Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Review: Bachelor Girl

Bachelor Girl:  100 Years of Breaking the Rules - A Social History of Living Single was one of my rare impulse buys.  I saw the title and snatched it up immediately and gloried in the anticipation of reading a book celebrating single women in the 20th century.  However, that wasn't exactly what I got.

Betsy Israel starts her book by describing her own single life before she married in the 1980s.  She then goes back through history, starting with the American Victorian era and continuing through the early 2000s to describe what life as an American single woman was like.  But this book ended up disappointing me in almost every way.

First, Israel focuses almost solely on women in New York City.  She hardly ventures outside the city at all (she does chat about Boston for a bit), and to me that really smacked of the "New York City is the center of the universe and no one who doesn't live here matters" mentality.  I wish she had gotten out of the city a bit more as I am sure women who lived singly in rural areas faced a very different situation than those in New York.

Also, Israel's references were not what I hoped.  She used secondary sources for the most part, looking at newspaper articles.  She also appears to have watched every movie about women ever made and her conclusions drawn from this research were, to me, fairly sketchy.  I really hoped to get more first-person accounts of what it was like to be living single, and she had very few of those.  So really, her book wasn't so much about what it was like to be single as it was about media perceptions of single women.  I also was very disappointed by Israel's take on modern single women.

One thing that I found interesting and that bowled me over somewhat was how dangerous single women were made out to be in the past.  As though an unmarried woman threatened the very make-up of society and might lead to apocalypse.  This is something that comes up again and again in countless cultures and eras and it is so disturbing to me.  Really, the treatment of women throughout history disturbs me as people are always trying to classify us or put us into some box.  It doesn't seem like people have that same compulsion for men.  There is no need to "define" a man by his role, but there seems always to be a need to do that to women.  Single women are made to seem unnatural and hateful and horrible, and I ached for the women in this book who were made to feel so alone because they didn't go the traditional route.

I also found interesting that the feminists of the 20s and 30s were very disappointed with their daughters of the 40s and 50s for not doing more to advance women's rights.  From what it seemed like in the book, women of the 1940s felt that the generation before had achieved a lot, but also sacrificed too much for the attainment of it.  I think this is very similar to the way women who came of age in the 60s and 70s view the current generation, thinking that we aren't doing enough to advance our cause.

Overall, though, this book fell very flat for me and I am disappointed it didn't convert on what I think is a fascinating subject matter.  I think I'll just have to go for primary sources from each historical period for a more accurate representation of the feminist movement.

29 comments:

  1. It's too bad the follow through on this wasn't great. It had a good premise. Thanks for the review!

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  2. Shame it was disappionting, what a great topic!

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  3. To judge by things that happened in New York is really a huge mistake because I would think that New York is really atypical of what you will find in most other environments. I think the way that women have been categorized has helped maintain the status quo, and I think those perceptions are purposefully perpetuated.

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  4. This is exactly why I hardly ever buy books on impulse even though I nearly always want to. It's such a shame - if only the bookstore were helpfully organized into a section of "Books I Would Like" and "Books I Wouldn't Like", that would make things easier.

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  5. I'm so disappointed to hear this wasn't what you (and I!) expected. It sounds like it could be amazing, too bad she made conclusions based on movies and secondary sources and stayed in NYC. Sounds interesting, but I'll try to find something better I think.

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  6. I think single men and women are still considered dangerous to some extent within their social circles. Not only are they suddenly "available," but they give unhappy people "ideas"!!!

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  7. I reviewed this one today too! I didn't think it was extensive enough either, and the later chapters made me so mad. lol

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  8. Oh no, I don't think I would like this one either. It sounds like the author stuck within the confines of what was familiar to her, instead of doing more research and branching out a bit. By your description, this could have been a fascinating look into the world of single women, and I think it was meant to be, but it seems that the execution was poor, and that the author wasn't really inspired. If you do find a good book that deals with this subject, please let me know. I do know that I just bought The Group by Mary McCarthy after reading Nymeth's review of it. It tells the story of a group of women who graduated from Vassar in 1933. Might not be exactly what you are looking for, but it might have some of the same elements.

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  9. Jenn- Yes, it was so promising in the title...

    Joanna- Agreed!

    Nicole- Yes, I agree! I wish she had gotten some different perspectives in there.

    Jenny- Yes, that would be so useful!

    Amy- I think that's a good idea. If I find something else, I'll let you know!

    rhapsodyinbooks- I think it is far more true for single women than men. Single men aren't immediately thought to be trying to steal your husband, whereas single women often are.

    Eva- I hated those chapters, too!!

    Zibilee- I remember that review, and hearing much about that book. I may look into it as well.

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  10. Hmm. I'm so sad to hear that this was a disappointing book. It's been sitting on my TBR for months now, and now I'm not sure if I want to read it lol!

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  11. It does sounds like it could have been really good, but nah, not this time

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  12. Wow, I'm disappointed this wasn't good! I was so intrigued by the title and by the cover (which is just awesome). Let me know if you find another book you think is better because this topic really interests me.

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  13. Sorry this was so disappointing - it does sound like it should have been a great book. After reading your review I think I'd prefer to look for other books on the subject.

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  14. Sounds disappointing, especially since I love the cover. I hate when content ruins a good cover.

    I can't recommend Gail Collins' WHEN EVERYTHING CHANGED enough. If you're looking for a thorough book on the women's movement, go there for it. Lots of first-hand accounts.

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  15. Court- I wouldn't give it priority, if I were you. Sorry!

    Blodeuedd- Yes, it fell flat, sadly.

    Kim- YES, the cover is fabulous! As is the title. I guess she spent a lot of time on the looks and not the content.

    Helen- I am on a quest to find some!

    Kari- I am so glad you say that because I have the "prequel" to When Everything Changed on my shelf- America's Women. I hope reading that one will be good fun, though I know it's not focused on single women in particular.

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  16. Somehow the idea of a married woman writing about single women annoys me. Maybe that's why it wasn't so good. She probably wanted to justify her own life choices. Hmm, am I getting bitter?

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  17. Well, darn...the preise sounded good! And I love the cover!

    That's unfortunate that the author focused on NYC. As a West Coaster, and someone who has lived in rural areas, that would bother me.

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  18. I get so tired of the New York thing!

    "From what it seemed like in the book, women of the 1940s felt that the generation before had achieved a lot, but also sacrificed too much for the attainment of it." Another big factor was having grown up through the Depression, I think. I've talked to my granny about this a lot, and I get the impression it elevated the idea of having everything *nice*--pretty things, beautiful home, well-raised children, good husband--to an almost mythical status, for girls who grew up in families where everything had to be scrimped for. Basically, they wanted to do it RIGHT.

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  19. As I mentioned over at Eva's, I despair of ever finding a decent book about modern single womanhood, but I'd be especially suspicious of one that relies on mass media representations. The mass media certainly doesn't depict my late 30something single life with anything approaching accuracy. And a married woman writing such a book should make a special effort to get more first-person accounts (and perhaps not try to interpret them but let them speak for themselves).

    Thanks for helping make sure I avoid this one!

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  20. This sounds interesting, though not as thoroughly researched and fully developed as it should have been. I never thought about the idea that single women have been regarded with fear in various cultures. Given the stigma that used to be attached to being an "old maid" in the English speaking world, it makes perfect sense.

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  21. Crap, when I saw this come up in my reader I got all excited. Why do they have to not be so good at telling this story! I have read a couple of other feminist books and have a couple others in my TBR pile and some I find absolutely fascinating and empowering and some, like this, fall flat for me too. Always a let down when that happens.

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  22. Sounds like a thought-provoking read but like you I think I would want this book to be based more on primary source research and not so much on movies and popular culture- and not just on New York.
    Oh well. It sounds interesting and maybe something to check out of the library and take with a grain of salt!

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  23. I was kinda looking forward to reading this book. But now I will not. After reading Eva's and your reviews, I doubt I will be happy with it either.

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  24. bookmagic- She'd say you are single because you're bitter!

    softdrink- It bothered me a lot, too.

    Trapunto- Oh, that's a good point! I never considered that but I think you and your granny must be right.

    Teresa- I despair of that, too, but maybe it can only be written after we are not seen as social pariahs?

    Stephanie- Yes, it's sad, isn't it?

    Amused- At least some of them don't disappoint!

    Marie- Yes, I thin it's better to get it from the library than impulse buy it!

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  25. I had the same experience with this one when I tried reading it several years ago. "Tried" is the operative word there. I had the same problems you did, and I didn't persevere. Hopefully someone else will tackle this potentially cool subject better one day.

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  26. I think media perceptions of single women could be an interesting topic too - if you knew that's what you were getting.

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  27. It does seem as if nowadays all the things considered traditionally female are entirely denigrated and all the traditional male roles are what are important.

    The book sounds dreadful. Movies? Seriously?

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  28. What a pity this was such a let-down :\ I agree with Lenore that a book about media perceptions of single women could be interesting too, but it has to *present* itself as such.

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  29. I just read Eva's post prior to readin yours and it was interesting to see how both of you agreed that Israel's treatment of the modern single woman was dissapointing. I read Singled Out by Virginia Nicholson a few years ago which was enlightening but it's about British women after WWI. I loved it for the variety of women and lives Nicholson discusses - not everyone was happy, but not everyone was unhappy either.

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