Betsy Israel's Bachelor Girls focuses on single women in the US, primarily in Manhattan, from the early 1800’s to the present day. The types discussed include New England spinsters, Bowery Girls at the turn of the century, 1920s flappers, Gibson girls, Rosie the Riveters, bachelor girls at the Barbizon Hotel, and career girls, starting in the late 1970s when real professional choices started being available to women.
The book is thoroughly researched and chockful of quotations. The subtitle, "The Secret History of Single Women," however, seems inaccurate. Israel has pored through popular magazines, popular fiction and movies, occasionally diaries. What is new is the order of the material and many of her conclusions – but it’s certainly not secret. She has performed quite a different kind of anthropology than, for example, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who digs up obscure slave narratives and also gives us a framework with which to understand how to read them.
And something about the authorial presence is unsettling. The rare appearances of the first-person narrator – after telling us in some detail of her own few years of being single in New York in the introduction – seem somehow inappropriate in tone, be it merely "My favorite description comes from the philosopher ...", the only instance of the first person in 20 pages, or "But I doubt that many in the ranks of new womanhood took subscriptions to Good Housekeeping." This reviewer would rather draw her own conclusions or read a personal polemic – not both at once.
At the same time there are hundreds of real finds which capture the tone of the time: "In 1949 one society matron confessed to The New York Times, ‘I do not invite unattached women because it seems to me ... these unattached women just envy the beautiful happiness we have ... Frankly, it bothers me to be surrounded by such hungry devouring eyes.’"
The choice of which details to explore in depth and which to skim over does not seem well-founded. For instance, in a description of factories in the needle trades, she writes, "A heavily grease-stained volume, The Lucky Dreambook, made its way around and girls recorded their wishes." This sentence is the only reference to this phenomenon, and it is both too little to be able to imagine the context (and, for instance, what form the wishes took) and too much to merely let it slide. The book’s coherence suffers from these choices.
Paragraphs often seem poorly structured, full of too many ideas and sudden jumps. "Marriage served as a woman’s only practical life solution ... If any aspect of this observation had been left unclear, every political, religious, educational, and literary force in the culture, every leader, of anything, wrote out or recited for girls the female life agenda: to make and maintain the family home, populating it with no fewer than five children (allowing for inevitable miscarriages), and to create within it a calm, well-decorated realm for her hardworking exhausted husband." Every single force in the culture cannot have had the same direction. And why the ‘five’ children and why the word ‘exhausted’: we’ve moved from the overly general to the overly specific in the space of one sentence.
At one point, Israel praises The Improvised Woman by Marcelle Clement, a truly impressive oral history of women between 35 and 55, often bringing up kids, women who may not have expected to be single for all or the greatest part of their adult life, but had ended up that way. That book had a clearly communicated purpose, and felt well structured. Israel has read hugely in the historical sources. Would that her book had the same coherence.