I am exceedingly aware of my immense good fortune in being born into an erudite and liberal Hindu family that not only did not believe in discriminating between a boy and girl, but were positively feminists, even before the term became mainstream. I know just how easily I could have been born into a traditional Hindu household where the woman is deprived of basic Human Rights and lacks even elementary empowerment; however, growing up as a young girl and an adolescent, I did not think in those lines. I was aware of my entitlement but my peers and I all had an idea of how our lives were mapped out – education (graduate school being the very minimum), career, and then inevitably marriage and its addendums. What however happened was that woman of my generation or slightly older and a younger age groups, got that primer education, powerful jobs in corporate, government and other key areas and ended up NOT getting married. Many did of course, but many did not. In my graduate school class, we were a student body of 60 students in our particular degree; of which about 35 were women, of which 7 or so remain unmarried in the age bracket of 37 -39. It may not seem a lot, but seen from the lens of a traditional Indian society where marriage and motherhood are considered the epitome of womanhood, this figure is startling and interesting. And it’s just not my graduate school class; I have colleagues, friends, acquaintances, very educated, very successful, either remining to chose single or even becoming mother via adoption rather than embrace marriage. It is a unique phenomenon among the urban educated high middle-class population of India and someone somewhere needs to look into socio-economic moorings of this development.
It was thus an interesting surprise when I stumbled upon a work of non-fiction that seemed to address this, albeit in United States. All the Single Ladies – Unmarried Women and The Rise of an Independent Nation by Rebecca Traister. Ms. Traister is a well-known writer for New York magazine besides being a published author on several books about feminism and politics. Also Ms. Traister herself married later than her peers, I believe at the age of 35 and therefore from my perspective, she should know what she is talking about and with greatest curiosity I began to read this work. The book is divided into 10 Chapters along with a prologue and a conclusion. The author begins with explaining how her own experience and those of her friends coming of age as young adults in the shadow of Sex and the City and their subsequent lives, led her to study this group of young to middle age educated working women, who have not married and chosen to lead lives free of any such long term civil or religious commitment, with or without a child. She begins by introducing the powerful phenomena that is the new age single unmarried woman. She then takes a look at history including events like Civil war and works of such feminists like Susan B Anthony that set the ball rolling for creating environments that fostered the growth of this group of women. She then studied this group through comprehensive lenses as urban single woman with financial independence as we well as women who came from economically weaker sections. She studied the process of female friendships as one of strongest support system among this group as well the support structures like grocery delivery, take out food and help from neighbors that is not only allowing this group to thrive but also take up single parenthood. She delves into the issues of violence and security as well as the emotion turmoil that these women face as single women in a culture that is still wary, suspicious and not completely bought in to this choice. She does not shy away from mentioning the positives that come from healthy happy partnerships including better home environments for kids as well as more secure economic status; but she also provides comprehensive data to show that such partnerships are not common and many make a compromise that ends in more unhappiness in the expectation of better lives.
There are simply not enough good things that I can say about this book! To start with the research is meticulous and deep; it is hard to believe that Ms. Traister is not a trained academic but a journalist and a writer. And yet despite all this research, the language is crisp and succinct and the message is clear! The balanced approach is yet another factor that is to be appreciated in the book – she celebrates the rise of single women, their success and empowerment; however, the author does not shy away from factors like security or even better home conditions for children when both parents are available. Even in the vast range of people she interviews, her epilogue comments, clearly call out that while many are doing well, some are not and that is life. There is no unrealistic expectation of happily ever after, only a promise that there are opportunities more than ever of a better life. The inclusiveness of the book makes it a major departure from books of other such genre; Ms. Traister tries to include all spectrum of women in her study and interviews – financially independent, those living on some state support, single women, single women with kids, Asians, African Americans, Whites, academics, clerks, writers – they are all there. Her narrative tries to include every kind of single woman and largely succeeds. The most interesting thing about the book is though it focuses on the rise of Single Women in US, barring certain regulations and political events, her story can be replicated to almost all single women across the world, who have some modicum of independence. Her story telling is universal and resonates across many cultures, with some caveats of course. Finally, despite being a serious study on women, the book is replete with wry humor, which makes for wonderful change of pace from a very thoughtful reading. For instance, while speaking of financial independence of women, she quotes Susan B Anthony, to make a point of why women who earn their own money and buy things with that money, signals an epoch moment of liberation and empowerment – “When Susan B. Anthony began earning a salary as an elementary school teacher, at twenty-six, she had already turned down two marriage proposals in her quest to remain unmarried. She purchased for herself a fox-fur muff, a white silk hat, and a purple wool dress and wrote home, wondering if her peers might not “feel rather sad because they are married and cannot have nice clothes.” To end the book, nowhere is an anti-marriage or anti -men; the only thing Ms. Traister tries to do is de-stigmatize the notion of single women who in Mitt Rommey’s words “miss out on so much of life” and instead not missing out on life; she tries to showcase that such women with independent finances and support structures are making for good life for themselves, throwing over the yokel of the term of “spinsters”.