AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Over the years, as women have gained financial and social independence, they've had a profound effect on the workplace and the economy. We're exploring that impact in our series about the changing lives of women, and for this installment, we'll start with the single ladies.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW")
VALERIE HARPER: (As Rhoda Morgenstern) When I turned 21, I still wasn't married. My mother officially declared me an old maid.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WHEN HARRY MET SALLY")
MEG RYAN: (As Sally Albright) And I'm going to be 40.
BILLY CRYSTAL: (As Harry Burns) In eight years.
RYAN: (As Sally Albright) But it's there.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SEX AND THE CITY")
KIM CATTRALL: (As Samantha Jones) You know, married women are threatened because we can have sex anytime, anywhere, with anyone.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "30 ROCK")
ALEC BALDWIN: (As Jack Donaghy) What are your plans for Valentine's Day, Lemon?
TINA FEY: (As Liz Lemon) I am taking myself out of the equation entirely. I scheduled a root canal for February 14, Jack. I will spend half the day in twilight sleep. Then I will go home and watch the Lifetime original movie, "My Step-son Is My Cyber-husband."
CORNISH: Pop-culture images of the single woman has been a mixed bag. It's evolved from Mary Tyler Moore to "When Harry Met Sally," and later "Sex And The City," to "30 Rock's" Liz Lemon. Writer Rebecca Traister says until very recently, it was marriage that marked the beginning of a woman's adult life. But in the last few decades, there's been a dramatic jump in the average age women get married, from around age 22 to nearly 27 with major effects.
REBECCA TRAISTER: 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.
CORNISH: Traister is a senior editor at the New Republic. She's working on a book about unmarried women. She says while the shift in marriage patterns is mostly a good thing for women, at times it's also been viewed as a destabilizing force in society.
TRAISTER: 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 birthrate - 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.
CORNISH: So you're finishing up a book right now on single women, and you've talked to many single women. What is the reality that they're living out?
TRAISTER: Well, the reality is much more complicated. I mean, I think we make a mistake when we create a 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.
CORNISH: At the same time, it was always believed that economic wealth and even kind of culturally, that happiness was attributed - right? - to being in a marriage. And certainly politically that has been the message, that marriage makes lives better, particularly for people who are struggling financially. Are people looking at that differently? Has that messaging changed?
TRAISTER: Well, solid marriages do make many lives happier, but finding a solid marriage, as many of us know, isn't something that happens easily. And the idea that marriage simply as marriage, finding a partner - if you're talking heterosexually, finding a man - is going to improve your emotional or economic life is a real myth. And the imperative that you find that partner in order to have a complete or happy life can lead you down a very dangerous path because of course marriage to just another person isn't necessarily going to improve your life. In fact it may make your life much worse if you have a poor emotional connection, no emotional connection, if that person is struggling economically in the same way that you are, if that person is in any way abusive. All these things are realities lived every day by married people. So marriage in and of itself isn't a cure for poverty or unhappiness. Good marriages, economically stable marriages, emotionally rewarding marriages, are a tremendous perk for people.
CORNISH: So you've called this a mass shift. What are the implications of that?
TRAISTER: Well, 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 - 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 or earning money - it removes some of the power that had traditionally belonged to men, who have long been in economic and political power.
CORNISH: How much of this is basically about the economy, across the board, that people are making this choice not necessarily because they want to - I mean, a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center showed that marriage is still a life goal. You know, how does this reconcile?
TRAISTER: Well, I think the fact that women have unprecedented economic opportunity that, you know, they're 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 a position to be out stabilizing themselves economically.
CORNISH: You mean it takes you out of the running for those jobs or it hurts your earning power, and so women are saying, you know what, I'm just not going to do it?
TRAISTER: Right, or I'm not going to do it right now. It's not necessary politicized. It's a human sense of, I don't want to get tied down 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 that in fact in many cases, it doesn't make strategic sense for marriage to come first.
CORNISH: Well, Rebecca Traister, thanks so much for talking with us.
TRAISTER: Thank you so much for inviting me.
CORNISH: Rebecca Traister is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry." In the coming weeks, we'll explore more about the changing lives of women with a dive into the worlds of beauty and power, fashion and comedy.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.