THE EX­TRA WOMAN: HOW MAR­JORIE HILLIS LED A GEN­ER­A­TION OF WOMEN TO LIVE ALONE AND LIKE IT

Bitch: A Feminist Response to Pop Culture - - BOOK REVIEWS - By Joanna Scutts { Liveright/w. W. Nor­ton & Com­pany }

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.

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