[amazon template=image&asin=0446178225]Many years ago, I reviewed books (and sometimes products) for a feminist blog. The woman managing the project would send out a list of available items each month, and all of the reviewers would vie for the best things. One of the books I ended up with was a reprint of advice for single women written by Marjorie Hillis in the 1930s. Today I’ll share that review.
Potential readers should know two things about this book. First, the author was an editor for Vogue. Second, it was a bestseller in 1936. Those two facts should hint at for whom it was written and warn that much of it is outdated.
This book’s mixed messages caused me to have mixed feelings about it while reading. On the one hand, it empowers women by telling them they can live alone and not only survive, but also thrive. On the other hand, it implies time and again that any woman living alone is only waiting for something better (a man) to come along.
The most interesting part of this manual is its historical perspective on single women. It is evidence that women did live on their own – even in 1936. Conservative propaganda would have us believe that prior to the tumultuous 1960s, all women were either married, living with relatives, or boarding in some sort of respectable dormitory. This book proves that women were on the road to liberation long before the women’s movement of the 1970s.
Less positive is the class assumption the author makes about “live-aloners” (as single women living by themselves became known after the publication of this book). For example, live-aloners apparently want, need, and are able to afford a maid (sometimes a “colored” maid), at least on occasion. There is no mention of who does the cleaning and serving at the maid’s house if she should happen to live alone. In any case, this maid business shows the target audience is women aspiring to or firmly entrenched in the upper classes.
Equally problematic are assertions made about men, especially regarding money. “There are still a few chivalrous gentlemen who believe that the man should be the provider,” the author states on page 101, and “the men guests always pay” for taxis to and from the theater, even when the single woman does the inviting, she says on page 46. Such ideas may have been prevalent sixty years ago, but hardly seem productive or true in the twenty-first century.
Sure, some to the advice given in this book is helpful: Don’t feel sorry for yourself. Make your home pleasant and comfortable. Have several passionate interests. Friends are important. Live within your means. Save some money. However, this advice seems helpful to most human being, whether female or male, single or married, living alone or with other people.
Practical and specific guidance for women wanting to learn how to be content living alone would have been more useful. Truly helpful topics might include securing doors and windows against intruders, repairing clogged plumbing, negotiating with a landlord, and recognizing symptoms that indicate it’s time to see the doctor. Instead, the reader is advised to invite people over who live in worse places than she does, told how many negligees and bed-jackets a woman living alone should own (two and four, respectively), and counseled that a woman who is too sick “to fix yourself up” is “better off in a small hospital ward” than home alone. This advice is useless to most contemporary women who live solo.
I don’t understand why this book was reprinted. Most of the advice beyond basics that apply to nearly everyone seems impractical and obsolete. I can only suggest this book to people who want to have a good laugh and then contemplate how far women who live by themselves have come.