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Diary of the Bridget Joneses | The Nation

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Diary of the Bridget Joneses

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Given these conditions, it's no wonder most would marry. To her credit, Israel tries to lighten the mood by mentioning that factory girls rebelled by spending money on Coney Island and dresses, while shop girls went to clubs and chatted about cosmetics, "impossible corsets" and men. One "bachelor girl" who would arrive in the next few decades and make slightly more as a teacher or office clerk, is quoted as saying in 1896 that singles valued "their absolute freedom, [and] the ability to plan our time as we will." Still, Israel never sugarcoats the single woman's life--not even a little:

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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.

For all their efforts, the fairy days, dances, and clubs, shop girls were unable to resolve their most basic problem: They were shop girls. And no matter what they did on the weekends, the workdays were still long and depressing.

While the book wouldn't suffer from a few more uplifting portraits, Israel's pessimism isn't unwarranted. From vagrancy laws intended to keep them off the street alone, lest they be considered prostitutes, to magazine sketches painting shop girls as uppity and vulgar, Israel lays the groundwork for stereotypes that still plague single women, but that played an especially important role in the early twentieth century, when their place in society was debated widely in government, popular culture and among women themselves.

The "New Woman" emerged first, and, like the New England spinster, was educated, political and known for her "polite disinclination" to marry. A 1902 Who's Who of prominent women revealed that while 45 percent of them had married, 53.3 percent said they would never marry, considering it a "profound disincentive" to serious work. They were hardly the norm, but as outspoken advocates of dress reform, contraception and abortion, they managed to hit some political nerves. Between 1889 and 1906, "state legislatures passed more than one hundred restrictive divorce laws." Despite this, marriage rates hit an all-time low between 1880 and 1913, with birthrates dropping and divorce rates hopping.

The biggest backlash against these women seems to have been cultural or generational. As one young woman told Life in 1923, these women's rights people "get very angry if they sense you have an interest in minor things, in how you dress, not in political talk." But the daughters of New Women grew up "permeated in the modern world," one that thrived on innovation and consumer culture. Unlike their mothers, there was a place for them here: on billboards, on calendars, even on china dishes. Whether the goody-goody Gibson girl or the dancing flapper, the single woman finally had purchasing power. With the number of female college graduates climbing (over 10,000 in 1921), women lived alone longer and spent more money. Moreover, these seemingly apolitical images of single women as happenin', fully formed gals may have had political consequences: 1920 brought suffrage, while the flapper's loose-fitting clothes and rebellious ways brought confidence. As one "unrepentant flapper" wrote, no one should discount those "hula-hula skirt" days, when she learned to "smoke and swear and stand up for herself."

The death of Jazz Age single icons may have been foreordained as early as 1914, with movies like Damaged Goods reminding women that their freewheeling lives could cost them. As the country entered the Depression, women in the workplace (where many a former flapper went) were buried in accusations that they were disrupting the "established order of sexual relations" by stealing jobs from men. By 1932 twenty-six states had outlawed married women from working. The Depression was particularly hard on their single counterparts, who needed jobs just as desperately as men, but were considered less worthy of them.

Except for the well-known glory days of World War II, when all women were essentially single--and newsreels, Rosie and tough Hollywood starlets told them "there were no limits to the 'types of jobs'" they could do--the late 1930s and the 1950s went hand in hand. In both periods, careers were had at the expense of families. A 1937 issue of Life encouraged parents to breed homemakers early. "Homemaking doesn't come instinctively to a teenaged girl.... It's easier to teach a little girl than to nag at an older one." By 1954 these little Betty Crockers would read in their home-economics textbooks that "except for the sick, the badly crippled, the deformed, the emotionally warped and mentally defective, almost every girl has an opportunity to marry."

For those educated and employed during World War II, only to be one of millions fired after its end, suddenly being told they would suffer "psychological damage" if they remained single was difficult. Feelings of resentment aside, most would marry. "By 1957, 14 million girls were engaged at age seventeen." Despite this and, in Israel's words,

a birthrate like a third world country's...the perception spread that Young White Single Females had to be reined in...[Consequently] magazines revived one of the world's older single propositions: to move single women in herds from dry areas to places where men were plentiful.

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