Single By Choice: Why Fewer American Women Are Married Than Ever Before

Originally published on March 18, 2016 11:17 am

Marriage is losing ground in America. According to the U.S. Census, the proportion of married adults dropped from 57 percent in 2000 to 52 percent in 2009. For the first time ever, single adult women outnumber married adult women in the U.S.

Rebecca Traister says the declining marriage rates among adult women are less about the institution of marriage and more about the choices available to women today.

"The choice not to marry isn't necessarily a conscious rejection of marriage," Traister tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "It is [about] the ability to live singly if an appealing marriage option doesn't come along."

In her new book, All the Single Ladies, Traister draws on historical research, interviews with about 100 women and her own experience to examine how delaying or abstaining from marriage affects women's lives. She notes that the shift allows women to build up "our economic and professional bases," which can result in greater autonomy and a more equitable distribution of domestic work in marriage.

But women still have a ways to go before they achieve full parity with men. "There are a whole bunch of structural and systemic factors we need to address in order to move away from the model in which women really are still dependent on men," Traister says. "Women are living independently, but we don't yet have the social and economic policies behind us to support that independence."

Traister's previous book, Big Girls Don't Cry, reported on Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign and the role gender played in the election.


Interview Highlights

On what she means by "single by choice"

When I say "the choice to not marry," that doesn't always translate into "I am a woman and I am deciding that I am not going to get married," or "I am rejecting marriage." The choice to not marry can also mean: "I would really like to marry or to fall in love or to meet someone, but I haven't met someone who I feel is going to improve on the life that I am building and making on my own."

For so long, for so many generations and so many centuries in this country and in many places across the world ... women had less freedom and less economic opportunity [and] were not sexually liberated. ... There were great social and economic tolls for having children outside of wedlock. Women were dependent on their husbands, and that's one of the reasons why marriage had to happen so early, and so frequently did happen early, because women couldn't be economically independent and they had to rely on having husbands who were earners.

Now, thanks to a lot of the political battles that were waged in the mid-20th century ... women have much more opportunity to earn on their own. Though we're still not close to equal pay, women can be economically independent. Thanks to the sexual liberation, thanks to developments within birth control, thanks to an expansion of reproductive rights, women can have sexually liberated lives. Increasingly, having children outside of marriage is a socially accepted norm.

On women getting married later

One of the most startling statistics is that today only 20 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 are married, and that compares to 60 percent in 1960. The other figure that I find very startling, in part because it was so resilient for so long, is the median age of first marriage for women. From the time they started recording it — which was 1890 — until 1980, that median age of first marriage for women fluctuated only between 20 and 22. ... In 1990 it jumped to over 23, which is a huge jump from having been in that small range for so long. Today, for women, it is over 27. So if you're just looking at the sort of historical picture, there's this relatively flat line for almost 100 years and now there's not just a jump over that line, but way over that line.

On how later marriages affect the division of domestic work

What happens is that men and women wind up living more independently in the world for more years, and both of them wind up accruing skills. ... It's much more likely that the woman knows how to use a drill and do the laundry and that the man she may be meeting and partnering with also knows how to do his laundry and feed himself and use a drill, and that they both are earners and they both have careers. I think that goes a considerable distance toward leveling the playing field when it comes to domestic labor, though it certainly hasn't fixed things, as time-use surveys show us. Women are still doing the lion's share of the domestic work, but it is changing slowly.

On how her experience of getting married differed from her mother's

I was 35 years old. I had just published or was about to publish my first book, which was about women in the 2008 election. I had a career that I was extremely committed to, that was at its most robust point at that time. I had just given up the apartment that I had rented and where I had lived by myself for five blissful years of living by myself in a relatively small studio apartment; and I was so keenly aware of how different this transition in my life — from being a single person to a married person — was for me than, I believe, it had been for my mother.

My mother also had a thriving career. She got a Ph.D. and was an English professor and was one of the first four women hired by her English department. But she had been married to my father at 21, days after she graduated from college. Marriage had marked the beginning of her adult life, and she had done all of the professional development, the making of friends, the building of the social circles, within the institution of marriage, while married to my father. They're still married; they've had a very happy marriage. But marriage was something I was doing well into my adult life. It felt that it meant something different to me.

On how Susan B. Anthony predicted the future in 1877

Here I was making what I thought was this very original argument that ... normalizing adult women's independence from the marital institution ... was one of the ways in which women were getting closer to social and economic and sexual equality. ... And one of the great humbling experiences in my research was, first of all, discovering that there were lots of women in the 19th century who were making this exact argument in the popular press.

I came across this speech by Susan B. Anthony. It's called "The Homes of Single Women," and in it she predicted that on the path to gender equality, there must needs be an era in which women cease to marry. ... It was like reading someone from 150 years ago truly predicting the very work that I was in the midst of at this moment. She says, "As young women become educated in the industries of the world, thereby learning the sweetness of independent bread, it will be more and more impossible for them to accept the ... marriage limitation that 'husband and wife are one, and that one the husband.' "

And what she goes on to argue is that even if we change the laws, even if we change our social policies, even if we find all of these other official ways to acknowledge women's equality — which is something that we have now done by many measures — after both the suffrage movement's success and the second wave's successes, we will still have to adjust our personal biases and expectations, and that the way to do that will be to live through what she calls an epoch in which women and men cease to marry each other and thereby adjust to each other and begin to view each other as true equal independents.

On how Hillary Clinton's marriage defines her as a candidate

She really is a bridge. Her life really is a bridge between a kind of earlier set of marriage patterns and gendered expectations, and the new world. ... Bill [Clinton] now says, "I told her not to marry me. She should pursue her own career."

But she didn't. She went to Arkansas with him ... [and] she really did put her ambitions second to her husband, and she functioned as a loyal wife. In fact, even in that role she still managed to be a threatening lightning rod when she came into the national eye in the early '90s. ... There was enormous pressure on her to be supportive and to support him and to show that she was submissive to some degree — to a degree that would make the American people more comfortable with her.

She played that role, and she's paying for it right now. ... [Now] she is being asked to answer for her husband's sexual behavior, also for the policies he and his administration enacted during the years before she herself held her own independent elected office, when she became the senator from New York after he left the White House. And it is a very interesting contrast. She is really paying for her role as traditional, faithful and supportive wife in a world that far better understands female independence than the world in which she came of age.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Rebecca Traister, didn't get married until she was in her mid-30s. Half of her closest women friends were unmarried in their mid-30s, and they're part of a larger trend. For the first time in American history, single women outnumber married women. Traister's new book, "All The Single Ladies," which takes its title from the Beyonce song, is about why women are marrying later - if they marry at all - and how this trend is affecting women's lives and their gender roles in and out of marriage. The book draws on historical research, interviews with about 100 women and on Traister's own story. She's a writer at large for New York magazine, where she writes from a feminist perspective about women in politics, media and entertainment. Her previous book, "Big Girls Don't Cry," reported Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign and the role that gender played. We'll talk about Clinton's current campaign a little later.

Rebecca Traister, welcome to FRESH AIR. I think one of the things you're trying to do in your book is to look at how the world looks for single women when they can be single by choice when, as you put it, the marriage imperative is lifted. Because it's really not too long ago, historically, that if you were a single woman, that was considered just a very, very pathetic life to lead. You were a spinster. You were an old maid. You were an object of shame or ridicule or just sad to look upon.

REBECCA TRAISTER: Or you were scandalous - best case scenario, you were scandalous, right?

(LAUGHTER)

TRAISTER: Yeah, I mean - and by the way, when I say the choice to not marry, that doesn't always translate into, I am a woman, and I am deciding that I am not going to get married, or I am rejecting marriage. The choice to not marry can also mean, I would really like to marry or to fall in love or to meet someone, but I haven't met someone who I feel is going to improve on the life that I am building and making on my own. And therefore, the choice is not to have to marry somebody who wouldn't improve on it, right? Because for so long, for so many generations and so many centuries in this country, and in many places across the world - because women had less freedom and less economic opportunity, were not sexually liberated, that there were great social and economic tolls for having children outside of wedlock, women were dependent on their husbands. And that's one of the reasons that marriage had to happen so early, and so frequently did happen early, because women couldn't be economically independent and they had to rely on having husbands who were earners. Now, thanks to a lot of the sort of political battles that were waged in the mid-20th century - and that, in fact, they themselves had built on political and social progress in the 19th century - now women have much opportunity to earn on their own. Though, you know, we're still not close to equal pay, women can be economically independent thanks to the sexual liberation, thanks to developments within birth control, thanks to an expansion of reproductive rights. Women can have sexually liberated lives. Increasingly, having children outside of marriage is a socially accepted norm. And so in part, the choice not to marry isn't necessarily a conscious rejection of marriage. It is the ability to live singly if an appealing marriage option doesn't come along.

GROSS: You had reservations about marriage before you met the man who became your husband. And you write even when you were growing up, the heroines who you loved in books and movies, you always hated it when they got married. Why did you hate that?

TRAISTER: Well, I hated it when my first literary heroines got married - so Laura Ingalls Wilder, Anne Shirley, Jo March. And that's actually what - when I first started writing this book five years ago, I knew I wanted to start there because that is my earliest memory. And I've thought back to how old I must have been when I had these conscious thoughts, really, about how sad I was when Laura Ingalls married Almanzo Wilder. And why - how did I know to feel that way when I must have been - I know my parents read them to me when I was 5, but I must have read them again, myself, when I was 8 or 9. How did I know to feel so say? And I knew that's where I wanted my book to start because I knew that's where my ambivalent feelings about marriage - though I'd never organized them in any way like this until I started writing this book - that's where they were rooted. And what's very interesting is that - so when I started this book, it was right before I got married. It was several months before I got pregnant. I now have an almost-5-year-old daughter. And my husband and I been reading her the "Little House" books. And we were reading "By The Shores Of Silver Lake" probably about six weeks ago. My book is finished. It's turned in. It's been sent to the printers. And I haven't read these books since I was 7 or 8, probably. And I'm reading "By The Shores Of Silver Lake," and there is an incredible sequence where Laura, moving west, encounters her cousin Lena, and they go riding on these fast horses. And they're having this exciting day. They're delivering some laundry or something to a woman who lives out on the prairie. And they get to the woman's house, and she's sort of overwhelmed. And she says, oh, my girl left me yesterday; she married. And the daughter who's married was 13. And in the book, Laura and Lena become very silent. They're 12 and 13 at this point. And they become very silent. And on their ride back, they're riding so slowly, and they're talking very grimly about what happened to this daughter. And they say to each other, she can't play anymore; that's the end of her fun; I wouldn't want that to happen to me; I just want to keep moving west. And I had no idea that that passage was in this book until I was reading it myself to my 5-year-old daughter. And I thought to myself, well, no wonder...

GROSS: Really.

TRAISTER: This was read to me too, right? And I must have had the association even - these young women thinking so grimly and with such terror and it really - Laura Ingalls Wilder really writes about - they're silenced by the fear of coming to the point where they have the responsibility. They have to marry. Their fun is over. They can't play anymore. I read that, and I thought, well, no wonder I knew to be upset that they finally got married, you know, when she finally marries Almanzo.

GROSS: OK, so when I was growing up, in the '50s and '60s, I felt like all the role models around me for marriages were pretty conventional. All the adult women I knew were either married or they were widows. And they had, you know, pretty conventional marriages where the women stayed home, took care of the home, took care of the children, and the men went to work. But your mother, as far as I can tell, was something of a feminist. She maintained a career when she got married and had children. So do you think, like, you grew up with the same kind of ideas of what marriage was - that marriage had all those conventions - or did you grow up with an idea that marriage could be more open than that? And I don't mean sexually open, I mean gender role open - that you could still have a career and a life outside the marriage.

TRAISTER: Well, my mother did have a very successful career. She was a professor of English at Lehigh University for many years. She and my father had a marriage that was very much a marriage of intellectual equals. They are both academics. My father is a rare book librarian. And I grew up with a model in which intellectual equality was not only normal, it was the expectation. However, they were married young. My mother was 21. My father was a couple of years older. And in terms of the division of domestic labor, it was a very traditional marriage. My mother did all of the dish washing, laundry, housecleaning and cooking and child care and ferrying us around, and my father did not do any of that. So it was - to some degree, there were mixed messages, which I think are at the heart of what women are still grappling with as they continue to have careers and continue to meet domestic expectations that are still higher for them. So I think my models, to some degree, were slightly confusing. Certainly, I was growing up in the '80s. I was born in 1975. And almost all of the adult women around me worked and had careers. But again, many of them - my mother's friends and my friends' mothers - also had quite traditionally arranged domestic patterns in terms of who did the housework and the child care within their homes. So I would say that I grew up with a series of mixed messages about the possibility for equality within marriage.

GROSS: Well, what message did that give you about the ability to have a reasonable life? Because I think if you're doing all of the housework, if you're doing all of the traditional wife things and you have a career, you've got two full-time jobs there.

TRAISTER: Yes, well, thinking about the message that I took into my own adulthood, I mean, I know that my number one priority was I was going to go to college and was going to work. And marriage seemed implausible to me. Now I wonder if it's because I couldn't imagine taking on that responsibility. I wonder if it's because I couldn't imagine doing that kind of labor. I also wonder if it was simply because I didn't - I hadn't ever met anyone. As a young woman, I hadn't ever had a relationship. I hadn't had a boyfriend, so it seemed very distant and far off and exotic. But I do think that one of the things that we've seen change radically in the years that women have been marrying less frequently and at later ages is the very slow shift in get toward slightly more equitable distribution of domestic work at home. And I would argue that in part, that's because many of us - perhaps because we're not yet ready to take on those burdens or don't want to take on the burdens of doing all the domestic work within marriages or within families - are postponing marriage and first building our economic and professional bases. But what happens is that men and women wind up living more independently in the world for more years, and both of them wind up accruing skills, both professional and domestic, so that by the time - if you're talking about hetero couples - by the time men and women are meeting and partnering and marrying, it's much more likely that the woman knows how to use a drill and do the laundry and the man she may be meeting and partnering with also knows how to do his laundry and feed himself and use a drill, and that they both are earners, and that they both have careers. And so I think that goes a considerable distance toward leveling the playing field when it comes to domestic labor. Though it certainly hasn't fixed things, as time use surveys show us. Women are still doing the lion's share of the domestic work. But it is changing slowly.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Rebecca Traister. And her new book is called "All The Single Ladies: Unmarried Women And The Rise Of An Independent Nation." Let's take a short break here. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guess is Rebecca Traister. She's the author of the new book "All The Single Ladies: Unmarried Women And The Rise Of Independent Nation." She is a writer for New York magazine and writes about women in politics, media and culture. I'm going to ask you for some statistics since you're writing about single women - not just yourself but about this phenomenon of there being a lot more single women living in the United States. Give us a sense of statistically how that figure has grown.

TRAISTER: Well, one of the most startling statistics is that today, only 20 percent of American aged 18 to 29 are married. And that compares to 60 percent in 1960. The other figure that I find very startling in part because it was so resilient for so long is the median age of first marriage for women. From the time they started recording it, which was 1890, until 1980, that median age of first marriage for women fluctuated only between 20 and 22, right? At some of its higher points it was 22, other points it was at 20. But it never sort of broke out of those bounds. In 1990, it jumped up to over 23, which is a huge jump from having been in that small range for so long. Today, for women it's over 27. So if you're just looking at the sort of historical picture, there's this relatively flat line for almost 100 years. And now there's not just a jump over that line but way over that line.

GROSS: And there are things historically that have made that possible, too. For example, you write about Supreme Court decisions that have enabled women to control their fertility and be single and still have a sexual life. And OK, everybody knows about Roe v. Wade in 1973 and then in 1965 there's the Griswold v. Connecticut, which made the use of contraception legal. What I didn't realize is that that '65 Supreme Court decision made contraception legal for married couples. but it didn't apply to single people. There was a separate decision in 1972 that applied to single people. Did you know that, or were you surprised to find that out?

TRAISTER: Well, it was something that I'd sort of known but not really considered what it meant. The case was Eisenstadt v. Baird. And I'd known about it as a feminist journalist. It's something I'd come across. But until I was working on this book and sort of laying out the history and thinking about what marriage had meant for so long and how it had been the normal configuration and arrangement of adult life in the United States, I hadn't considered how momentous Eisenstadt v. Baird was in that it considered single people to have rights even though they were not part of a married unit and that that was kind of an explosive decision. It's fascinating that that doesn't get as much attention as Griswold.

GROSS: Right. And there are other historical precedents that you write about. For example, when America was created, the law that applied to women was basically the law of coverture. Why don't you describe what coverture was?

TRAISTER: Coverture was drawn from English common law. And coverture actually implied that the woman's identity when she entered into marriage was covered by the identity of her husband. So her earnings became his earnings. She couldn't be interviewed in a court of law without him present. They were considered to be basically the same legal and therefore social entity. I should say that there's been a lot of scholarship that suggests that of course women found ways to exert energy within marriages despite the laws of coverture. But the legal implications were just profound. A woman basically lost her legal independence in marrying her husband. And certain laws that correspond to coverture are still really in some places being overturned. I mean, it was not until the 1970s and sort of extended into the 1990s that, for example, marital rape laws began to be overturned. Until very recently in our history, it was legal for a husband to force himself sexually on his wife because they were married. And those laws have just been overturned. And every once in a while, you still read a stray headline about, you know, some small marital rape law in one state or another being challenged and overturned. Mostly they're gone now. But it took a very long time for the practices and assumptions around coverture to really be overturned in the American imagination. And we still see - look, you know, when women marry, they take their husband's name very often, right? There's still symptoms of it all around us.

GROSS: Did you take your husband's name when you married?

TRAISTER: I did not.

GROSS: Why not?

TRAISTER: It never crossed my mind. We - I mean, in part because I'm a journalist and I have my byline. In part because I just - it was - I don't know, it was my name. I was 35. Again, maybe this is - I was much deeper into adulthood than my mother was when she took my father's name. Honestly, whenever these conversations come up, I just think it truly never occurred to me. I will say this - we did give our children my husband's name. And we talked about that, whether we would or not. And we did it for a whole series of complicated reasons involving who else in our family had what names and everything. But I know many women now - or at least some women who are in hetero marriages where they decide to give their children - or one of their children the wife's name. And we did not do that.

GROSS: And you didn't hyphenate the name.

TRAISTER: No.

GROSS: Too cumbersome?

TRAISTER: That was more for, you know, aesthetic convenience reasons.

GROSS: OK. And in continuing to talk about the history of single women, you quote a very interesting speech that I was unfamiliar with that was given by Susan B. Anthony in 1877. The speech was called on "The Homes Of Single Women." What did she have to say about single women?

TRAISTER: So I was quite deep into the research for this book at this point when I came across this speech that Susan B. Anthony gave in 1877. And I was absolutely blown away by it because here I was making what I thought was this very original argument that in normalizing adult women's independence from the marital institution as a norm, it was one of the ways in which women were getting closer to social and economic and sexual equality and that this was this very original point. And one of the great humbling experiences in my research was first of all discovering that lots of women in the 19th century who were making this exact argument, you know, in the popular press, not in obscure places. And then I came across this speech by Susan B. Anthony. It's called "The Homes Of Single Women." And in it, she predicted that on the path to gender equality, there must needs be an era in which women cease to marry. And what she says - and it was like reading someone from 150 years ago truly predicting the very work that I was in the midst of at this moment. She says as young women out become educated in the industries of the world, thereby learning the sweetness of independent bread, it will be more and more impossible for them to except the marriage limitation that husband and wife are one and that one the husband. And what she goes on to argue is that even if we change the laws, even if we change our social policies, even if we find all of these other official ways to acknowledge women's equality - which is something that we have now done by many measures after both, you know, the suffrage movement success and the second-wave successes - we will still have to adjust our personal biases and expectations, and that the way to do that will be to live through what she calls an epoch in which women and men cease to marry each other and thereby adjust to each other as - and begin to view each other as true equal independents.

GROSS: Do you feel...

TRAISTER: And...

GROSS: ...In some way like that's the era that you lived through in the 14 years that you were an adult and single?

TRAISTER: I feel very much that that's the era that I lived through, and I feel like it's the era that is becoming - it's only growing. The numbers of women who are marrying later or not at all are growing all the time. They've grown in the five years that I've been working on this book. And the adjustments are slow, right, because it's an adjustment of expectation. And so young women now turning 18, turning 22, coming out of college, going into workforces, thinking about whether and how they're going to have kids have a whole different set of expectations than I probably had 20 years ago. And those - again, the change is both very fast and very slow. But yes, I do feel - and reading that speech - the first time that I found that speech, I got shivers because I thought she was predicting the future we're living.

GROSS: My guest is Rebecca Traister, author of the new book "All The Single Ladies: Unmarried Women And The Rise Of Independent Nation." After a break, we'll talk more about being single, and we'll talk about how gender figures into Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. Traister wrote a book about Clinton's 2008 presidential run. And Maureen Corrigan will review a new book about the connection between loneliness and art. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Rebecca Traister, author of the new book "All The Single Ladies" about why more women than ever are single and how that's affecting women's lives and gender roles. Traister is a writer at large for New York magazine, where she writes from a feminist perspective about women in politics, media and entertainment.

You write about a lot of single women through history and what being single meant to them. And one of the women you write about is Anita Hill. And she told you things about how being single - how she thinks being single affected how she was treated during the Clarence Thomas hearings when she testified that Thomas had made sexual overtures and said inappropriate sexual things when he was her boss at the EEOC, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. What did she tell you about how she thinks being single was used against her - was used to discredit her?

TRAISTER: Well, interestingly, when I tracked down Anita Hill, who was somebody - those hearings were very formative for me. I was in high school, and they were sort of a flashpoint in the development of my won feminist sensibilities. And she was somebody who, as soon as I started the project, I wanted to try to interview. And when I approached her and I sort of said, I'd like to - very nervously - I'd like to write this - I'm writing this book about single women. I'm hoping you can talk to me about your experience, and hoping that she wouldn't in some way be offended by this question. And she said to me, oh, I wrote about that. And she'd actually published an essay about how her singleness had had an impact on how she was received during those hearings. And one of the points she makes is that she was made more vulnerable to the criticism of both the Senate Judiciary Committee that treated her so poorly and then the press that reported on her. And you know - you remember she was treated horrifically during those hearings. You know, David Brock famously referred to her as a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty. And one of her points has long been that because she was not the attached to this historically validating institution, marriage, she was made more vulnerable to those kinds of attacks and also made more inscrutable - that she was difficult to understand as a figure in this important, you know, legal, judicial event because she was different. She was not understood as women had historically been understood as wives - as mothers. And she also writes a lot about how race had an impact on this. And I thought that was really interesting. Those trials happen at the beginning of the '90s. This is just as the big shift in marriage patterns was coming. The marriage age was just shooting up. It was in the '90s that we have what researchers call the Great Crossover, when the average age of marriage actually went above the average age of first birth, and there was this reversal of what had long been a social norm and expectation, that marriage comes first and then comes children. And there was an enormous amount of sort of ambient anxiety about this. These were the same years that Dan Quayle was sort of laying into Murphy Brown for having a child outside of wedlock.

GROSS: And for anyone who doesn't remember, Murphy Brown was a TV character.

TRAISTER: Yeah. And Anita Hill spoke to me about how that time and her experiences in it were about a nation that was kind of in panic mode about how very old expectations of how society was supposed to work and how it was supposed to organize itself were being flipped on their head. And lawmakers were being made very nervous about it. One of the things that somebody said about Anita Hill at that time, and I sort of play on this in my book a little bit, is watch out for that woman. And I think that stands for a lot of anxiety that was felt in the 1990s. These women were coming, and they were doing things differently, and they were living differently, and they were threatening. And a lot of that got directed at Anita Hill.

GROSS: Anita Hill has been in a long-term relationship, but she and her partner have not gotten married. Did she tell you why?

TRAISTER: Anita Hill told me that one of the reasons that she and her partner of more than a decade are not married is that she doesn't want to defer to convention. And one of the other things she said to me is that she wants single women to know that they can have good lives, right? I think that she has all kinds of anxieties about the institution and the kind of ways that it's been used to make women subsidiary and to constrain them. And she felt that she had a partnership that made her happy and that didn't require marriage, though she does - you know, she does also acknowledge she's somebody that works with housing policy, and she also talks to me in the book about her anxieties about the way that our policies don't yet fit a country in which there are so many women living independently of marriage. And so whether that's in terms of housing policies, in terms of equal pay protections, in terms of independent women being able to enjoy all the benefits that have historically been afforded independent men.

GROSS: In terms of housing, is she talking about affordable housing for single people - houses that aren't built for, you know - houses and apartments that aren't built for families?

TRAISTER: Yeah, but she's also talking about sort of wealth accrual and the kinds of biases because of the gendered pay gap, because of the racial pay gap, because so many unmarried women are women of color and experience all kinds of economic disadvantage, right, from all kinds of angles. We can have this newly - this is something Anita Hill said to me - we can have this newly arranged society in which women don't necessarily marry. But if we're not protecting pay equity strongly enough, and if we're still living in a world in which wealth accrual is much more difficult for women and especially difficult for women of color, how can we expect that these women living outside of this institution are going to be able to support themselves? There are a whole bunch of structural and systemic situations we need to address in order to move away from the model in which women really are still dependent on men. So women are living independently, but we don't yet have the social and economic policies behind us to support that independence.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Rebecca Traister. She's the author of the new book "All The Single Ladies: Unmarried Women And The Rise Of An Independent Nation." Let's take a short break here. Then, we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Rebecca Traister. She's the author of the new book "All The Single Ladies: Unmarried Women And The Rise Of An Independent Nation." You covered her campaign in 2008. You wrote a book about her campaign called "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election That Changed Everything For American Women." A central part of her 2008 campaign was breaking the glass ceiling that prevented women from advancing professionally and how, if she was elected, that breakthrough would resonate throughout the nation for women. And she often talked about what it would mean to have, like, a woman president. I'm not hearing her talk like that now. Why do you think that's true?

TRAISTER: Well, you know, she actually only hit that symbolic high in 2008 where she talked about the glass ceiling and really acknowledged her gender as this historic feature of her campaign. She really only hit that in her moment of defeat or acknowledging defeat. That was in her concession speech in 2008. And in fact, the campaign that she ran in 2008, at - especially at first, really worked to minimize her gender as a factor. She was getting a lot of advice from her 2008 campaign manager, Mark Penn - gave her what looks, in retrospect, to be very bad advice to sort of minimize that women are open to having a female president, but they don't want to be reminded that she's a woman too much. And so Hillary came into that 2008 campaign with a lot of sort of masculine, pugilistic language. I'm in it to win it. You know, we can't be patsies when dealing with - she was, you know - it was like Jimmy Cagney. She didn't emphasize the historic nature of her run for a good deal of her presidency. And I think that a good deal - I'm sorry.

GROSS: of her campaign, yeah.

TRAISTER: For a good deal of her campaign for the nomination for the presidency. And I think that what she found, to her surprise - here was Barack Obama, who also wasn't exactly emphasizing his race but was using a lot more symbolic language and forging this imagined covenant of progress with his supporters. We're going to breaking a historic barrier. We're in this together. And Hillary, who'd been advised to stay away from all kinds of emotional language, all kinds of inspirational language, wasn't doing that. And I think that the sort of Monday-morning quarterbacking on her campaign, including for me, was that that was probably a strategic error and that in the moment of defeat, she gave that incredible speech which was really sort of the rhetorical highlight of that 2008 campaign.

GROSS: How do you hear her now referring to or not referring to the fact that if elected, she would be the first woman president and what that would mean?

TRAISTER: Well, she's been much open about it - right? - in the debates, and she often uses it not always gracefully as a deflection against - and, you know, I don't know that this is the rhetorical answer either. But when in running against Bernie Sanders, she's accused of being a member of the establishment. You'll often hear her say, how can I be establishment? There's never been a woman president before. Now, this is true on the merits but doesn't really satisfy those whose - nonetheless see her as part of a political establishment, that, you know, her husband has already been president. She's been in the Senate.

There's - you know - it's not satisfying, but she certainly is more open about it. She's running a much - what feels to me like a much more relaxed and confident campaign. Her demeanor has been much calmer, has been much more upbeat. It's not that's she's saying we're going to break the glass ceiling. She's certainly not using that language in her stump speech, for example. But she is much more interested in talking about her work for women and girls around the world. She's much more interested in putting reproductive rights at the center of her message. It's in her stump speech. She says the word abortion.

She was really radical out there, really the first mainstream presidential candidate ever to emphasize the repeal of Hyde as part of her message. Hyde is the amendment that prevents state insurance for paying for abortion and creates this incredible economic inequality around reproductive access. And Hillary has really been out front. It's a very radical thing to oppose Hyde, especially if you are a mainstream front-running candidate for the Democratic nomination. On the other hand, she's still encountering lots of the same problems that she did in 2008, including an incredible generational divide around support for her.

GROSS: Well, is that interesting because young people don't seem to be rallying around her as, like, a symbolic - you know, to be symbolic because she's a woman running for president, would be the first woman president if elected.

TRAISTER: Yeah. And I think that there are a lot of reasons for that, and people have certainly done a lot of guessing. On the one hand, it's not that they - it's often reported as young women are rejecting Hillary. They don't like Hillary. I actually don't believe that that's true. Polling with young women going into this election cycle, she was doing great with young women. They admired her. There was that, like, you know, texts from Hillary meme that was very cool. Like, there was a lot of sort of "Notorious RBG"-style admiration of Hillary when she was at the State Department. She's sort of consistently voted the most-admired woman in America.

It is true that especially young white women who are the ones who have voted in the early states and where we're seeing the most distinct polling on the generational divide are breaking for Bernie in huge numbers, and there are a lot of reasons for that. On the one hand, I think that there - there's a way that we don't acknowledge that this kind of generation divide with young women leaning lefter and also more progressively idealistic - right? - one of the things that Bernie's laying out what sounds like a very further-left plan, right? And it's much more - the critics would say it's not realistic, right? We can't get there. We can't have this revolution. But when we talk about activism of any kind, not just the women's movement but really any kind of social progress, there - you always see generational divides between young people who think we can go further - right? - and older people who sort of - who are a little more battle-scarred and a little more aware of compromises and some of the roadblocks who may be a little bit more pragmatic in their approach to change.

And I actually think that's a sign of a healthy progressive movement of any sort - right? - that young people have the energy and the sort of belief that more is possible and older people are saying, you know what; we have been through this. It's not - it doesn't always work that way. So I actually - I don't find it unusual that there's this generational divide, and I don't read it as a personal rejection of Hillary. And if she winds up being the candidate, I actually will be very surprised if we still see young women so fully rejecting her. I think we're actually going to see an embrace and quite a bit of enthusiasm for her. Maybe I'm overoptimistic on this front, but I really see young women coming to Hillary with a lot of excitement possibly in a few months when sort of tempers have cooled a little bit.

GROSS: So Hillary Clinton's marriage to Bill is, I think, perceived as both an asset and a liability. And she's being held, in part, responsible for his policies for better or for worse depending on who's doing the evaluating. And I think she's being held responsible for denying some of the women's claims of sexual harassment. So since your new book is about single women and about how single people are redefining the possibilities of marriage, would you reflect briefly about what you see happening in terms of how Hillary Clinton's marriage is defining her as a candidate.

TRAISTER: Yeah. It's very interesting. Hillary said no to Bill's proposals several times before she finally agreed to marry him. And it's funny because she was really coming of age and starting her own career which was very ambitious coming out of law school at a time when all of - a lot of new professional and economic and political possibilities were opening slowly for women. But she really is a bridge. Her life really is a bridge between a kind of earlier set of marriage patterns and gendered expectations of the New World, right? And so she had all these possibilities in front of her. Bill now says, oh, I told her not to marry me, and she should pursue her own career. But she didn't. She went to Arkansas with him, and there were a lot of people, even at the time, who were very upset that she was going to make her career secondary to his and subsidiary to his. But she did, and she went to Arkansas. And she had a very - an incredibly successful career as a lawyer and a law professor. And she opened a legal aid bureau and served on a legal services corporation and had a very successful career on her own.

But she really did put her ambition seconds to her husband, and she functioned as a loyal wife. And in fact, even in that role, she still managed to be a - you know, a threatening lightning rod when she came into the national eye in the early '90s as the - when he was running for president. She was seen as this kind of feminazi witch of the left. And there was enormous pressure on her to be supportive and to support him and to show that she was submissive in some - to some degree (laughter), to a degree that would make the American people more comfortable with her. And she played that role, and she's paying for it right now. She's paid for it a lot, right? I mean this is old marriage patterns which afforded men of a lot more sexual leeway than they did women and afforded them a lot more professional and public stature than they did women and forced women from a million different angles to maintain allegiance and dependence on their mates - has really come back to bite Hillary Clinton in a number of ways. And we're seeing it played out now, and I suspect we will continue to. She is being asked to answer for her husband's sexual behavior, also for the way - for the policies that he and his administration enacting during the years before she herself held her own independent elected office when she became a senator from New York after he left the White House. And you know, it is a very interesting contrast. She is really paying for her role as traditional, faithful and supportive wife in a world that far better understands female independence in the world in which she came of age.

GROSS: We're going to have to leave it here because we're out of time. Rebecca Traister, thank you so much for talking with us.

TRAISTER: Thank you so much for having me on.

GROSS: Rebecca Traister's book about Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign is called "Big Girls Don't Cry." Her new book about single women is called "All The Single Ladies." The title is taken from the Beyonce song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SINGLE LADIES")

BEYONCE KNOWLES-CARTER: (Singing) All the single ladies, all the single ladies, all the single ladies, all the single ladies, all the single ladies, all the single ladies, all the single ladies now put your hands up, up in the club - just broke up and doing my own little thing. You decided to dip, and now you want to trip when another brother notice me. I'm up on him. He up on me. Don't pay him any attention - just cried my tears for three good years. You can't be mad at me 'cause if you like it, then you should've put a ring on it. If you like it, then you should've put a ring on it. Don't be mad once you see that he want it. If you like, then you should've put a ring on it. If you like it, then you should've put a ring on it. If you like it, then you should've put a ring on it. Don't be mad once you see that he want it. If you like, then you should've put a ring on it. I got gloss on my lips, a man on my hips. Hold me tighter than my Dereon jeans. Acting up, drinking my cup, I can care less what you think. I need no permission. Did I mention, don't pay him any attention because you had your turn, and now you're going to learn what it really feels like to miss me 'cause if you like it, then you should've put a ring on it. If you like it, then you should've put a ring on it. Don't be mad once you see that he want it. If you like it, then you should've put a ring on it.

GROSS: Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new book about the connection between loneliness and art. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.