rebecca_traister_single_ladies copyIn 2009, the proportion of American women who were married dropped below 50% for the first time and the median age of women’s first marriage rose to 27. This demographic shift is the focus of a new book by journalist Rebecca Traister. In All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, Traister explores how we arrived at this moment and the impact on the economy.

Traister recently joined us on the Knowledge at Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111 to talk about her new book.

An edited transcript of the conversation appears below.

Knowledge at Wharton: There has been a great shift in the demographic of the U.S. worker in the last decade. More women are pushing off marriage and delaying children to build great careers. It’s a shift that’s having quite an impact on the economy. … A lot of people have referred to it as a historic shift. But you say that’s not necessarily the case.

Rebecca Traister: It’s historic. It’s unprecedented in terms of its size and scope because what we have now are economic conditions — social and sexual conditions — that permit women to live independently of marriage in ways that they have not been able to do so as easily in earlier eras. Women can now earn their own living in more fields. More kinds of education are accessible to them. That means that they can be economically independent in the world in a way that they could not in earlier generations. That means that many more millions of women can delay or abstain from marriage for more years of their lives, should the right partner not come along, should they not be in the situation where they want to get married.

But what is not unprecedented is the shift in marriage patterns. When I started research for this book, part my argument was that women living outside of marriage today in these huge numbers are fundamentally changing all kinds of things about our definitions of family, about our expectations for what women-developed life would look like; they are forcing our economic and social policies to change to better reflect how women and men are living today in the United States as earners, as individuals, as independent adults.

“There was another era — the late 19th century into the early 20th century — in which comparatively large numbers of women did not get married. … That generation of unmarried women also reshaped the nation.”

What I found was that in the 19th century, when men moved west as part of westward exploration and so many of them were killed in the Civil War, what you had on the east coast was a shortage of men. That meant that there was another era — the late 19th century into the early 20th century — in which comparatively large numbers of women did not get married. The interesting thing was it confirmed my thesis about how important and nation-shaping this change is now. What you saw in the 19th century were the women whose adult lives were not consumed by the responsibilities of wifeliness and motherhood, instead turning their attention to social movements, including the abolition movement, the suffrage movement, the labor movement.

It was unmarried young women who staged many of the first walkouts from mills and factories that became the backbone of the labor movement. Women created settlement houses, which were hotbeds of progressive economic policy. A lot of those women were those who are unmarried and who therefore had their adult energies to give to other things. That generation of unmarried women also reshaped the nation. Very literally they changed this Constitution.

Knowledge at Wharton: Then what happened? In some respects, I guess the United States has retreated back on that to some degree.

Traister: At the turn of the 19th to 20th century, marriage wasn’t something that was just delayed. There were obviously some women who got married later, but … [for the majority] you were [either] married at the beginning of your life or you spent your life unmarried. That was more of a pattern. Today we see people marrying at 30, 35, 40, 50.

You had this population of women who were living unmarried at the end of the 19th and into the 20th century. Then, at the beginning of the 20th century, probably not coincidentally, around the time that the suffrage movement finally succeeds, and the 19th amendment is passed and women across the country get the right to vote — although we should note that women of color in the Jim Crow South were not allowed to exercise that right for many years afterward — you see a lot of pressures being applied to unmarried women.

Theodore Roosevelt, both while he was still president and then after he left office, talked about something called race suicide. He started talking about how middle-class white women who weren’t marrying enough or having enough children were hurting the nation by not reproducing enough. You saw the medical establishment begin to talk about singlehood as a kind of sexual perversion. You see the social push of dating, of trying to get women to get into relationships with men earlier in their lives instead of form close relationships with other women with whom they might start trouble.

“In the 1990s, you begin to see a shift where the average age of first child-bearing becomes younger than the average age of first marriage.”

By the middle of the 20th century you see especially American, white, middle-class women pushed into early marriage again. … The growth of the suburbs, which were built for white middle-class families, [begins in the post-war period]. The women who had been so disruptive at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century are really pushed by a number of forces back into marriage — and early hetero marriage in suburbs — and cleared from the playing field. Then, of course, they erupt out of that as part of the women’s movement in the 1970s.

Knowledge at Wharton: If we move forward to where we are now, I read 2009 is one of the transition years, in terms of the history of this change. Part of it seemingly is because of the marriage rates and the way they changed, but I wonder how much of it also is we’re just starting to come out of the recession as well.

Traister: That has a little bit to do with it. But if you look at the way that the graphs go, the shift away from early marriage as the norm begins slowly in the years after the women’s movement. Through the 1980s, women begin to marry later and later and later. A lot of that has to do with the fact that there’s a big divorce boom in the 1970s and 1980s after the women’s movement opened up possibilities for women who signed onto marriage in an earlier era, when it was a much more constrictive institution. Then the women’s movement opened up professional and political doors for women, and a lot of them left marriages that didn’t permit them the freedom they now understood that was available to them.

You have children of those divorces suddenly reckoning with marriage as an institution of variable quality, and they don’t want to get into a bad marriage. They don’t need marriage in the way they did anymore. So you see the numbers begin to shift.

What happens in the 1990s is that there is some economic possibility that begins to open up. Women who are coming of age are taking advantage of their new economic and educational opportunities with greater and greater numbers. In the ’90s, you begin to see a shift where the average age of first child-bearing becomes younger than the average age of first marriage. … By 2009, the number of unmarried women — that includes never married women, widowed, divorced and separated women — outnumbers the number of married women for the first time in American history. But that was actually a very slow build. The recession plays into marriage patterns in all kinds of ways. But really it’s we’ve been building toward this for several decades at this point.

“We … need to reform all kinds of economic and social policies to better reflect the way that Americans are actually living, not the way that they used to live 50 years ago.”

Knowledge at Wharton: You bring up the fact that the concept and the idea of marriage has changed in the last 20 years or so. But also the idea of having a family has changed as well. There are so many more options than there were, say, 50 or 60 years ago.

Traister: Right. This is one of the really revolutionary shifts. It’s precipitated by a change in marriage patterns where [the norm is] coming into adulthood, beginning adulthood, early hetero marriage, having kids, typically with a husband who’s an earner and a wife who does the domestic and childrearing work. Because that’s not longer the norm, what you get now is an infinite variety of family formations.

Of course we have same-sex partnerships, same-sex parents. Single parenthood is increasingly the norm; more than half of first births to women under 30 are now to women who are not married. As women remain unmarried longer … you see co-parenting between friends. The ways in which we have and raise children are beginning to look very different from the ways that we used to have and raise children. The ways in which we partner and make commitments to other adults are looking very different from the ways we used to partner and make commitments to other adults.

This going to precipitate changes in everything, from daycare policy, [where] you see enormous shifts around subsidizing early childhood education and affordable high quality daycare, to our housing policy, who is legally permitted to live together as a family unit. Obviously our marriage laws have changed. Same-sex marriage is legal. What we’re seeing is slow acceptance of all kinds of new norms.

Knowledge at Wharton: We still have a lot of things that need to be corrected in terms of the whole operation. The gender pay gap still hasn’t been corrected to the satisfaction of a lot of women out there right now.

Traister: Right. You have gender pay gaps, and you have racial pay gaps. Of course, many millions of women experience both simultaneously. But that’s part of all these larger systems, larger social and economic policies, that assume that there’s this one way based on our history….

All of our systems [are] built on the assumption that if women are working, their husbands are still the primary earners [and] that those women are not, themselves, the breadwinners, which of course is no longer the case. But that’s part of what undergirds the pay gap [along with] cultural assumptions about women’s value in the workplace and the value of women’s work.

You see this very often when we talk about real economic inequity; for example, in the home health care industry, caregivers are often left out of things like paid leave policy and paid sick day policy that we’re seeing enacted around the country, in part that’s about the devaluation of work that has historically been done by women, the caring for family members which women have done for free for hundreds of years. Now if they do it professionally, and as men increasingly also enter those professions, the work itself is so devalued because women have been doing it for free for so long. Even though we know in human terms the value of the work of taking care of human beings who are in need, who are sick, of children, of elderly adults, of ill people is so valuable and such crucial work, it is not economically valued as highly as, say, branding or computer technology.

Also, we don’t have the social policies that support women as independent earners or as co-equal earners. We don’t have paid leave. This is one of the crucial issues during this election. … New York has just passed its measure that will go into effect in the next few years. We do not have, unlike so many countries around the world, mandated paid family leave for new parents or for adults who are taking care of their aging and elderly parents. We do not have subsidized daycare. We do not have a higher minimum wage, which would disproportionally have an impact on women who are two-thirds of minimum wage workers. So what we have is the need to reform all kinds of economic and social policies to better reflect the way that Americans are actually living, not the way that they used to live 50 years ago.