Why Conservatives Are Terrified of Single Women

"There could be more unmarried women in the electorate this year than married women — and they vote super left," says Rebecca Traister

Unmarried women as a voting bloc could have an effect on this year's presidential election. Credit: Saul Leob/AP

The title of Rebecca Traister's new book, All the Single Ladies, is, she admits, a bit of a misnomer: It's not just about single women, but rather "what happens when one model" — young, heterosexual marriage — "is no longer the only model" determining women's lives, as had been the case for many generations, she says. With the average American woman getting married later in life than ever, and many eschewing the institution altogether, combined with the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage, shifting attitudes about divorce, and many other factors, "what gets exposed is not just one alternate version of life for women, but an infinite variety of directions in which women may go, depending on their circumstances, tastes, pleasures, ambitions, goals, desires and the people they meet along the way."

This shift has significant ramifications for all Americans, and for the policies that govern us, including many being hotly debated in this presidential election. Traister recently spoke to Rolling Stone about conservative fear of unmarried women, why Bernie Sanders can't entirely take credit for the recent national interest in socialism, how the way we talk about candidates who aren't white men has shifted since 2008 — and how Donald Trump is "like the cartoon version of hatred for those other kinds of identities."

Why do conservatives always freak out about single women, and especially single mothers?
It's a ton of things. I don't think it's always a case of Dr. Evil sitting there like, "I would like to force women to become child-bearing machines under the control of men." I think a lot of it is like, "Golly gee, I feel nostalgic for the way things used to be, which I learned about from a Norman Rockwell painting of white people."

They want to "make America great again," you might say.
Exactly. In some cases — like Rick Santorum cases — I think it's a keenly felt nostalgia for mom and pop, a version of America that we've been told is America at its most normal and healthy. (It's interesting that that version was mostly normal and healthy for white men, not for women or people of color, and that it's often white men who are beset by this level of nostalgia.)

So what makes them angry? Historically, marriage has been a very useful institution when it comes to containing the power of women. That's not to say that there weren't many happily married people throughout history. There were. But the fact that marital rape laws weren't repealed in large numbers until the 1970s, the fact that the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which permitted married women to get their own credit card, wasn't until 1974, the fact that so many women still change their names, all these vestiges of attitudes that are still with us about what happens when a woman marries a man — that a woman's identity is subsumed by the identity of the man — that should tell you something.

And when marriage is no longer the only norm, and you have women living more independently, first of all, some number of them are competing with men: for jobs, for college admissions, for political power.

For the presidency…
Yes. And you also see women having children outside of marriage, which is extremely threatening. The fact that reproduction happens in women's bodies means that if men want to exert some control and ownership over their offspring, they have to find a way to maintain some level of involvement and control over those women's bodies. And marriage has been very useful for that, historically. It's been an organizing principle for how men establish themselves as fathers. That is why women having liberated sexual lives is so threatening. It's why women being able to exert reproductive control is so threatening. It takes an enormous amount of the control away from men.

What does this shift mean for the upcoming election?
Well if unmarried women vote in large numbers, which they might, it could have a big effect. Page Gardner, who I cite in the book, predicted that there could be more unmarried women in the electorate this year than married women — and they vote super left.

A lot of government policies presume that women and men live together in early-married, hetero units. But we don't live that way anymore, and what we need is a set of policies that better acknowledges and supports the way that especially women are living, because it is new and revolutionary, and women have not benefitted from government support the way that their male counterparts have, historically. So we do need things like paid leave, paid sick days, a higher minimum wage.

Half of minimum-wage earners are single women, and many of them are mothers. Forty-two percent of single mothers live below the poverty line. Conservative politicians tell you that's because they're not married. The reality is, it's because we don't have any social programs that support the reality that women are no longer always living their adult lives as wives. Women are not benefiting from pay equality in the workplace, their professions are undervalued and underpaid, they do not have any guarantee that they will be paid when they have children, there are no paid sick days. We need government-subsidized early education and day care, because women are increasingly living and working as earners. There is no longer a class of Americans that is reliably there to do that child care work for free.

It's interesting that a lot of those policies you mentioned are on the table this election in a way they haven't been before.
Yes they are! And you know who everybody credits for that is Bernie Sanders. But it's not because of Bernie Sanders. I mean, he's a great conduit for a lot of it, and he offers the more aspirational vision that gets closer to the Nordic model of a social democracy — which is exactly what we need, by the way. But what we're really seeing is a fundamental shift in the needs of the electorate, and certainly of the Democratic base, which is female, made up of a lot of voters of color, younger — and that is exactly the generation that I'm talking about living in an entirely new configuration that demands new social policies that better support female independence. This is about women, and it's about women of color. That is the new socialism.

Let's talk about Hillary. Your first book, Big Girls Don't Cry, was largely about her 2008 campaign. Now that we're well into her second presidential bid, what differences do you see?
I think Hillary mostly has been a far better campaigner this year than she was last time. Her campaign is flawed, but much more functional than what it was in 2008. In 2008, she ran a very bad campaign. And this year has been much better, though it has certainly had its weak moments. She herself as a politician has grown more comfortable selling herself, and she has grown calmer and more fluid. She's been a much better debater; she's always been a good debater, but she's been a much better debater this year. And of course the racial divide is very different this year when it comes to her. That's a big difference.

But I think our vocabulary around how we talk about a female candidate has sharpened since 2008. I think everybody's much more aware — there's more of a feminist media. Generally there's more diversity in who's covering this campaign. Certainly the participation of Black Lives Matter has made a huge difference in how we've managed to bring crucial issues of race into this Democratic campaign, which is between two white people.

Tell me more about that shifting vocabulary.
Well, there are a lot of differences in terms of our vocabulary around her race and around women in politics, and around identity in politics. This is something I think gets lost a lot when people are like, "What is it with these young people who don't care about having a woman president?" But we often forget that progress begets changed perspectives. So when there are these stories about generational shifts, and the fact that so many young people love Bernie — though I want to be clear that those are predominantly white millennials — these are people whose adult political consciousness has been formed over the past eight years, who have become adults under the presidency of Barack Obama. And if they remember 2008, they remember his chief rival being Hillary Clinton. And since then they've seen the candidacies of Sarah Palin, Herman Cain, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. If you're a young adult right now, your view of presidential politics in America is not like the vast sea of white dudes who preceded where we are now. So the urgency is going to feel different. And that's a good thing! But we know that's a little bit illusory. We have over two centuries of white male power to make up for. Women are only 20 percent of Congress, and we've only had one African-American woman senator in the history of the United States, which is one of the chief embarrassments of this country.

The other thing to remember is that in 2008, young people broke for Barack Obama too. Hillary has always been a candidate who has been pragmatic. She is not a naturally inspiring politician. All the stuff about poetry and prose? Hillary is prose. That's been established. But when she ran against John Edwards — and this is true with Barack Obama too, to a certain degree — both of them were running as sort of centrist candidates, versus the white guy who could be more progressive.

Hillary critics would absolutely hate using this word in reference to her, but when you've never had a major party nominate a woman for the presidency, the idea of a female nominee — even though it feels crazy, because Hillary's been with us for so long — is a radical shift. I'm not saying Hillary's a radical. I am saying that it is a radical shift in who we could imagine being the president of the United States. And that was true for Barack Obama as well. And when your identity makes you, in one way or the other, so disruptive, there are all kinds of forces that counsel you against being too disruptive in your politics. That's not an excuse, and it doesn't mean that she's not authentically also more to the center in her politics. I think she is. But that also speaks to which women get to rise up. I always assumed it would be a Margaret Thatcher figure, a woman on the right, who would be the first. So it's not that being this anomalous woman in a male field re-shaped Hillary's politics and made them falsely more pragmatic or more centrist. It's also that that the woman who has managed to be the first is a person who is probably naturally more of a centrist pragmatist.

So this means that young people, and by many measures young women, are going to be interested in leftier candidates, and that is true in this election too (although again, it really depends on which young women you're talking to).

How are you feeling about Trump's campaign? Franklin Foer at Slate last week made the case that the only true, unwavering belief the guy has is his hatred of women.
He's the worst. He is the unapologetic sexist id of this country. He says all the horrible things about women that you imagine are still felt but that most people are wise enough to sort of keep under their hats. He also says them about people of color and immigrants. He preys in misogyny, xenophobia and racism. And of course that matters because so much of who he's running against is not only possibly Hillary Clinton, but Barack Obama. We've had these eight years of politics in which we've had new models of who can lead and who represents the nation. And it looks like we might be in an election where they're running against the guy who's like the cartoon version of hatred for those other kinds of identities.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.