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Single Women: Still Pitied in Print

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Phoebe Hoban looks at two new books on single women, and finds the tone defensive: defending that which no longer needs defending:

    Consider two books on the subject that have just come out this month that try to validate this lifestyle both historically and anecdotally, as if it were a fringe phenomenon rather than a rapidly growing segment of society: Betsy Israel’s “Bachelor Girl: The Secret History of Single Women in the Twentieth Century” (William Morrow) and “Solitaire: The Intimate Lives of Single Women” (Macfarlane Walter & Ross) by Marian Botsford Fraser, a Canadian journalist. Both suggest that single women are still perceived as a special-interest group, although, according to Ms. Israel’s book, they number a staggering 1.95 million in New York City alone. (The Census Bureau puts that number at 2,060,000.)

    “Single women have always been portrayed and depicted in the mass culture in a negative and nasty way that influenced the lives of many women, and at the same time was competely untrue, and these images, some of them 150 years old, are still being played out and the ideas are just being recycled,” says Ms. Israel.

    “Bachelor Girl” traces the trajectory of the single woman in America, from the turn of the 20th century to the present, from the spinster – working immigrant women who literally spun for a living – to “outspoken and very cool-looking single celebrities” of the 1960’s and 1970’s like Gloria Steinem. There are thumbnail sketches of poster girls for singlehood like the Brontë sisters, Louisa May Alcott and Florence Nightingale. (Who, despite her status, was not exactly a role model for single living. After revolutionizing military nursing standards during the Crimean War, she took to her bed more or less permanently at the age of 40 with a mysterious malady.) Rife with Dickensian detail, Ms. Israel’s book provides a useful (if depressing) history of single working girls and new women of all stripes, from the shopgirl to the Gibson goddess to the swinging single.

    Ms. Fraser’s book calls single women “a potentially powerful socio-economic group” but one that is “still widely perceived as disadvantaged or insignificant, subordinate or invisible.” As evidence she collects oral accounts of 150 women she interviewed across Canada, from a nonagenarian living alone in a trailer on a remote farm to young professionals at work and play in Toronto, to the hospice care of a terminally ill woman by her coterie of friends. The collective voice of these single women is decidedly ambivalent.

In reality, there is ambivalence about men being single as well, though there is less biological time pressure.

    “I think it’s human nature for there to be ambivalence about stuff like this,” Ms. Fraser says. “I think people want the freedom, the autonomy, the independence and in some cases the greater security of being single, but they also want to be in relationships. No matter how well you put your life together, it’s still nice to have sex now and then.”

It’s still different for girls.

    Surprisingly, the book that truly celebrates the single woman was written four decades ago. Helen Gurley Brown’s “Sex and the Single Girl,” published in 1962, “torpedoes one of the most absurd (if universal) myths of our time: that every girl must be married,” its jacket flap proclaims. “(How – when there are four million too few single adult men to go around. Why – when it can be so exciting to be single?) In perhaps the first truly honest treatment of the subject, `Sex and the Single Girl’ tells the unmarried girl how to be irresistibly, irrepressibly, confidently, enviably single.”

    True, much of the dated advice (as well as the politically incorrect title itself) is now amusingly camp, but the potential thrill of being single still saturates each page.

    Ms. Brown writes on Page 5 of her book: “The single woman, far from being a creature to be pitied and patronized, is emerging as the newest glamour girl of our times.” (But then again, what would you expect from the woman who invented the Cosmo girl?) Contrast that to the same page of “Solitaire.” Ms. Fraser writes that the single women she interviewed “spoke frankly about virginity, celibacy, masturbation, money, abuse, secret sex lives and fear of illness and death.” Which book would you rather read?

This air of celebration applied to men and women in the ’60s, why do you think Austin Powers has been so popular?

    Despite their authors’ consciousness-raising intentions, these books, in their earnest effort to explain an exploding demographic, to sympathetically explain the who, how and why of single women, do anything but. They treat the subject as an unresolved issue rather than a de facto element of contemporary culture. They continue to argue the case for single women, as if their growing numbers weren’t argument enough.

I am surprised AIDS was not mentioned anywhere: nothing takes the fun and frolic out of being free and footloose like a mortal disease.

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