THE EXTRA WOMAN: HOW MARJORIE HILLIS LED A GENERATION OF WOMEN TO LIVE ALONE AND LIKE IT
I’ve been single for most of my adult life, and during that time there has been a proliferation of single ladies on television from Living Single and Girlfriends to Sex and the City and The L Word. I’ve even lived through the “Black Professional Women Are Doomed to Never Marry Because Their Standards Are Too High” era that was replete with Nightline specials, Steve Harvey’ s sketchy relationship advice books, and magazine cover stories.
Pop culture analysis of single women is inherently political because it interrogates American culture’s deeply ingrained cult of coupledom. Instead of following the
age-old heteronormative belief that women are meant to shape their identities around male husbands, thriving single women represent a freedom that disrupts patriarchal norms. The result is a fear that women won’t need men or might be happier without them. In The Extra Woman, cultural historian Joanna Scutts traces the fear of single ladies and the idea that women can live happily alone to Marjorie Hillis’s 1936 work, Live Alone and Like It: A Guide for the Extra Woman. Hillis, a longtime Vogue staffer, pioneered writing about the pleasures of the single life by offering a self-help message that was a “beacon of social change and a precursor to the feminist revolutions of the 1960s and ’70s…[making] single women visible and their way of life viable, free of the sympathy and scandal it had attracted in the past.”
Hillis followed up with seven more books, published between 1936 and 1967, that empowered women to enjoy their own company with or without a partner. This message definitely resonates in the United States, particularly now that single adults are the majority. In her 2016 book, All
The Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, Rebecca Traister specifically outlines how the reinvention of single womanhood as the norm has allowed for more visible calls for pay equity, a higher minimum wage, and affordable healthcare. In this new world, the benefits of single life as a woman outweigh the drawbacks.
Scutts, to her credit, addresses the unique position of single Black women even though it’s not fully contextualized. My experience at the intersection of implicit race and gender bias has been fraught and at times lonely. Certainly, I love my freedom and my homegirls. I’m in love with my own company. The time I would devote to a partner is poured into teaching, mentoring, and writing. But I am also confronted with messages that women of other races don’t face, such as “You’re not simply single by choice; you’re single because no one wants you.” (Okcupid, for instance, has published research showing that Black women write the most messages of any demographic but are the least likely to receive responses, which really sucks.)
The Extra Woman doesn’t capture experiences like these, perhaps because of the time period in which Hillis was writing. So while the book is both scholarly and accessible in many ways, it could have offered a stronger contextualization of the stories Hillis chose not to tell—mainly those of women who could not marry, rather than those who simply chose solitary living. Scutts does an excellent job of including data and some stories of Black women, as well as the restrictions imposed by race on their daily lives. What’s missing is a look at how race has impacted our very different experiences of unmarried life.
Scutts honestly and correctly frames the lives of single women both past and present as “balancing the fantasy of independence with the fear of being alone.” I was delighted that the book educated me about a woman who bravely reshaped the conversation about the possibilities for white women of a certain economic class, though it made me wonder about how the “extra women” who looked like me responded to Hillis, if at all.
While The Extra Woman is both scholarly and accessible in many ways, it could have offered a stronger contextualization of the stories Hillis chose not to tell.