clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How the fantasy of the lady bachelor rose and fell over the mid-20th century

The Extra Woman by Joanna Scutts W.W. Norton & Company
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

It has long been my belief that the greatest advice book ever published is Marjorie Hillis’s 1936 tract Live Alone and Like It. And now, there’s a companion to Hillis’s wisdom. In The Extra Woman: How Marjorie Hillis Led a Generation of Women to Live Alone and Like It, historian Joanna Scutts puts Hillis into the context of her time, in an engrossing book that’s part biography of Hillis and part cultural history of women in 20th century America.

Breezy, chatty, and wise, Live Alone and Like It is a book for what was in 1936 a new social category: women who live alone. Hillis walks her bachelor lady readers through the joys and pitfalls of the experience — how to convince yourself that the noise in the next room was not a robber, why self-pity is the enemy, what liquor a woman should always have on hand (and how to store it if your apartment doesn’t have a fridge), and why one’s bed is the only civilized place to eat breakfast.

Liberally illustrating her advice with case studies, Hillis transforms the idea of living alone from a dreary monotony suitable only for women who can think of no better option into a thrilling opportunity teeming with glamour and verve. Above all else, she counsels her readers, the Live-Aloner should have “an elegant time.”

Live Alone and Like It has a cult following now, but in 1936, it was a major best-seller and a cultural phenomenon. In part, as Scutts details in The Extra Woman, that’s because it was a perfect fit for its moment: The social shakeup caused by the Depression began to seem like “the new normal,” she writes, and Hillis, a former Vogue editor, was able to render a life lived alone as aspirational and chic.

“The pleasure of eating, drinking, decorating, and entertaining at home — and whatever pleasures might result from entertaining — were no longer something that women had to wait to be married to enjoy,” Scutts explains. “For the Live-Aloner, happiness began at home, with stylish living quarters, well-mixed cocktails, and the company of charming guests — no chaperone required.”

20 years after Live Alone and Like It, the fantasy of the bachelor lady was no more

But by the 1950s, Scutts says, the idea of a woman living on her own had become an aberration: Everyone knew that women could only find true happiness through domesticity, that they had to be wives and mothers to be really fulfilled. Women who chose otherwise were abnormal, even pathological.

This attitude was in itself an aberration, Scutts argues — and not an inevitable one. As World War II came to a close, women were an established force in the workplace. They were educated; they could get birth control; they could get divorces. And the fight for democracy overseas had increased awareness of the injustice of America’s Jim Crow laws.

“One version of American freedom in the face of the Communist threat, therefore,” Scutts writes, “might have been greater racial and sexual equality, a national commitment to giving all citizens an equal chance at education, work, upward mobility, and success.”

Instead, the average age of marriage fell drastically. Popular culture became fascinated with the new idea of the white suburban nuclear family, and began to present it as the only version of healthy, normal life in America. The idea of an unmarried woman with her own job and her own home — the image that Hillis had made so appealing and dashing in 1936 — began to seem sad and spinsterish.

Hillis herself was by this time a widow, having temporarily abandoned her Live-Aloner status to marry a wealthy older man in 1939 and briefly retire from writing. Her husband died in 1949, causing Hillis to pack up her expansive country houses (yes, plural) and move back to Manhattan to begin a new phase of living alone and liking it. Her new book, You Can Start All Over, was pitched to aging Live-Aloners, with the aim of reminding them that once, “you believed that no one else in the world was quite like you — and you were right.”

The new book was mostly well received, but in a slightly chilly fashion. One reviewer wrote that “somehow it reminds the reader of a woman talking to herself in her mirror; a lone individual living in a relative vacuum” — someone a little sad and pathetic, in other words, who could use a good home life.

Hillis, undeterred, sailed on through her busy, stylish life of solitary splendor, through the era of Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique and into the era of Helen Gurley Brown and Sex and the Single Girl. She died in 1971, and her passing was met with obituaries worrying over all the ways in which she “glorified spinsterhood.”

“But her smart and witty books — and the life on which they were based,” Scutts writes, “lit a path through the middle of the twentieth century for women who didn’t think they could ‘have it all,’ but understood that having anything at all depended on being able to make their own choices.”

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.