Single, dating, married, divorced: the way we relate to our relationship status is powerful, personal, and political. Rebecca Traister, journalist and author of All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, recently joined Moira Weigel, academic and author of Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating, for a Heleo Conversation. The two discussed changing gender norms, considered whether everyone actually likes Beyoncé, and speculated about what a coming backlash to feminism might look like. (Below is their conversation, edited for clarity.)
Rebecca Traister: How did you come to your topic of the invention of dating?
Moira Weigel: I’d been writing essays about gender, and in the process, reading all these articles and seeing all these books about a crisis of gender relations during the recession, or as a result of hookup culture. There was a book called The End of Sex and a big New York Times article called “The End of Courtship” and as a single person at the time and a historian, I would joke that I didn’t quite buy into this idea that everything had been the same forever and that the world was now over because of Tinder.
Rebecca: Right. This is has never happened before, we’ve never experienced such a crisis in our romantic fortunes.
Moira: Yeah, and as I got into the history of dating, I realized very quickly that it’s also the history of women in the workforce. The forms of courtship that have existed for the vast majority of history are controlled by family, or by a rabbi or a priest, or society. The first time you have this cultural form that I call dating — young people going out and meeting one another in public spaces — that only starts when women start taking paid work outside the home. Dating is very much a working class women’s invention because they were the first ones to do it. Once I figured that out, I thought that dating as a theater to examine gender roles seemed more fruitful than just giving my theory of, “What’s the deal with men my age?”
Rebecca: Heterosexual courtship rituals were always predicated on the fact that women, historically, were economically dependent on their relations to men: their fathers, husbands, brothers or brothers-in-law. Within a family, there was one kind of person who could be an earner, and that was a man. So as women came to adulthood there was this necessary transition in which they had to land a man to find economic stability. This is what Jane Austen novels are about.
My book was originally going to be a contemporary look at unmarried women, because the population of unmarried women was exploding so swiftly. At first, I viewed this as, “What’s the deal with all these women not marrying?” Then after about five minutes of research I realized that, in fact, there was tremendous historical precedent for this.
One of the interesting things about the invention of dating is that there had been this period at the end of the 19th century in which women hadn’t married. Because so many men died in the Civil War and then so many men moved west, many women were left on the East Coast without men to marry.
If you’ve thought about this before it’s probably in terms of Boston marriages, the lifelong cohabiting partnerships of women. It was also those women who, untethered from all-consuming responsibilities of wifeliness and maternity, suddenly turned their efforts toward really disruptive social movements. Abolition, suffrage, the opening of women’s colleges, the temperance movement. It’s not that only single women were leading those movements, but single women were often the motor.
They had the days, the time, the energy that was siphoned-off for married women by their responsibilities to their homes, their husbands, and their children. Somewhere in the early 20th century you begin to see cultural pushback from the medical establishment, which begins to identify singlehood as a perversion, with frigidity. You also see the creation of dating and early hetero-courtship as an ideal. In part, that’s working against singlehood. It’s re-encouraging the early pursuit of male partnership after some decades in which women were not marrying and causing a lot of trouble.
“I don’t want to be the dark grandma to a whole generation of young feminists — ‘Get ready kids, it’s all going to close down on you,’ — but we are steering straight to backlash.”
Moira: Are these people single because they have revolutionary ideas? Or do they have the space to develop revolutionary ideas because they’re single?
Rebecca: I think it’s a combination. The same is true today. People are always saying to me, “Well, women aren’t not marrying because they want to make a political statement.” No, of course they’re not, but it’s a combination of things happening together that lead to what becomes a pattern.
Moira: Before we do our research, we often tend to think — or maybe I unreflectively thought this when I was younger — that we were moving towards more and more sexual freedom. I’ve found that that’s really not true. It’s a pattern, and as lots of folks like Christine Stansell or Susan Faludi have observed, it follows periods of rise and backlash. I feel like your book feels so optimistic.
Rebecca: But we are steering straight to backlash. There’s a whole generation of young feminists — and I don’t want to be the dark grandma, like, “Get ready kids, it’s all going to close down on you,”– but it is. That’s not exactly pessimism, it’s like, “Gird yourself.”
Moira: It’s funny because I’ve just been reading Backlash, which gets into all this.
Rebecca: How much younger are you?
Moira: I’m 31.
Rebecca: I’m ten years older than you. When I was in high school, there was a deep freeze on feminism. That’s the period that Faludi’s describing. I was born in 1975. By the time that I was remotely conscious of any of this, it was the mid-80s, Reagan’s America. It was such a period of intense anti-feminist backlash that the notion that feminism would ever become cool again was just unthinkable to me. I went to a super crunchy, lefty, Quaker school in Philadelphia where everybody cared, in theory, about women’s rights. But I have distinct high school memories of my super progressive young friends saying, “I’m not a feminist, but…” That classic line.
In the mid-90s, I went to a mid-western, Big Ten school. You could be at the LGBT picnic and say, “Who’s a feminist?” and no one would raise their hand. It was an absolute dead zone for feminism. It wasn’t until after the 2004 election and the creation of a political blogosphere that it changed. Now I talk to women all the time who say, “I want to be a feminist journalist.” I didn’t even know that that category existed short of Katha Pollitt and Ellen Goodman when I was in my early twenties.
Moira: I’m curious about this moment right now where Beyoncé has her huge feminist sign behind her at the VMAs, Emma Watson’s a feminist, and Channing Tatum says he’s a feminist. On the one hand that feels hugely exciting, as someone who grew up in the 90s, in a Catholic, traditional family. I feel like there’s been a rediscovery of feminism since 2010. Are there ways this pop feminist moment can be harnessed to resist that backlash? And what do you think about how the backlash is going to come and unfold?
Rebecca: I think a backlash will always come from multiple directions. It’s not as though some right wing takeover is going to quash feminism. You are seeing the very reasonable disruptions of the popularized feminists’ celebration from people who are pointing out its limitations. I’m of two minds about it, too. I love Beyoncé standing in front of a big sign —
Moira: Everyone loves Beyoncé.
Rebecca: No, that’s not true, though. I thought my love of that moment was born of having been a backlash kid and not being able to ever imagine this being so cool. There is value in that, but it is also true that the critiques of it are fair, not just of Beyoncé, but of the popularized celebrity, empty-calorie feminism. I do not think that Beyoncé is empty calorie, but if you are somebody who’s really into policy nitty-gritty then, of course, it lacks some heft. Certainly intersectional critiques are always coming into play in terms of the mainstream popularized, privileged and largely white versions of feminism that still predominate.
I also cover women in politics so I’ve been paying a lot of attention to the Hillary Clinton campaign. You can feel other left resentments having crept up in the last few months around the campaign, especially in her competition with Bernie Sanders. Many reasonable questions about what it should mean that Hillary is a woman, and why should this matter? A lot of the critiques lobbed from that direction rely on straw women saying, “I’m only voting for Hillary Clinton because she’s a woman.” I don’t actually think there are many people who operate like that, but the fact that that’s been put up as a straw woman to begin with suggests that there’s already resentments towards the popularity of feminism coming from the left.
If Hillary Clinton wins the presidency you will have a tremendous opening, as we did under the Obama administration, in which all kinds of racial resentments were aired. You’re going to have an airing of grievance. A lot of that will come from the right wing. By the same token, if she loses to Donald Trump, she will be the villain who landed us with Donald Trump.
“A lot of what the Bernie Sanders campaign and the intensity of his support did was make Hillary better.”
Moira: Frankly, I share both some of the excitement about the idea of a woman president and some of the left critique, of Hillary and policies that have been systematically terrible for women that she’s either advocated or enacted. Do you think there’s any way to harness the feminist critique of Hillary from the left in a progressive direction, and not just let it dissipate under right wing, misogynistic rhetoric?
Rebecca: Absolutely. A lot of what the Bernie Sanders campaign and the intensity of his support did was make Hillary better. Bernie made a play for the left, and it forced her to also play for a more radical left. And that’s what got us objections to the Hyde Amendment, which I didn’t think I was going to see in my lifetime, even from a good Democratic president. It had just been absorbed so wholly that we deny poor the same access to reproductive health that more privileged women have. I think Barack Obama referred to it as tradition. That’s an example of how energies around a left critique of Hillary have had an incredibly positive impact on her. I think she’s gotten much stronger. She’s moved on minimum wage, she moved on the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Moira: You think it’ll be borne out? You think it’ll stay?
Rebecca: I have no idea. I don’t think it’s a bad thing for politicians to change their positions on things. It often means that they are listening to their constituents on what the base wants, and if what her base wants is lefter politics I actually do believe that Hillary will —
Moira: Will respond to that?
Rebecca: To whatever degree response is possible. It depends on what kind of congress she has, but yes. I make no advertisements for the Hillary Clinton presidency, except that I think she’ll be very competent. It’s hard to predict what will happen, but I don’t think that she can just turn away from these kinds of commitments. Historically, most presidents don’t. Most of what they promise on a campaign trail they wind up being held to account for.
Moira: To bring it back to the books a little bit, how do you reconcile the tension between wanting to capture systemic forces and also wanting to give the texture of individual lives, with all the people you interviewed?
Rebecca: In part it was about giving the interviewees space to tell their stories, which in some cases were positive, in some cases negative, and trying to get a balance. The content and the quality of the experiences of singlehood depended on age, circumstance, where people were living. It was impossible for me to take a complete snapshot of being single in the United States because there are millions of stories and no one book is going to be able to capture it all. I tried to make sure that I reflected a variety of experiences: people who are lonely, people who feel like they’d missed out, people who wished that their lives had gone differently. Give them space to share their stories along with the people who were saying, “This is what I want, this is freedom.”
Moira: I suppose there’s always the problem of self-reporting, too. How people talk about how they feel.
Rebecca: Right, and I’m also trying to give context. There are lots of women who speak about loneliness. “I thought my life was going to be something. My life is not that thing.” So, as the writer, you acknowledge that story as being one that represents the stories of millions of women. Also, there are millions of women who feel lonely, feel that there’s another life that they might have had in another existence that they feel barred from, and those are married women. But because we still think of singlehood as an aberration and married life as the norm, if you speak to a woman who’s reporting loneliness and dissatisfaction and she happens to be single, it’s very easy to make a diagnostic association between singlehood and that experience.
Those very same reports can come from a married woman, and even if the content is very similar, we don’t hear them in the same way.
Moira: It’s funny about the marriage thing, because actually marriage is bad for the mental health of women and good for the mental health of their partners. There are different measures of how it affects longevity, mental and physical health. And having children, too. Men want children more than women.
Rebecca: Right, men want children more than women. What seems to be true is that good, reciprocal marriage, in which there is a sharing of whatever burden — emotional, domestic, economic — is really good for both women and men. But the number of good marriages is pretty hard to measure.
The category that fares the worst is divorced women, and of course divorce is a direct result of marriage. The notion that marriage, in and of itself, is the way to get happier and more economically stable completely ignores the fact that a large percentage of the people who take that step wind up in the most unfortunate category.
Moira: Do you think expectations about gender and partnership are changing?
Rebecca: I do. First of all, the notion of what marriage entails is changing. I grew up in a family that was partway there. My mother always earned more than my father, it was in theory a feminist household, although my mother wasn’t exactly activated by the feminist movement. She was the full professor. My father also had a PhD, but he was a rare book librarian, always made less money. But the division of domestic labor was entirely traditional. He never did a dish, he never drove carpool. Based on my parents’ experience, there was never any doubt that I was going to have a career and earn the money, but really even before it was conscious, I rejected the notion that I was going to do every dish and change every diaper. Also, marriage didn’t seem to make any sense for me in my early 20s.
I was like, “Why would I get married right now? It makes no sense based on how my life is going.” Now, my kids will grow up with a totally different sense. My husband in regular, daily life does between 50 and 60% of the childcare, cooking and cleaning. That alters how you view what your partnerships can be like.
You have a huge proportion of kids across income levels who are growing up with single parents, where marriage is not even the assumed norm of a family structure. Certainly hetero-normativity is no longer the only model for parenting, and that’s a change that’s really only happened in the past decade or so. We can’t imagine what today’s kids will think as they become adults. There’ll be backlashes in that, as well. Marriage patterns come and go.
Moira: There’s something very exciting about the idea of a woman doing it on her own. She can have a kid, and it’s not stigmatized. But that’s still so much work for someone to do on their own in our society as it’s currently arranged, so I wonder about what kind of politics could support that shift.
Rebecca: Paid leave, higher minimum wages, subsidized childcare. It has to be mandated for fathers, too. If you just have paid leave that applies to mothers–
Moira: It reinforces gender norms about childcare.
Rebecca: Right, that’s where the Bernie Sanders conception of paid leave actually fell short, because he said it was time for moms to bond with their babies. It was like, “No, it’s actually a way of supporting women’s participation in the workforce, it’s not just about moms.” We have to reconceive our notions of masculinity and participation within the home, and our notions of women’s participation in the workforce.
The inverse that’s really scary is people say to me, “Are we going to go back to women marrying at 22?” Because if you had a Donald Trump Presidency, and if he appointed a conservative Supreme Court and had a Republican Congress, you could do things like make abortion illegal again, make contraception hard to come by again. If you made contraception inaccessible, prevented women from exercising their full reproductive rights, did not raise a minimum wage, did not protect equal pay, do not subsidize daycare: if you do all this, you can reassemble a social and economic structure in which women are wholly dependent on men again. That would, in fact, force a return to compulsory, early hetero marriage.
“This is the story of American history: fits and starts, big leaps and then pushbacks, argument and resistance.”
Moira: I do wonder — with gay marriage, a lot of queer folks on the left talk about this idea that that was selling out to gain respectability and legal recognition. These people I’m thinking of do not regret that gay marriage is now legal —
Rebecca: Right, but it is a return to a neo-traditional form.
Moira: So there’s that tension.
Rebecca: Absolutely. That’s a valid argument. I think that’s true to some extent. I also don’t see it as being at odds from the move away from marriage as it has historically been configured. It’s part of reinventing the institution to mean something else and to serve a different function so that it’s not a way of organizing power along gender lines anymore. Which is not to say that gay marriages aren’t studies in power balances, but the power imbalances don’t necessarily, by definition, run along gender lines.
Going back to the beginning of our conversation and the notion that there’s backlash coming: you said my book is optimistic. I am bizarrely optimistic, and maybe I shouldn’t be, that there will be some of these social changes. I think paid leave is coming. Maybe I’m crazy and it’s just a pipe dream. If we have a President Hillary Clinton, if I were to guess what her signature policy achievement would be, my guess is that it would be paid leave. I don’t know what form it will take, or if it will be good enough.
Moira: I hope so.
Rebecca: We’ll see. I am somewhat optimistic about a lot of these policy changes being enacted in the next few years. That is not at odds with my view of a backlash. In fact, they’re intimately connected. One of the reasons I anticipate a backlash is because I do feel us getting closer to some of this stuff that felt like pipe dreams five minutes ago, and that’s what’s going to promote anger. You have to remember that the backlash of the 80s and 90s was in direct response to the major legal and policy shifts after the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, the gay rights movement. If what we get out of our Beyoncé movement is paid leave, then we’re going to get the backlash but we’re also going to get the paid leave. This is the story of American history: fits and starts, big leaps, and then pushbacks, circular movement, argument and resistance. That’s what we’re looking at. I don’t see optimism on some fronts as being at odds with pessimism on other fronts.