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Bachelor Girl

100 Years of Breaking the Rules--a Social History of Living Single

Bachelor Girl by Betsy Israel
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In this lively and colorful book of popular history, journalist Betsy Israel shines a light on the old stereotypes that have stigmatized single women for years and celebrates their resourceful sense of spirit, enterprise, and unlimited success in a world where it is no longer unusual or unlikely to be unwed.

Drawing extensively on primary sources, including private journals, newspaper stories, magazine articles, advertisements, films, and other materials from popular media, Israel paints remarkably vivid portraits of single women -- and the way they were perceived -- throughout the decades. From the nineteenth-century spinsters, of New England to the Bowery girls of New York City, from the 1920s flappers to the 1940s working women of the war years and the career girls of the 1950s and 1960s, single women have fought to find and feel comfortable in that room of their own. One need only look at Bridget Jones and the Sex and the City gang to see that single women still maintain an uneasy relationship with the rest of society -- and yet they radiate an aura of glamour and mystery in popular culture.

As witty as it is well researched, as thoughtful as it is lively, Bachelor Girl is a must-read for women everywhere.

HarperCollins; June 2009
320 pages; ISBN 9780061940743
Read online, or download in secure EPUB
Title: Bachelor Girl
Author: Betsy Israel

Chapter One

The Classical Spinster: Redundants,
The Singly Blessed, And the Early New Women

My dear, to a brighter future -- when there will not be so many forced marriages, and women will be taught not to feel theirs a destiny manqué, nor the threat of poor spinsterhood, should they remain single.
-- British Woman, Nineteen, Writing to a "Most-Beloved"(Presumably Unhappy) Married School Friend, 1859

He: Who's the fat lady with the heavy brows and all the hair?
She: A spinster aunt.
He: Where are you, taking the picture?
She: I'm the fat lady with the heavy brows and all the hair. I'm poor Aunt Charlotte. And I'm still not well.

-- Bette Davis, Having Lost Weight, Now, Voyager, 1942

The woman of a certain age is a very charming concept in French. In just about every other language it is a euphemism for having lost, through age, whatever charmant thing it was that made you charming. And for a woman who never married, there are no euphemisms. The "losing" in her case is a condition, a pathology. It is about as far removed from a charming concept as a brain tumor.
-- Dorian, Thirty-Eight, National Public Radio Producer, 2001

In the Spinster Museum

It seems safe to say that in 2002 nobody is a spinster and that a certain percentage of the population is not entirely aware of what a spinster is. For, those in the latter category, I offer a brief tour of the Classical Spinster Museum.

What the Old Girl Looked Like:
" ... grey-haired ... desiccated ... with a funny little tic that twitched her left eye-brow, and a mole on her upper lip ... "
-- A description of Miss Skidmore From Edna, his wife, Margaret Ayers Barnes, 1935

What She Did Each Day:
"I went upstairs to my flat to eat a melancholy lunch. A dried-up scrap of cheese, a few lettuce leaves for which I could not be bothered to make any dressing, a tomato and a piece of bread and butter followed by a cup of coffee ... a woman's meal, I thought, with no suggestion of brandy afterwards."
-- Mildred Lathbury, heroine, excellent women, Barbara Pym, 1951

What Others Thought (in addition to "it's so sad"):
"A woman alone is an atrocity! An act against nature. Unmarried women pose a grave danger ... our great civilization could dectine ... the larger health of the nation is at stake."
-- A British MP, from a speech given in 1922

Thus Her Potential to Become a Monster:
"It was the third house on the right side of our street ... gray ranch, white curtains, and this lady who lived there ... she lived all alone and she never came out ... It was the 'cootie's house' be, cause all you saw was one eyeball peeking out the corner bay window. In my child sense, she was only an eye and not a body. You had to run past."
-- Edith, fourty-four, dance company administrator, 2001

It's an odd and dusty exhibition, and yet pieces of the collection are still scattered about the culture. A forty-two-year-old pianist who called herself "Mildred -- definitely Mildred" says that her relatives give her money as she leaves any family event, in case, as an unmarried, childlike person, she doesn't have her own. Another woman, thirty-eight, describes phone calls from relatives and friends who are "really calling to make sure I have not died and, as no one noticed, I've gone ahead and decomposed." A single stock-broker, thirty-six, says, "My sister asks me to do errands that often require me to stand on long lines and this is 'reasonable' to her because she has children and I do not. What is this presumption?"

I'd call it an essential part of the spinster legacy.

In Which the Spinster Arrives

The first spinsters appeared in thirteenth-century France and a bit later in Germany and England as spinners of cotton and wool. They were not yet spinsters but femmes seules -- unwed young girls, orphaned relatives, and widows of the Crusades who performed their tasks within the self-sustained family home. Most stayed there. Yet there were some who lived independently, dealing for themselves with weavers and textile merchants and often earning their praise. As late as 1783, in a Description of Manchester, we learn that "weavers were ... obliged to pay more for the spinning than the price allowed by the merchants 'but darst not complain ... lest lose the spinner.'

Long before the industrial revolution -- and before the implementation of a restrictive British common law -- single women worked on their own in other ways. Town and city records, portions of which have been published in academic papers, indicate that unwed women in medieval France, England, and Germany traded in raw wool, silk, and rare spices. Some engaged in foreign trading and owned their own ships, and a few are said to have managed large estates and breweries.

On into the seventeenth century, spinster was used to identify a respectable employment category. When later that century the French began using spinster to indicate an unwed woman, the term was understood to be descriptive: a woman on her own, for any number of reasons, and in need of an income.

In England, however, another spinsterly model was in the making: the Old Maid, who first took form as a loud, bosomy theater grotesque known as "the Dame." Here was a new female creature so vain, so rabidly flirtatious she seemed unaware that the men she desired found her repulsive. For best effect, the dame was played by a man. Even in France, where the view of the serious, dedicated spinner prevailed, the playwright Molière created a protospinster, his own prehistoric Old Maid, in the form of Bélise, a conceited and oblivious character in Les Femmes savantes (1672). Bélise has never wed, and without companionship, talking to or arguing with herself or whomever happens to be standing there, she has come to believe that she's a genius ...

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