Authors: Betsy Israel
Tags: #Social Science, #Women's Studies, #History, #United States, #20th Century, #Media Studies
100 Years of Breaking the Rules—a Social History of Living Single
Hayley Israel Doner,
greatest single girl I know
I Think We’re Alone Now
The Classical Spinster: Redundants, The Singly Blessed, and The Early New Women
The Single Steps Out: Bowery Gals, Shoppies, and The Bohemian Bachelorette
Thin and Raging Things: New (New) Women, Gibson Goddesses, Flapping Ad Darlings, and The All-New Spinster In Fur
The Suspicious Single: Job Stealers, The Riveting Rosie, and The Neurotic Husband Hunter
The Secret Single: Runaway Bachelor Girls; Catching the Bleecker Street Beat and/or Blues at the Barbizon
The Swinging Single: Career Girls, The Autonomous Girl, The Pill Popper, and The Lone Female In Danger
Today’s Moderne Unmarried—her Times and Trials: Ice Queens of the Eighties and Nineties, Baby Brides, Slacker Spinsters, and The Singular Cry of the Wild: “Hey! Get Your Stroller Off My Sidewalk!”
This book would not exist without the foresight, goodwill, and patience of two extraordinary people. My agent, Susan Ramer, has been with me through three proposals, five drafts, and an epic spell of writer’s fog. She has devoted so much time to this project, worked through so many of its problems, and been such a wonderful friend that I cannot thank her enough. Jennifer Hershey is the most thoughtful, good-natured, and enthusiastic editor I’ve ever worked with. She helped me to find a way through what seemed a great dark mass of material and never did she doubt it would take shape. Despite an enormous workload, she personally edited this book down to the tiniest detail. Maureen O’Brien, a terrific editor and good pal, saw
through to its conclusion and ace publicist Jessica Miller worked tirelessly to get it read. I am indebted to my research assistant, Jeryl Brunner, the woman who can find anything, anywhere. Thanks, too, to Jeanine Barry, Carleen Woolley, and Ariana Calderon for their assistance and fact-finding. Donna Brodie at the Writer’s Room gave me much-needed early encouragement, and Amy Gross offered me the chance to write about single women, in
. Thanks, too, to all the friends, colleagues, and relatives who have listened and commented throughout. In particular I am grateful to my husband, Ezra Doner, and to Nan Friedman, Betsy Zeidman, Priscilla Mulvihill, Lorraine Rapp, Fleur and Sheldon Israel, the late Alex Greenfield, Sally Hines, and Dalma Heyn; to Teriananda, who took care of my household; and to Susannah Israel Marchese, who had an easy answer to my hardest question. My beloved Hayley and Timothy have been more tolerant and patient than any children should ever have to be. Finally, my inestimable thanks to the many women who so carefully and honestly described their lives as bachelor girls.
I THINK WE’RE ALONE NOW
Commands sent through highways and byways…drawing rooms, workshops, by hints and suggestions…lectures…the imploring letter…essays…sermons…as if a voice…din[s] in the ears of young women: Marry! Marry! For the unmarried woman fails at the end for which she was created.
“THE WAY OF ALL WOMEN,”
e all grow up with images of single life. For me, these were brightly colored fantasies that drew on TV heroines—
Marlo Thomas, Avenger Emma Peel, Catwoman, the Mary-and-Rhoda duet—and a vision of how I’d look in the tight little blue suits of UN tour guides and stewardesses. A young woman plotting out a single life circa 2002 has a broader, more eccentric range of iconic singles to play with, each wearing her own unique single suit: Ally McBeal, cute, hallucinating miniskirted lawyer; Bridget Jones, “singleton,” who sees clearly the masochism inherent in both her single life and her own ill-fitting tiny skirts; and the
Sex and the City
foursome, who, like doctors or madams, discuss clinical aspects of sex, while dressed for sex, in restaurants.
More so than any other living arrangement, the single life is deeply influenced—
may be a better word—by cultural imagery. And the single woman herself has had a starring role in the mass imagination for many years. Admit it or not, most of us have our fixed ideas of single womanhood and at some point we all indulge in the familiar ritual of speculation: How did she end up that way? How can she stand it? And how might she correct what must be a dull, lonely, and potentially heartbreaking, meaning possibly childless, situation?
One hundred and fifty years ago, Sarah Grimké, tough “singleside” and “womanist,” wrote that marriage had ceased to be the “sine qua non of female existence.” In every decade since, many, many women have come to agree with her. And they have inspired more than the familiar ritual of pitying speculation and disdain. Single women seem forever to unnerve, anger, and unwittingly scare large swaths of the population, both female and male.
Writing from an academic viewpoint, historian Nina Auerbach notes, “Though the nature of the [single] threat shifts…the idea remains of contagion by values that are contrary to the best and proudest instincts of humanity.”
A woman writing in the
New York Times
some years back put it plainly: “There’s something about a woman standing by herself. People wonder what she wants.”
The media, in all its antique and more recognizable forms, has long served as the conduit for this stereotypical single imagery. Reporters, novelists, and filmmakers again and again have introduced the single icons of the moment by organizing them into special interest groups with neon nicknames: Spinsters! Working Girls! Flappers! Beatniks! Career Women! That’s the job, of course, to discover and explore newly evolving social phenomena. In the process, however, they’ve repeatedly turned the new single into a nasty cartoon or a caricature.
Most of the standard single icons have been portrayed as so depressing, so needy and unattractive, that for years women who even slightly matched the descriptions had a hard time in life. But gradually all variety of single types began to flourish within their own tiny worlds and eventu
ally found that they might stake a claim in the larger one. And contrary to the melancholy depictions, the weepy confessionals, many audacious and self-supporting single women had a lot of fun along the way. They continue to. And so the press continues to cover them as well as what is still perceived as their “condition.”
My own young single life, and how it abruptly ended, makes a strong case study in the power of single imagery and the way our mass media distorts it. That particular ending also marks the beginning of this book.
SNAPSHOTS FROM A SINGLE LIFE
In 1986, I was twenty-seven, living alone, and working in publishing—a youthful life phase that I’d spent years trying to organize and had enjoyed, until the day I got up and heard the news. According to bulletins on the
show, National Public Radio, and every local newscast, I had officially become a Single Woman. To summarize briefly what newscasters milked for half an hour: A study now infamous for its flaws had revealed an alarming decrease in marriage “prospects” among women anywhere in age between twenty-five and forty. If, like me, you’d “postponed matrimony” due to your career or your generational tendency to cohabit, you’d now confront the tragic reality of your birth cohort: There weren’t enough men and potential husbands for you and all of your friends.
It seemed ridiculous—a prespinster at twenty-seven? No hope of marrying at forty? Yet two researchers from Harvard and Yale were assuring me that my life and the lives of just about everyone I knew were now ruptured.
Before all this—as in the day before—I had been merely me: an attractive, short, nervous person who did well in jobs requiring “girls” with excitable temperaments. At the time I was a writer for several similar lifestyle magazines. On any given day I’d find myself celebrating the “flippy sandal,” then skipping my way through a list of topics that might include thighs, parental death, the penis, betrayal, the truth of bagels, and a story inevitably called “Abortion Rights Are Still with Us.”
I was smart, or as some ex-boyfriends liked to say, I really was in my
own way very clever. For example, I had struggled against the single fates (“live at home” or “have five roommates”) and had won. I had a place. No matter that at first—and second—glance it seemed situated inside a tenement. It was “rent-stabilized,” a phrase that, for young New York women of the time, was a lot more exciting, filled with more possibility and the hint of adulthood, than “marry me.” The details—cabbagey, narrow hallways; spindly, crooked Dr. Seuss–like stairs—didn’t bother me. The point was to learn certain survival skills. How did you negotiate with landlords who conversed with your breasts? How to deal with the roaches my neighbor referred to as “BMW’s,” for “big mothers with wings”? And how to get past the grannies, the babushka ladies who hissed as a group when they saw me? Every day I ran an obstacle course—bugs, ladies, landlord—not stopping until I shoved open door #5 with my hip and stepped inside.
My decorating efforts had been devoted to painting over wallpaper (maypole theme) the landlord had refused to remove, and that had left little time and money for things like furniture. The primary piece, and the center of all activity, was the “divan,” a bed/couch/office made up of three futons stacked and transformed by a shiny black red-fringed cloth of my grandmother’s. Layered with pillows, newspapers, typewriter, phone, it formed a bountiful square in the midst of my large, naked space. (It was important at the time to describe any area as a “space,” a potential venue of art, even if referring to a closet. Not that I had a closet.)
I shared this bounty with the expected singular companion, a black Siamese cat I called “Py-Not,” a negation of Pywacket, the magical witch cat in
Bell, Book, and Candle,
and the only single cat name less clichéd than Cat, of
Breakfast at Tiffany’s
. Rarely were my Py and I home alone. I had boyfriends, “fellas” as my mother called them, plus my girlfriends and just-friends, the many acquaintances who lacked their own spaces and stopped in at mine, then stayed for hours.
Never did I believe that this was it—
My Space! My Cat! My Three Plates!
—but it had seemed part of a definite forward progression. When I was fifteen, no one had gone on dates. This was during the 1970s and “dating” consisted of standing in parental basements alongside boys and getting
high. Hardly anyone spoke. It was bad form to cough, indicating that you, as a girl, could not hold your smoke.
In college, it was bad form to smile. As a “womyn,” a last-dregs junior feminist, one found all men suspect. If they smiled or, rather, “usurped” you with their “gaze,” you demythologized them with your death stare. We’d learned well from our unmarried female professors: No sister, meaning us, was to mate before making of herself a coherent, unified being, a new woman, as there’d forever been new women who—
“Shut the fuck up!” some guy would shout. “Who the fuck’s gonna marry
Still, despite such hostile repartee, the many stilted conversations, and analogous sexual encounters, I assumed, as I had always vaguely assumed, that I’d get married. Somehow. To someone. In my apartment life, age almost 28, I was technically no closer. But I had met certain males whom, in my journal, I referred to as interesting men, not inscrutable or angry
I WANNA BE SEDATED
I had arrived in my late twenties at one of those moments—one of those recurring spells of media frenzy in which single women appear as marginal creatures most frequently described as “pathetic.” But, hey, I
in the media, as I told every concerned, lip-biting woman I met, and these overblown, underverified stories were deliberately slanted to terrify the reader. I had personally manufactured, or manipulated, such terror stories on a variety of subjects, minimum, five times a year. And because I’d once been a womyn, I knew that this kind of media harassment had a history that stretched back for decades.
Despite my special knowledge, however, I was annoyed. People kept asking me questions, and essentially the same questions: Did I still live alone? And if so, why? What kind of life was that, and where was I going in that “bigger picture”? And what about (the Laundromat lady really said this) my “need for the babies”? After a while I stopped answering the questions “Seeing anyone?” “How old are you?” and “Big date?” I refused to
speak to people who used the phrase “biological clock.” As I saw it, the only relevant clock was the immense cultural one that seemed to be running backward into the 1950s, where a wan Frank Sinatra song was playing and in a few more bars it would be autumn.
In 1956 one women’s magazine polled 2,220 high school girls on the unfortunate social plight of the single woman. As the authors paraphrased, 99 percent of participants rigorously agreed that “single career women [had]…so thoroughly misunderstood their central role and identity that they had failed to achieve even the most basic task of establishing a household.” One teen elaborated on this spiritually homeless female: “They’re misfits. Out there alone. It’s crazy. And hard to understand…. They are not in the normal range.”
Apparently, without our even suspecting, that view had held and here we all were in the wrong range. For some time I’d been receiving unsolicited mail from matchmaking and other single services. These packages (“Jewish?” “Jewish, culturally?” “Jewish, downtown?” “Like Jewish men?”) included booklets on writing personals that sold “the you
alone can see,” as well as pamphlets entitled “Accepting, Grieving, Dating” and, in true 1950s form, “How to Make a Normal Life You Can Live With.” My favorite piece of advice came from a brochure entitled
Out There Alone—Guerilla Tactics:
“At the movies, or theatre, should you feel self-conscious by yourself, attempt to convey, using hand gestures, that you are with the couple, or individuals, seated next to you.”
That’s when I began to collect evidence of single pathos. On a large bulletin board in my kitchen, I pinned up anything that commented subtly, or not so very subtly, on single women. For example, I compiled an unrelated series of ads featuring female executives, each in standard eighties-era floppy-bow suits, each placed in a large, impersonal office, and each holding a hand to her abdomen, back, or head in pain. But the products advertised had nothing to do with physical ailments. Two were for Caribbean/Bermuda airline getaways; one was for an adjustable bed; and one showed a new lightweight leather briefcase. The subtext was louder than the copy: These attractive, successful women suffered the disease of the mistaken path, a condition familiar from popular T-shirts. (
WHAT ABOUT MY CAREER
MY GOD, I CAN’T BELIEVE I FORGOT TO HAVE CHILDREN
My best find, however, was a cartoon pulled from a local newspaper I found in an airport. In it, seated on a double bed, surrounded by teddy bears and Chinese-food containers (incriminating signs of singleness), was a thirty-fivish woman in bra and underpants. This would seem commentary enough but for the fat bubbling out from her abdomen to form six fleshy rings. It looked as if the classical spinster had lost her neat bun and excellent posture and given up tea for Snickers bars smeared with peanut butter.
Then several developments interrupted my work.
I got married. Immediately we moved across country and back, only to move within New York City twice in two years. After a while we had kids, moved again, and began to lose track of certain friends, in particular, I found, my single friends. They resented my distraction while on the phone. (“Being always out of breath is
a status symbol!”) In person, they did not like the way I spoke to them while looking and making faces at my baby. They didn’t like the way that, exhausted, I often fell asleep mid–hilarious anecdote. Someone said I snored. It hadn’t been that long since I’d been single. But so much had happened in so short a time that my apartment life with Py-not seemed kind of foreign, exotic, like a year spent abroad sometime in college. I had pictures from the trip but the actual details were starting to blur.
Then one night I began to recall that time, the entire trip, more coherently. I was seated, at the moment, with my children in the emergency room. We’d been playing a game; I was “asleep” and to wake me one child had shoved a tiny stiletto Barbie shoe up my ear. Now it was stuck. Oh, they were sorry, twisting themselves around my legs and crying, but I had trouble reassuring them and seeming “fine.” I was aware only of stupid pain, ambulance sounds, and, from the smell of things, other patients hiding day-old French fries in their coat pockets.
I closed my eyes. As if it were a taxi, a Red Cross flying carpet, the lost divan pulled up in my brain. Easing back the silky black covers, I climbed in.
A DIVE INTO THE SINGLE FILES
There is an incredible amount of written material on single women out there. Amazon.com lists 787 current titles, most fitting into one of several single niches. The most obvious is the advice from “the woman who knows” (usually a doctor who goes by a first name such as Dr. Paula or Dr. Joan) to the woman who clearly doesn’t. Nonexpert advice and guidebooks for single women could fill a New Age college catalogue—finding soul mates; learning to love yourself first; identifying obstacles and creatively crashing through them; and how to drag him back using every imaginable part of your body as an arsenal.