CRP author: personal is political when it comes to U.S. marriages

woman at podium
Rebecca Traister gives a presentation in the Kirkhof Center about her book, "All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation."
Image Credit: Rex Larsen
woman at table signing books
Rebecca Traister signs copies of her books.
Image Credit: Rex Larsen
woman at podium
Image Credit: Rex Larsen

Deciding to get married seems to be a personal decision. Rebecca Traister, author of Grand Valley's Community Reading Project selection, will argue U.S. history has documented that personal decision is a political one.

The author of "All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation" spoke March 13 in the Kirkhof Center. Traister also visited Herrick District Library in Holland March 12 for a lecture.

"Marriage or singlehood is the most intimate of decisions. Yet wages, unions, paid leave and subsidized childcare, these big forces of change in our history all have, in part, been determined by the personal choice of marriage," she said.

Traister, a journalist, started writing the book in 2009, the year the proportion of American women who married dropped below 50 percent, and the median age of first marriages had risen to 27.

Traister said she didn't marry until age 35 and said she was puzzled that her family seemed to mark that time as her entry into adulthood.

"I was single, successful and living in New York, surrounded by a group of friends," she said. "We all had dishes, sex lives and homes. This made me think about the institution of marriage and the question of dependency."

She took audience members through a history lesson that began with the patriarchal structure of the New England colonies, and reminded them it wasn't until 1974 with passage of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act that women could get credit in their own names.

Traister cited the industrial age in the late 19th century as a period when women were employed in large numbers and found a collective voice. 

"More kids were in schools, so the need for teachers grew. Nursing became a desirable profession for women and more factories opened, which meant child labor and labor from young women, largely immigrants and women of color," she said.

Women working in unsafe conditions in textile and other factories created early labor unions and calls for better working conditions, Traister said. 

"So these mostly unmarried women were all focused toward social reform movements," she said. "All this activism culminates in the 20th century with the passage of the 19th amendment, permitting women to vote."

Traister added the women's rights movement of the 1960s and ’70s ushered in birth control and reproductive choice, which she said, "Opened up new possibilities for many besides marriage."

"All the Single Ladies" was named a Notable Book of 2016 by the New York Times and Best Books selection by the Boston Globe. Traister is a writer at large for New York Magazine and contributing editor for Elle.