Author Rebecca Traister's latest book, All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation was released earlier this year. It explores the history and power of unmarried women in the Unites States. JW Magazine caught her on the phone to discuss the election, the power of single women, and the importance of voting. The following is an edited version of our conversation.
Q: Do you think that young women who aren’t choosing to vote are disappointed in candidates, the system, progress, or do they think their vote doesn’t matter?
A: I think that there’s a long history of young people not yet being fully invested in representative electoral politics, and that changes as they grow older. One of the qualities of youth is that you don’t yet have as many external relationships or as many external responsibilities. That’s something that many people grow into. So by some measures, it’s quite natural that political engagement increases with age.
However, recent elections have shown us that it is possible to reach out to young people politically and to bring them to the polls. That’s something Barack Obama showed us. It’s something Bernie Sanders showed us in the primaries.
Q: Why should even those who have minimal interest in politics vote? Why should they care?
A: For a million reasons! Certainly I think some people do care, for example, about the environment and about issues like global warming. They certainly care about the job market and employment possibilities. Many of them have good reason to care about reproductive rights and access to birth control, which are very much at stake in this election. I think that there are other issues such as voting rights, which are very much in peril, and should be of concern.
A set of issues that doesn’t yet resonate for them is paid family leave and paid sick days. When you are young, especially now that women are having children later in life than ever before, this seems very distant. But I wish that there were a way to communicate that those things are going to be big issues for them, maybe 5, 10 or 20 years down the line.
Q: How powerful is the American single woman voter?
A: The election of Barack Obama in 2008 proved generations of people wrong about young people’s willingness to come out and vote. Young people did vote for Barack Obama. They made him President! The same is true for single women. Single women not only contributed to Barack Obama’s election in 2008; by many metrics, the demographic of unmarried women, which overlaps very much with young women, was responsible for his reelection in 2012. Single women have been making an impact in increasing numbers over the past election cycles. This is the first election cycle where it is predicted that there will be more unmarried women in the electorate than married women.
Q: So are single women voters even more critical in this election than in the last?
A: Yes. The number of unmarried women in this country is growing and has been for the past few decades, and they vote very differently from married women. Married women tend to vote Republican and unmarried women vote Democratic by a massive margin.
There are all kinds of laws that assume that most Americans are married. That’s simply not the way most Americans live anymore. What we need is a whole new set of economic and social policies that account for how Americans are actually living, as opposed to how they lived 50, 100, or 200 years ago. Our policies have not caught up.
That’s why issues such as pay equity and higher minimum wage are crucial to unmarried women. Because we live in a world in which men were presumed to be the earners and women were presumed to handle domestic work, with their public and professional work valued less, we have enormous pay gaps, gender pay gaps and racial gaps, often working in tandem. That means women as a whole earn much less than men, a disadvantage since more women now live independently of men.
Q: Why do people find it surprising that single women voters are powerful?
A: You have to remember that this is a country that only permitted women to vote less than 100 years ago. In the scope of U.S. history it is surprising that women are political participants to begin with. We were built as a country in which women and people of color were not political participants. In fact, even after the 19th Amendment was passed and ratified in 1919-1920, Black women in the South were still barred from the polls. This didn’t change until the Voting Rights Act in 1964. That’s very recent history.
Q: Is there anything you’d like to add that you feel is especially important for young women?
A: The remarkable thing about young women today is they have a future that is so different from that of their mothers. For so many generations, women were taught: This is what adulthood looks like; this is what you can expect from it. Now when I look at young women (and since I’m 41, I’m just at a distance of about 20 years), I’m saying, “I don’t know what your futures are going to entail.”
The openness of possibility for their futures, but also the real pitfalls of living in a country that was designed with a very different path in mind for them, should, I hope, lead them to think about what they and their compatriots will need going forward. Better government support, protected reproductive rights, higher minimum wages, lower college costs, subsidized child care, paid leave, better and more reliable health care, pay equity—these are all things that are going to make it possible for them to live with the same opportunities that have historically been available to their male peers.