Diary of the Bridget Joneses | The Nation


Diary of the Bridget Joneses

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Truth be told, starting in 1953 there was a rise in the number of women settling in New York City, one of the "dry spots." These "swinging singles" encountered the usual bad housing, low pay, pink slips and red labels, but they also fought these images tooth and nail. None did this better than Helen Gurley Brown in her 1962 best-selling book Sex and the Single Girl. You don't need marriage to do the nasty or to be fulfilled, writes Brown. "A married woman already is something...the banker's wife, the gangster's wife, the wrangler's wife.... A single woman is known by what she does rather than by whom she belongs to."

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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.

By the early 1960s, "marriage as a national ideal, an enforceable teenaged daydream, had lost some of its hypnotic force." The Pill was released, as was The Feminine Mystique, which finally made married women the pitiful ones. Family was out; individuality was in. Despite some inevitable negative press, wherein single women were known for their smudged mascara and the shriveled (!) vegetables in their fridge, these women survived. In 1970, 30-year-old Mary Richards would get her own apartment and interview at WJM-TV in Minneapolis. When the burly station manager asks if she is married, the frazzled Mary shouts, "Presbyterian!" but then threatens to leave if he keeps violating her civil rights. She still gets the job--and a seven-year reign at CBS for The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

The rest is pretty much history, at least as far as Bachelor Girl is concerned. After so much detail on Florence Nightingale, the Gibson girl and the YWCA, the coverage of the past few decades feels sparse--which might be intentional, since many readers will remember them. With help from the women's movement, the 1970s were friendly to the single woman. In 1957, 53 percent of Americans felt that unmarried people were "sick," "immoral" or "neurotic," while only 33 percent felt that way in the early 1970s. By then, most viewed them "neutrally"; 15 percent downright approved.

Israel could have had a lot more fun with the 1980s. She covers the mandatory material well, dissing books like Smart Women, Foolish Choices and vindicating readers who felt that Clair Huxtable, poster girl for the having-it-all campaign, was a fraud. She also reminds us that most single women, despite the popularity of Fatal Attraction, didn't feel the effects of the supposed "man shortage" so much that they took to boiling rabbits. Single and married women had about the same rates of depression, thank you very much.

Nevertheless, while readers won't question Israel's sincerity in these defenses, they may wonder what they amount to. For all her focus on the subject, Israel never fully fleshes out what's at stake, especially politically in these attacks, and particularly in recent decades. For instance, while she takes on Teddy Roosevelt and Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan doesn't come up once: not his support of the Family Protection Act of 1981, which would have required young girls to be taught that marriage and motherhood were their proper career goals; nor his 1982 Depression-era comment that unemployment was not due to the recession but to "the increase in women who are working today."

The absence of politics is particularly regrettable in her coverage of the 1990s and today, a time when single women have been at the center of cultural and political debates on women. Mentioned nowhere is Dan Quayle's attack on Murphy Brown for the title character's having a baby out of wedlock. The anxieties surrounding women, sex and success as manifested in the Congressional attacks on Anita Hill are also overlooked, even though Hill herself would later say the attention paid to her status as a single woman made her suspicious. Also ignored is the hoopla over Monica Lewinsky, which, as some cultural critics like Paula Kamen have suggested, could have been indicative of our culture's uneasiness about confident and sexual women. Here was a young single woman so "brash" and "forward" she almost toppled a presidency. No wonder we were so anxious for single intern Chandra Levy to have disappeared at the hands of a politician.

These concerns have of late manifested themselves into concrete movements and laws. The Welfare Reform Act of 1996 was an assault on single women, especially black ones who, like many before them, struggle against low pay, poor education and inadequate housing. And today we face a veritable marriage movement, with President Bush promising to dedicate $300 million to welfare programs that encourage low-income mothers to walk down the aisle. Another $135 million will go to abstinence programs that teach teenage girls that premarital sex can have "harmful psychological and physical effects," so unless they have the will of Sisyphus, they should count on getting married ASAP.

Although Israel doesn't touch on these issues, she prepares her readers well to tackle them. West Virginia may think it's original to give cash incentives to welfare moms who marry, but politicians have been doing that stuff for years. In 1855, Israel recalls, one wanted to send all the leftover spinsters to Canada. It's not the first time, and it probably won't be the last. But there is reason to be hopeful. While still under attack, Israel points out, modern icons like Bridget Jones and the women on Sex and the City are becoming more vocal, freely defending their single lives. It's a sure bet that anyone who reads Bachelor Girl will follow their lead.

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