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.
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.
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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.
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:
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.
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.”
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.