Journalist Israel’s debut is not one social history but two: an examination of popular perceptions about single women since the Industrial Revolution paired with the lesser-known truth about how women actually inhabited their roles.
Beginning with a discussion of how the word “spinster” (a working woman) came to be conflated with “old maid,” an earlier term for a woman beyond hope of matrimony, the author examines the roots of “single phobia.” In the mid-1800s, she writes, there was more than one kind of unmarried woman: the well-educated “singly blessed” deliberately avoided the heavy toll matrimony took on liberty, while immigrant women who had no choice but to work embraced independence as a necessity. The penny press seized on this new breed of female, and thus was born the evergreen feature story on the oddity of a woman living alone. The progression of single status was not steady. Independent flappers in the 1920s were followed by a generation of Great Depression women cautioned against stealing jobs that should fittingly go to men. World War II strides were followed by the astounding domesticity of the ’50s, which took a strange twist in the Beat society of Greenwich Village, where bohemian women were encouraged to support their free-spirited men by taking on drab, conventional secretarial work. The explosion of feminism sparked by the 1963 publication of The Feminine Mystique didn't spell the end of the perceived strangeness of singlehood, but by the late ’60s, single women were no longer “a unified class.” Although marriage trends in the ’90s showed women eager to get hitched earlier rather than later, Israel's anecdotal research leads her to believe that “it's possible the next generation will miss the cues of single-illness, or uncomfortability, altogether.”
Engaging, convincing, even stirring.