Bachelor Girl:
The Secret History of Single Women in the Twentieth Century

by Betsy Israel


William Morrow & Co, 2002. ISBN 0380976498.
Reviewed by Jan Epton Seale
Posted on 12/03/2002

Nonfiction: History/Current Events

Noting that phobias about single women date from antiquity, Betsy Israel begins her investigation of the lives of lone American urban women with the Industrial Revolution—the first time single women were used in mass in society. Moving through work, war, legislation, and incidental as well as contrived social behaviors, Bachelor Girl: The Secret History of Single Women in the Twentieth Century delivers an entertaining history of a neglected social group.

In the acknowledgments, Israel expresses gratitude to her husband and gives thanks to her two children for their tolerance and patience. Are these acknowledgments significant? Maybe. A male author might certainly do the same. But in this context, they serve as an indicator of the balance by which this experienced journalist and author of Grown-Up Fast: A True Story of Teenage Life in Suburban America comes to the subject. She has been there, done that, both single and married.

Not a militant-feminist diatribe nor a reworked doctoral thesis, Bachelor Girl beckons winsomely to the reader to recall her own heritage with regard to attitudes toward independent women. Were one's grade-school teachers single, and why? Was there perhaps a lone aunt or girl cousin making a splash in the work world, or one who seemed to have time to offer more attention to children in the family?

Maybe the "unclaimed blessing" (as single women were known in my childhood) was relegated to an upstairs room and dull household tasks. "Single women seem forever to unnerve, anger, and unwittingly scare large swaths of the population, both female and male."

Degenerating to the wretched depiction of "old maid," the talented, much respected "spinster," a spinner of wool and cotton in 13th-century France, became "a toothless parody of the uneducated minor noblewoman who had been trained for nothing more than marriage and then had failed to capture a husband." Typical of the delightful prose of the book, Israel primes the reader, "Just think of Cinderella's stepsisters."

The Westward Expansion afforded few single women. One in twenty-five women died in childbirth and this one was quickly replaced by another, and another, mothers to the children of the adventuresome pioneer. So the "she who preferred to live her single life" lived it mostly in New England in the 19th century.

"Smashes" described teenage girls who were smitten with other teenage girls. "Think of best friends going steady." They were viewed as practicing loyalty, tolerance, patience, traits thought to be needed later in heterosexual marriage. Still, studies in 1900 revealed 20,000 "Boston marriages," unions of two women living as sisters or lovers.

The author devotes space to Louisa May Alcott, Clara Barton, and Florence Nightingale, who, for many of us, were the sole heroines we gave book reports on as girls. At that time, it never occurred to me that these women had consciously refused marriage.

"Shoppies" stood for as long as six hours at a stretch waiting on ladies who came with their lists into retail stores on Broadway. Though the girls' lives were difficult (they had no bathroom facilities, had to stand rigid, could only smile when the money changed hands), these plucky young women developed a social life together, eating forbidden chocolates after curfew in boarding houses, and traveling in groups to places where "rubbering" and "spieling" (wild dancing) took place.

Finally, "the terms 'bohemian' (serious, artistic) and the 'bachelor girl' (worker bee out for fun) began slowly to blur" and this amalgam became simply the "B-girl."

The prim Gibson Girl gave way to the Flapper. Things moved on the Flapper—her swishy dress, her beads, and most especially her arms in mock-flying motions as she danced.

Post World War II, the unattached Rosie Riveters and WACs treasured in conflict were directed to find their skirts, get married, and uphold "togetherness," which later emerged as "the nuclear family." This mandate would, incidentally, restore men's civilian positions.

The contrived study of sexology, the Kinsey report, Helen Gurley Brown's Sex and the Single Girl (1962), The Pill, the Vietnam War, Woodstock free love, and the popularity of divorce make it increasingly difficult to characterize the single woman in the last half of the 20th century. For the most part, though, better laws, conditions, and attitudes toward the independent woman prevailed after about 1970.

For her research, Israel uses newspaper, magazine, and book accounts of the life of the single female. She incorporates advertisements, cartoons, movies, theater pieces, radio and TV, as well as relevant academic study. Especially important is her use of women's journals from 1866 to 1999.

One investigation led her to visit five bookstores to page through the original Martha Steward wedding book. She determined that page 127, showing a lone woman in full wedding regalia rushing across a drab city street, was the most lingered-over page (coffee stains and rumpling). Israel draws the implication that the 90s loner, that is prospective bride, is studying the art of bridal hurrying, the message being to seize the day and not be ambivalent anymore toward marriage.

Finally, sitcoms like "Sex and the City" may foretell a new age, one is which single women are portrayed as whole beings, not bereft of a vital other half, but in almost every possible variety of relationship with men, while "the real action and pleasure and love is among girlfriends." Women in the 80s and 90s were not, it seems, "as suicidal or depressed as supposed."

The bibliographical notes of this book are definitely worth a browse with such headings as "Conduct books and nasty warnings," "White slaving," "Working-girl novels," and "Early bohemian periodicals."

If you want to understand your mother better (Mine was a single schoolteacher at 17, a flapper at 19, a preacher's wife at 22) and yourself (I was a "togetherness" Early Married who skipped a much-needed Bachelor Girl phase), you'll be the wiser when you've read this book. And, you'll be versed in a piece of important heretofore-neglected social history without a bit of the angst of boredom or complexity you may have encountered in other history books.

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