Love and Marriage—or Not
The New Single Woman
E. Kay Trimberger
Boston: Beacon Press, 2005, 265 pp., $25.95, hardcover
Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy or How Love Conquered Marriage
New York: Viking, 2005, 313 pp., $25.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Andi Zeisler
Even before the bumbling Bridget Jones put a cute face on single womanhood, single gals had no shortage of well-meaning literary advice on how to “cope” with the indignity of their plight. In 2005 A.B. (After Bridget), there’s more than ever to contend with. In addition to the glut of Bridget-lite chick lit — dozens upon dozens of pastel-colored paperbacks, their covers decorated with high heels and martini glasses — the celebratory single-girl advice book category has exploded with a slew of chatty, gal-pally advice tomes: Get On With It!: How to Be Sassy, Successful, and Single; Even God is Single, So Stop Giving Me a Hard Time; With or Without a Man: Single Women Taking Control of Their Lives; and Oh, Solo Mia! The Hip Chick’s Guide to Fun for One. Even the pushily titled Live Alone and Like It: The Classic Guide for the Single Woman, Marjorie Hillis’s 1936 bestseller, still moves units for more than its kitsch value. Yet you’ll find most of these titles shelved in the self-help section of your bookstore, a tacit acknowledgment that, behind their cheery covers and sassy affirmations, the books still traffic in the message that to be single is a damaging and (please please please) temporary state, from which the women who write and read these books hope someday to recover. E. Kay Trimberger, author of The New Single Woman, isn’t interested in pop-cultural ameliorations of transitional singlehood; her book chronicles instead the long-term blessings and costs of the unpartnered life. Trimberger, a sociologist and professor emerita of women’s and gender studies at Sonoma State University in California, recognizes the way our culture keeps single women of all ages in thrall to the idea of a lid for every pot, a match for even the oddest of shoes. In this book, she looks at what happens if we put aside the ambition of finding a soulmate and concentrate instead on life unvarnished by thoughts of future coupled bliss.
In the mid-nineties, Trimberger conducted a survey of 46 single women between the ages of thirty and sixty. A single woman herself, she had considerable personal interest in the subject: as she writes in the book’s introduction, “Because I had no role models and no cultural road map for my ever-single life, I decided to interview long-term single women in the hope that I would find women who had achieved a satisfying single life with less stress than I had experienced.”
However, she immediately adds, with perhaps inadvertent comic timing, “This is not what I found.” In revisiting the lives of 27 of her original “ever-single” study subjects—never-married women and divorcees, lesbians and hetero gals, women with children and those without—Trimberger finds a spectrum of experience, good and bad, contented and disgruntled. Much like Marcelle Clements’s 1998 study The Improvised Woman: Single Women Reinventing Single Life, which featured women of all ages musing on the pleasures and pains of the solo life, The New Single Woman’s revelations about singleness are most remarkable for how unremarkable they are: that single people experience joy, creativity, sexual satisfaction, and spirituality just should not come as a surprise to anyone. Both books successfully demonstrate the one-dimensionality of our culture’s single-woman archetypes—the Miss Havishams, Bridget Joneses, and Carrie Bradshaws. Indeed, the most salient feature of The New Single Women is how thoroughly it belies its own title: there is no new single woman, just as there surely wasn’t an old one. Each woman’s experience of singleness—whether by choice or circumstance—is as individual as she herself.
The book combines sociological reporting with profiles of Trimberger’s interview subjects, and through it runs a personal narrative in which Trimberger compares her choices—singleness, motherhood, communal living rather than a home of her own—with those of her subjects. She identifies six “pillars of support” that mark the difference between a “satisfying” single life and — well, she doesn’t specify the alternative, so let’s insert “cranky, pathetic spinsterhood costarring twelve cats.” The pillars are: fulfilling work, a strong network of friends, a rewarding home life, a connection to the next generation, a community, and “acceptance of our sexuality whether we have an active sex life or are celibate.”
Ideally, of course, these pillars should be part of everyone’s life, regardless of relationship status. By not acknowledging this, Trimberger falls into the very mindset she aims to criticize, implying that people who are coupled can derive all their happiness from their coupledom rather than from a full, balanced life. After identifying her six pillars, Trimberger goes on to analyze the ways in which her interviewees have achieved these marks of solo success, detailing their choices in relationships, childrearing, work, hobbies, and more. The structure is clearly useful as an organizing framework, but it adds an uncomfortable whiff of prescriptiveness to a book that otherwise escapes the self-help trap of so many of its ilk. Trimberger doesn’t come out and say that a woman whose life contains only four of the six pillars of support, or two, is failing at the project of an actualized single life, but it’s all too easy to wonder as you read, “Do I have enough of a community? What about my connection to the next generation?” It is unfortunate that even this book, which posits single life as a choice rather than an accident, still comes with a checklist.
The Improvised Woman was fascinating because in it a range of women spoke of their vastly different single experiences; by contrast, in The New Single Woman, Trimberger does most of the talking for her subjects. The profiles are peppered with quotes, but their resonance is often muffled by Trimberger’s dry, thoroughly clinical writing. Even when the subjects are joyous—like 49-year-old Nancy, who discovers passion and sexual fulfillment through flamenco dancing—Trimberger’s bloodless descriptions flatten their stories: she conveys Nancy’s flamenco zeal, for instance, with the decidedly unfiery statement, “She moves her body to express strong feelings of sensuality and passion, and sometimes pain and anger too.”
In the end, what comes through most in The New Single Woman is how not-new these women’s plight is—and by “plight,” I don’t mean actually being single, but rather the way singleness is discussed and analyzed and portrayed. Trimberger does an excellent job of showing that an unpartnered life is as rewarding and filled with promise as any other, but plenty of people never needed a book to tell them so. For many, the only negative facet of single life is how outsiders view—both individual and societal—view it. Single women may have evolved, but our culture, in its concept of the single woman, her needs, and her values, has not yet come very far.
For every book or newscast or magazine article that worries over the regrets and rewards of single women’s lives, there’s another that wrings its hands over the state of marriage. In the past several years the level of the debate has become almost ear splitting, what with all the political racket over gay marriage, what constitutes a moral coupling, and whether matrimony is an institution worth fighting for. Enter Stephanie Coontz, whose Marriage, A History is one of the sanest correctives published in this nuptially crazed climate. A dense, sprawling journey through the institution’s history from prehistoric times until the present, the book examines the evolution of marriage, its purpose, and its potential. Coontz, the Director of Research and Public Education at the Council on Contemporary Families and a professor at Washington’s Evergreen State College, explains in the book’s introduction that she initially set out to pooh-pooh the media’s frenzy about the supposed crisis in marriage. An author with a history of exposing collective cultural nostalgia as just so much wishful thinking—she wrote The Way We Never Were: America’s Families and the Nostalgia Tra —Coontz originally intended, as she writes, to “[debunk] the idea that marriage was undergoing an unprecedented crisis and [explain] that the institution of marriage has always been in flux.” She hoped to show that what marriage-minded politicians and other self-appointed moral gatekeepers cite as the socially correct kind of marriage — the male-breadwinning, female-submissive, Leave It to Beaver model — was in fact an anomaly in marriage’s long and varied life. She found instead that that particular Technicolor version of wedded bliss was actually the culmination of a revolutionary ideal that had first been promulgated 150 years earlier —that marriage should not be about an economic transaction but about love.
With exhaustive research and unstinting detail, Coontz presents pretty much everything you ever wanted to know about the whats, whys, and hows of marriage history, laying out the basics before adding her own, often wry analysis. She traces the evolution of marriage from ancient Rome (where it was a calculated political alliance), to the Middle Ages (when complicated machinations and occasional clergy interventions ensured that royal bloodlines were not diluted by illegitimate children), to the Victorian age (which sentimentalized married love but shunned any suggestion of married sexuality). She places current notions of matrimony — whether romantic or cynical — into a broad cultural context, noting straightforwardly the many pressures that shape our conceptions of wedded bliss. She also plies us with some Jeopardy-caliber factoids about property law, inheritance rights, and female friendship: who knew, for instance, that there are West African societies in which women may marry other women — designated as “female husbands”?
Where the book feels most relevant, of course, is in its final section, in which Coontz describes how male-breadwinner marriage, that most cherished of cultural norms, has become not only economically unfeasible — thanks to an economy that, for many, has made a one-earner household all but impossible — but also personally unsatisfying, for both men and women. She describes how values and laws have contributed to what she dubs “the perfect storm” in marriage and families in the 1980s and 1990s: a drop in remarriage after divorce, a rise in alternatives to marriage, and a boom in unwed motherhood. She also offers plenty of evidence that though the Ozzie and Harriet model still thrives in some places, the women and families she meets in the course of her work see more and more options for viable family life that contradict the nostalgic ideal.
The crucial point made by both The New Single Women and Marriage is that there is always a deeper, more nuanced backstory to the sound bites and shibboleths (single women must want to be married; marriage is in crisis) that have become political shorthand for actual dialogue over the years. Unfortunately, that backstory often goes unheard in the mainstream media, which is all the more reason to read books such as these. Both Trimberger and Coontz hope to build a structure for future discussions of love relationships and their place in women’s lives, yet they remain realistic about the probable cultural reception of those discussions. Their books ask us to develop a more conscious understanding of why we make the relationship choices we do, whether they involve solitary living, marriage, divorce, or some combination of these. The New Single Women and Marriage tell us that the history and the reality of love relationships are much more complex than we may have thought—but they’re not the last word on the subject. It’s up to us, as readers, to continue the exploration.
Andi Zeisler is the cofounder and editorial/creative director of the quarterly magazine Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture. Her writing has also appeared in Ms., Mother Jones, BUST, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Utne, as well as in the anthology Secrets and Confidences: The Complicated Truth About Women's Friendships.