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For Single Women, An 'Infinite Variety Of Paths'

LA Johnson/NPR

Over time, the image of the single woman has evolved — from Mary Tyler Moore to When Harry Met Sallyto Sex and the City to 30 Rock's Liz Lemon.

Writer Rebecca Traister says until very recently, getting married marked the beginning of a woman's adult life. But in the past few decades, there has been a dramatic jump in the average age women get married — from around 22 to around 27 — a change that's been profound.

"We have now shifted our vision of what an adult woman's life path usually entails, and it now entails some period of economic, social, sexual independence," says Traister, a senior editor at The New Republicand author of an upcoming book about unmarried women. And she says that while the shift in marriage patterns is mostly a good thing for women, it can also be seen as a destabilizing force in society.

Interview Highlights

On the messages associated with the rise of single women

The lack of marriage is being blamed for almost every social ill — whether it's gun violence, whether it's poverty, whether it's the dropping birth rate. You have demographers worried about the fact that as people marry later, they're having fewer children. Single women come in for an enormous amount of blame, politically and culturally.

So that's one set of messages. Another set is this kind of glamorization — whether it's Sex and the City, which is now 10 years old, or whether it's the New Girl or Mindy Kaling — you see all new depictions of women living independently and having interesting, varied lives.

On the reality of shifting marriage patterns

I think we make a mistake when we create binary between "you're either married or you're unmarried." Once you lift the imperative that everybody get married at age 22, what you get is an infinite variety of paths.

It's not simply some argument that single life is inherently better than married life. The fact is there are all kinds of married lives and all kinds of single lives, and more people are now free to go down a variety of paths.

On this "mass shift"

You basically have the creation of a new population. One clear example is that single women actually in 2012 made up 23 percent of the electorate, and they voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama over Mitt Romney. You have women who are earning money in places where they'd never earned money before. You have women who are single who are having babies out of wedlock. More than 50 percent of first births are now to unmarried women. It destabilizes the power structures that had existed before because to have women living independently in these ways — voting, having babies, earning money — it removed some of the power that had traditionally belonged to men, who have long been in economic and political power.

On how much of this shift is about the economy and not necessarily a choice [a 2010 Pew study shows that marriage is still a life goal]

I think the fact that women have unprecedented economic opportunity, that they are now permitted to, and in fact in many cases expected to, go out and earn money, they are busy doing other things. That does not mean that many women and men don't still have the desire to partner, to fall in love, but the actual economic tolls of marriage and motherhood — which are very real — mean that often they're electing not to take on those tolls of marriage and motherhood early in their careers when they are now in the position to be out stabilizing themselves economically. ...

It's not necessarily politicized, it's a human sense of "I don't want to get tied and distracted by my emotional life right now as I'm establishing myself as an adult." That doesn't mean that the desire for love, partnership and companionship is removed. The kinds of strategic choices that women across classes are making — about when to marry, when to have children, how to commit themselves to their career, how to make money — doesn't mean that any of them don't yearn for companionship. But there are also a series of practical choices now available to them, ways of balancing the different things they can do with their lives, that often mean that marriage doesn't necessarily have to come first, and in fact in many cases, it doesn't make strategic sense for marriage to come first.

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