marriage would do to his reputation. Nussey pledged to do as he asked; Nussey lied. Thankfully, she saved them, for our benefit and to the benefit of Traister's book, which takes stories from real life and fiction and links them to relevant historical and statistical analysis, in an attempt to answer the forever-linked questions of why some women marry and why some women don't.
All The Single Ladies took Traister about six years to complete; she began in 2009, thinking the book would focus on the single women of the 21st century. That year, the percentage of married American women fell below 50 per cent for the first time, an auspicious time to think about our changing ideas of what marriage can or should mean. Instead, her research and reporting took her all the way to the beginning of marriages founded in romance, investigating the social and cultural norms which dictate the way we see women outside of wedlock.
Traister begins with her childhood disappointment in fictional heroines, such as Anne of Green Gables and Little Women's Jo March, stories that effectively ended (or became less interesting) when these literary women got married. When she grew up, she tells us she took pleasure learning that Shakespeare always ended his comedies with a wedding and his tragedies with a death, "making marriage death's equivalent and supporting my childhood hunch about its ability to shut down a story."
But it is not that marriage shuts down all stories; rather, as Traister writes, it is that the economics, politics and cultural representations of marriage are used as a limit to understanding all the different ways adults can live their lives. Economists, politicians and artists are always asking what it means to be single; more than anyone, writers never stop writing the requisite think piece or trend report about How Women Are Not Marrying These Days, asking how a woman is unmarried (too picky, or too selfish), or perhaps where she is unmarried (too urban, or too rural), or to ask what kind of woman is unmarried (career, or oversexed). Few people stop to ask why, instead coming at these demographic changes like a game of Jeopardy!, starting with the answers and working back to the questions.
Recent years have seen a huge shift in the way single people drive society at large: In 2012, Traister tells us, unmarried women were 23 per cent of the U.S. electorate, meaning "a quarter of votes were cast by women without husbands, up three points from just four years earlier." The same year the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics put single spending at $2-trillion a year. But numbers are not the same as value, and Traister is exacting when she answers the question of how unmarried women have, and can, suffer. They are constantly exposed to racism, sexism and homophobia; they are more vulnerable to poverty and other forms of systematic oppression; they are told, again and again, that the answer lies in just marrying someone, and not in the overhaul of those systematically oppressive structures that benefit only a blessed few. Traister knows that our choices are not always our own: They are the facts of our available freedoms. "Privilege," Traister aptly points out, "replicates itself," and the privileges of socially sanctioned marriage are as vast as the trappings of being single.
Yet in spite of these harsh truths, All the Single Ladies is celebratory, the stories of real women who are single a reassuring balm to the rhetoric that surrounds us. Traister asks, by outlining the ways women can succeed when their societies support their choices, to consider what we really mean when we tell women to marry for better or worse. Her argument – that our public policies are what need to change, not the rate at which we marry or the age we do it – prioritizes equal pay over joint accounts, better health-care provisions over shared plans, comprehensive child care instead of Mommy-and-Me clichés, and other tangible solutions instead of abstract platitudes.
Traister shares the story of one man who told her to include, when she was writing the book, "lots of juicy stories" since "that would be the principal interest of any man who picked up a book about single women." I cannot speak to the mindset of such a male reader (mostly because I don't want to), but how wrong that statement is! We have no shortage of juicy stories that prey on the vulnerabilities that get us to buy books or click links, magazine covers and newsstand headlines telling young people to settle like the generations before them, despite all evidence suggesting otherwise. What Traister provides, to our benefit, are stories instead of statements and suggestions instead of schemes. Reader, will you put a ring on it? Because you only have to if you really want to.
Haley Mlotek is a writer and editor living in New York.