This reading group guide for All the Single Ladies includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Rebecca Traister. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.Introduction
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In a provocative and groundbreaking work, Rebecca Traister traces the history of unmarried and late-married women in America who have radically shaped our culture through political, social, and economic means.
When award-winning journalist Rebecca Traister started writing about the twenty-first century phenomenon of the American single woman, she thought that it would be a work of contemporary journalism. But over the course of more than a hundred interviews with social scientists, academics, and prominent single women, Traister discovered that the phenomenon of the single woman in America was far from new. In fact, she found that women having options beyond heterosexual marriage resulted in massive social changes, from abolition to temperance and beyond.
Destined to be a classic work of social history and journalism, All the Single Ladies
is a fascinating look at contemporary American life and how we got here, through the lens of the single American woman.Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. In her note about the interviews, Traister writes, “when I realized, late in the process, that I had written more than three hundred pages of a book in which only a handful of men were cited, I felt bad” (p. xii). What do you think of Traister’s disclosure? Do you think including more male voices and scholarship changed the book? If so, how?
2. Fredrick Douglass wrote that women would occupy a large part of the true history of the antislavery movement because “the cause of the slave has been peculiarly woman’s cause” (p. 48). Although, as Traister notes, “Marriage and slavery were not equivalent practices” (p. 43), the intersection between the two illustrates how marriage could be used as a means to control a population. In what ways did slave owners use marriage to both control and further exploit their slaves? Why might women have been particularly involved in the cause of abolition?
3. Writer Dodai Stewart says, “My long-term relationship is with New York” (p. 83). What does she mean? What does New York represent to Dodai? Many young, single women settle in cities. What do women gain from urban spaces? Have you ever felt about a city the way that Dodai Stewart feels about New York? Talk to your book club about the experience. Why did you feel so connected to that location?
4. Traister writes “Female friendship has been the bedrock of women’s lives for as long as there have been women” (p. 97). How was the role of friendship in women’s lives changed as the age of marriage has been delayed? What have female friends historically offered each other that husbands cannot? Discuss Ann and Amina’s friendship. What do they mean when they describe each other as “my person”? Do you have any friendships in your life like Anne and Amina’s?
5. When Traister first moved to New York City, HBO’s Sex and the City
had captured the national zeitgeist. She recalls nursing a “seething grudge” (p. 92) against the show. Why was Traister resentful of the show? Did it change the perception of single women living in cities? In what ways? Traister takes umbrage with Sex and the City
’s reliance on expensive consumer products as symbols of female empowerment. How might the act of buying an expensive item for one’s self be an expression of independence? Compare Traister’s reaction to the show to that of television critic Emily Nussbaum.
6. Amina Sow says “It takes a lot to qualify a man as selfish” (p. 134) whereas women are chastised for being selfish if they choose to focus on themselves. Discuss the roots of this double standard. How does this double standard contribute to the message to women that they are to blame for their single status?
7. According to psychologist Paula J. Caplan, the combination advent of the birth-control pill and Second Wave feminism created “a strange combination of liberation and disturbing pressures with regard to sex” (p. 217). Discuss this statement. How did attitudes toward sex change with the invention of the birth-control pill? What are some of the pitfalls that women experienced as a result?
8. According to Traister, Gloria Steinem’s “most powerful gift was her ability to synthesize radical sentiments into appealingly pithy, era-defining sound bites” (p. 26). Discuss Steinem’s role in the feminist movement. How did the way she lived her life—with male suitors and a healthy sexual appetite—make her particularly useful to the movement? What was the general reaction to Steinem’s marriage, at sixty-six, to David Bale?
9. Sara, Traister’s best friend, begs her, “please don’t make it sound like the wedding was the end of my story” (p. 295). Why is this so important to Sara? How does Sara’s story reflect a seismic shift in ideals of marriage? Why do you think that Traister chooses to end the penultimate chapter of All the Single Ladies
with this statement?
10. Discuss the impact that Anita Hill had on the national discourse. How did her allegations against Clarence Thomas lead to a dialogue about sexual harassment? How was Anita Hill treated by the Senate Judiciary Committee and the press? What was the effect of bringing up her status as a single woman?
11. In June 2013, The Defense of Marriage Act was overturned by the Supreme Court, enabling gay and lesbian couples to marry. Traister notes that the successful fight of homosexual couples to enter an institution that many women are struggling to distance themselves from only appears counterintuitive. Do you agree? Why may gay couples want to partake in the institution of marriage? What makes gay marriage so radical, according to Traister?
12. How does Traister define “hookup culture”? Contrast the media depictions of hookup culture with the reality that Traister outlines. Why do you think that there is such a stigma against hookup culture today?
13. Traister writes, “Having a baby is its own way of exerting control over the future” (p. 200). How does having a child give a mother a sense of control? Why might women make the choice to have a child out of wedlock? Describe some of the ways that single mothers have been vilified by popular culture. Do the arguments made against single motherhood have merit? Explain your answer.Enhance Your Book Club
1. Traister writers, “Austen’s novels had been as much ambivalent cries against
the economic and moral strictures of enforced marital identity for women than they were any kind of reassuring blue print for it” (p. 7). Read one of Jane Austen’s novels with your book club and discuss it within the context of Traister’s statement. In what ways does Austen’s writing condemn the institution of marriage?
2. That Girl
starring Marlo Thomas and The Mary Tyler Moore Show
were groundbreaking at the time they premiered. Watch old episodes of the shows with your book club and discuss what made them so revolutionary? If you watched them when they initially aired, discuss if your perception of them has changed. If it has, in what ways? Are there any television shows today that are similarly groundbreaking? What are they?
3. In a commencement address at Wellesley College, writer Nora Ephron recalled how she and her classmates “weren’t meant to have politics, or careers that mattered, or opinions or lives; we were meant to marry them” (p. 65). Read some of Nora Ephron’s work and discuss the feminist aspects of it. How is her reaction to the pressure to marry reflected in her writing?
4. To learn more about Rebecca Traister, read reviews of All the Single Ladies
, and to find out if she’ll be in a city near you, visit her official website at www.rebeccatraister.com
.A Conversation with Rebecca Traister You thank “all those [you] interviewed, on and off the record, who were so generous with their stories” (p. 312). Can you tell us how you found your subjects? How did you ensure that you had a diverse cross section of women who were contributing to your research?
At first, I went through colleagues and friends who brought me their own colleagues, friends, and friends of friends. I interviewed many people who had written or spoken publicly about living singly (which is part of why, as I acknowledge in my introduction, there are more writers represented here than there are in the real world). I put out feelers in specific areas of the country—the south, the west. Especially as I got deep into work on the book I simply began talking to people everywhere I went; I interviewed women I met on buses and in airports and on the subway. And then, I worked with a remarkable researcher, Rhaina Cohen, who was more than ten years younger than I and went through completely different channels. She tracked down dozens of subjects from around the country.Was there anything you found particularly surprising while conducting your research? Can you tell us about it?
As I describe in the book, the richness of the history of single women in America came as a surprise to me. I went into this project thinking I was writing a book of contemporary journalism and wound up writing a book that covers an enormous amount of this country’s history. Of course, that added about three years of research and writing to my timeline.Although All the Single Ladies relies almost exclusively on the scholarship and experiences of women, you note that men are crucial part of the story about female independence. Did you consider adding more male voices to the book when you realized only a few were included?
No, I didn’t consider adding men's voices just for the sake of gender balance. This is a book about women. There are a lot of books about men and about the male experience and there remain many more to be written, including a chronicle of men’s lives in a world in which heterosexual marriage has become rarer. But this was not that book. This is a book about women’s experiences and perspectives and place in the world.The New York Times lauded All The Single Ladies as “an informative and thought-provoking book for anyone—not just the single ladies—who wants to gain a great understanding of this pivotal moment in the history of the United States.” Were you writing the book with a specific audience in mind?
I probably assumed it would be read mostly by women (and have been surprised by how many men have read it!) but I didn’t assume it would be read exclusively by single women. There are millions of women (including me) who have been single for long periods or in formative ways but are now married; there are plenty of people who know and love single women—their friends and parents and grandparents and children. And plenty of women (and, it turns out, men) who, married or unmarried, are simply curious about the history of women in America.Your first book, Big Girls Don’t Cry, was critically acclaimed and named as a New York Times notable book when it was published. How did the experience of writing All The Single Ladies compare? Since your first book was so critically acclaimed, did you feel added pressure while writing it?
The nice thing about my first book is that it was critically acclaimed but didn’t sell, so I had plenty of room for improvement. I always feel pressure when I write to make it good, fresh, and accurate, and to say something new. The real pressure here was that the book took so long; with every passing month and year I felt more and more driven to make sure it was worth the time and effort. And also, of course, something I think people don’t acknowledge enough: books that take a long time to write take up work time over years, which produces an enormous financial pressure, too.Do you have any advice for aspiring writers and journalists? Is there anything that you wish you had been told at the start of your writing career?
Well in part because I feel the aforementioned pressure to always be good, I often cling to something an editor told me fifteen years ago about regular journalism: “If a quarter of your pieces are great, you’re ahead of the game.” I haven’t really internalized this, but I say it to myself sometimes to remind myself that it’s just a job, and some days you’ll do the job better than other days. As far as advice for young journalists, unfortunately, my best advice isn’t always achievable in today’s media climate: it’s to treat journalism as a learned, practiced skill, like plumbing: learn the rules, the ethics, the structure, how to write on deadline. Then when you get really good at that you can start writing with more voice and authority. But there aren’t so many places anymore, such as local papers, where you can learn those skills. Mostly, these days, the best advice I can give is: if you can find a job, great! Take it seriously, work hard at it, and help take the profession into the future.Gloria Steinem has said that getting married made her understand what “she feels to be ‘the biggest remnant of old thinking’ about the institution: idealizing and valuing it above all other types of loving relationships” (p. 265). Did your experience of getting married as you were writing All the Single Ladies cause you to see marriage in a different light? If so, how?
The way I feel about marriage as an institution is wholly separate from how I feel about my husband. To me, “marriage” as a concept is almost meaningless except insofar as its legal implications; people’s marriages are all so different from each other; their quality and meaning depend on the two people involved and their individual dynamic as a couple. The huge transition in my life was simply falling in love with the person I fell in love with. He is an extraordinary man, and I’m very much in love with him. But that doesn't mean that marriage
provided me happiness, just that this particular man and I happen to make each other very happy. It also doesn’t blot out or diminish the life, years, and relationships I had when I wasn’t married or in love with a partner: my connections to my friends and family and my work and city are no less central to who I am or who I became than my connection to the man who is now my husband. Also, being married has allowed me to personally witness how isolating marriage can be, which is the opposite of what everyone tells you. But when I fell in love and then got married and had kids, my world turned inward. I saw less of the outside world, was able to spend less time with friends, stayed in my home more. Everyone says that single people are isolated, but I participated much more in the outside world when I was single than after I was partnered.Paramount Television has acquired the rights to develop All the Single Ladies for television. Can you tell us more about that? What has that experience been like?
It’s still in such early stages that I can’t tell you anything except that it’s an exciting possibility.What do you like your readers to take away from All the Single Ladies? What compelled you to write it?
I am happy when readers take away anything of value. If they find their own experience reflected, great. If they gain insight into the lives of loved ones, great. If they learn about history that interests them, terrific. I suppose I’m extra excited if the book makes them rethink women’s relationship to the government and to economic and social policy because I believe that that’s the stuff that must change if we’re to move into a more equal future: we need higher wages, pay equality, subsidized daycare, and paid family leave and sick days—a stronger welfare system. And of course partisan leanings can make plenty of Americans dubious about those kinds of shifts, but I hope that this book offers an argument about why they make practical sense in today's world.Are you working on anything now? Can you tell us about it?
I’m covering the presidential election! My day job is as a journalist who writes about women and politics, so I pretty much can’t see into the future beyond November 9, 2016. After that: who knows. I can’t even talk about after that, because the possibilities are too frightening.