Diary of the Bridget Joneses | The Nation


Diary of the Bridget Joneses

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If single women have been told once, they've been told a thousand times: Don't think you're ever too successful or too young to have your ovaries shrivel up and die. Use 'em or lose 'em! It's a scary single slogan with some mileage. Just this past spring, prompted by the publication of Sylvia Ann Hewlett's Creating a Life, high-achieving single women were told to slow down: By 42, 90 percent of their eggs are abnormal. At 27, their chances of getting pregnant start to decrease. Even at 20, they have about a 9 percent chance of miscarrying. Before we know it, we'll be told of 17-year-olds having hot flashes. Cynical singletons can snicker all they want, but studies suggest that these statistics have history on their side. According to a trusted Farmer's Almanac of 1869, single women have "been left behind, as they are always left behind, and as they have diminished resources... they become diminished goods." Basically, after centuries of nothing but drivel and shrivel, it's a wonder we're here at all.

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Ashley Nelson
Ashley Nelson writes on women, politics and culture for The New York Times, The Guardian and The Washington Post, among...

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I leaned out when I should have leaned in. But the problem is about much more than individual women’s choices.

To learn about this and other myths designed to make the millions of single women among us (and before us) feel more like mutants than fully formed humans, pick up Bachelor Girl: The Secret History of Single Women in the Twentieth Century. Engaging and well researched, the work traces the many incarnations of this American icon. From the feminist commune in Henry James's The Bostonians (1886) to the coed bathroom Ally McBeal shares with her fellow Bostonian lawyers, author Betsy Israel provides a detailed history of what it has meant in the past century or so to be single and female--to society, to families and to the women themselves.

What makes this history so fascinating is learning what a dynamic and threatening figure the single woman really is. By examining the way the culture has embraced or rejected her--when, how and to what extent--the single woman becomes a gauge by which to measure women's progress more generally. In large part, it is a story full of long hours, low pay and little respect, one that maps out the origins and modern incarnations of the major concerns facing women, including poverty, bad housing, lack of sexual freedom, and violence.

Yet as Israel describes all the stereotypes--slutty at worst, childish at best--and all the man shortages (of 1855, 1945 and 1986), it becomes clear that the biggest battle single women face is the accusation that they endanger the so-called American way of life, the family. As Israel reveals, women who postponed or refused marriage to pursue careers have been hailed as not only uncooperative but unpatriotic, responsible for "race suicide" one day and a stock-market crash the next.

While the author is particularly concerned with these women--usually older and considered not merely single but unmarried--she is also aware that "most every woman will one day find herself in the single subcategory, marked as...an inexplicably stubborn and undesirable female alien." According to Israel, 42 percent of the American female population over 18 is "technically single." And 1.95 million single women live in New York City--the mecca of singletons--alone. That's a lot of mythmaking and guilt tripping to cover, so much that the book can be depressing at times. But not completely, for while Israel--a journalist and former editor--tells it like it is, she also manages to pay homage to these single pioneers who, despite it all, inspired the term "pink-collar ghetto," fought to cut the corset crap and smoked so much and so proudly that politicians outlawed it.

Although Israel notes that "the roots of single phobia curl back into antiquity," Bachelor Girl begins with the Industrial Revolution, when a well-known single icon, the middle-class spinster, made her debut--in great numbers. With thousands of men out west manifesting their destiny, single women became known as a "tragical redundant class," particularly in New England, where an 1855 census confirmed a surplus of 45,000 females. "Trained for nothing more than marriage," then failing to capture a husband, these women were encouraged to "surrender" to work as tutors or seamstresses, or help out married siblings or aging parents. At best, they were "walking retirement benefits." At worst, "Dickensian sideshow freaks."

Stubborn freaks, to boot, as some were spinsters by choice, not by social accident. Having been well educated, many felt marriage didn't add up. Wives had no legal rights, and with one in thirty dying in childbirth, the institution, as Susan B. Anthony said, could be "a very nasty business." Plus it squashed any hopes of an intellectual life. "I cannot wait these days to turn 30!" wrote one midcentury woman. "Then I may put away all pretense of being marriageable and concentrate on my interests." Some of this "fairly elite and intellectual" group lived with other women, while others, like Florence Nightingale, devoted their lives to the needy.

While Israel informs readers that this "single blessedness" could be rather lonely and demoralizing, it was still an Amazonian utopia compared with the lives of the other single subgroup at the time: the immigrant working girl. In 1855 close to 500 single women arrived in New York City every week, making up 25 percent of the work force by 1860. Coming largely from Europe, but also from Asia and even upstate New York and Pennsylvania, these girls, most poor and uneducated, stumbled along as "factory maids" or "shop girls."

One such traveler, Dorothy Richardson, arrived in New York City from Pennsylvania an "unskilled, friendless, almost penniless girl of 18," and lived by one mantra: "work or starve." The long hours and miserable pay left her wondering, "Why was I not content to remain a country school-ma'am?" Her slightly upscale equivalent, the department shop girl, probably asked the same thing. Banished from sales, she too was mired in a pink-collar ghetto and often refused basic necessities like restrooms.

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