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

Bachelor Girl: The Secret History of Single Women in the Twentieth Century, by Betsy Israel, Morrow, $24.95

For some unlucky generations, spinsterhood, with its high economic price and nasty stigma, was regarded as a fate worse than death. (Bachelorhood, meanwhile, has rarely meant a fate worse than takeout.) In this popular history of the single woman, Betsy Israel offers an engaging compendium of material from the media and entertainment, academic studies, diaries, and interviews, all stitched together with her breezy prose.

Despite the enticing promise of the subtitle. Bachelor Girl tells the opposite of secrets. The central motif is mainstream culture’s changing image of single women, spanning the toothless old maid, the flapper, the Gibson Girl, and Bridget Jones. This focus on media iconography, as Israel acknowledges, limits her study largely to straight, white New Yorkers. It’s as though she cast a wide-meshed net into her unruly subject, turning up only the easiest, albeit savory, catch.

If the single life once guaranteed hardship, marriage did not necessarily offer a tempting alternative. In the 1870s, frequent deaths in childbirth, bossy husbands, and debilitating housework sent many women, especially educated ones, running from the aisle. In the 1902 edition of Who’s Who, 53.3% of the featured women vowed never to marry, viewing it as a “profound disincentive” to serious work. Israel documents the rocky courtship between women and the workplace, in which women were wooed en masse into previously unavailable occupations during World War 11, only to be jilted upon the men’s return.

Much has changed since the days, in the late 1800s, when the Massachusetts governor proposed exporting the state’s single women to the frontier. But one constant in the single woman’s evolution is the threat she poses, much more subtly today than in the past. One woman, writing in the Times, expressed with perfect pitch the understated uneasiness she arouses: “There’s something about a woman standing alone. People wonder what she wants.”

Rebecca Tuhus Dubrow is a teacher and writer living in Brooklyn.