In Bachelor Girl, Betsy Israel reconstructs the single American girl in all her manifestations -- suspicious early factory worker, bohemian, rule smasIn Bachelor Girl, Betsy Israel reconstructs the single American girl in all her manifestations -- suspicious early factory worker, bohemian, rule smashing flapper, 1970s mace toting single woman afraid of being raped or killed on her way home each night, 1980s ice queen -- using popular legend, newspaper clippings written by hysterical men afraid of new female independence, copious novels both well known and obscure, and occasionally, though sadly few remain from the earliest days of female singledom, firsthand accounts from single women themselves. Primarily about single women in NYC with a sprinkling of singles from Chicago, she's largely talking about urban women's lives; her focus is also largely middle class, white, and heterosexual.
For me, the mark of good nonfiction is that it sparks a desire to read other books. Bachelor Girl certainly does that. It took a great deal of willpower not to stop every couple of minutes and log into Goodreads, adding three or four books at a time to my to-read shelf. The only thing that helped was knowing that a lot of the materials she mentions are primary source materials -- likely available, if at all, only through extensive library searches. Many (actually, it would probably be more accurate to say most) of the secondary sources she refers to are novels and movies. This, too, made me happy. She does a really good job of demonstrating how popular books and films constructed ideas of single women throughout the decades right up to Bridget Jones and Ally McBeal, and to her credit (or maybe detriment depending on your point of view), she made those two particular characters sound interesting to me for the very first time. Maybe I'll even watch those Bridget Jones movies, or maybe this will all blow over in a day, and I'll go back to not caring at all. Regardless, her analysis is interesting.
I really appreciate her ability to analyze journalistic decisions rather than taking news reports at their word. She is keenly aware of the anti single woman tone of most articles -- even those that purported to be on the single girl's side. She also provides a really interesting, albeit brief, history of women in print journalism and the struggle to break out of "the 4F cookie/sweater slum" with 4F referring to food, furnishings, fashion, and family stories -- the only ones available to female reporters for a long while.
I recently got to hear composition scholar Lynn Bloom speak at a conference about writing. She said that clear, approachable writing shows profound respect for one's reader. I totally dig that, and Israel respects her reader. Her tone is casual and conversational. She doesn't get bogged down by academese. I'll admit, though, that I prefer a more rigorously academic citation style over the loosey goosey one that journalists tend to favor. She has an impressive list of resources at the end of the book, but it is often unclear which source goes with which quotation while reading. Also, I enjoyed her writing style, but she has a penchant for sloppy transitions -- "Getting to the point," "But enough of that." Her transitions remind me of an awkward party guest, stumbling from one topic of conversation to the next at break neck speed in a desperate attempt to connect with one of the strangers in the room.
My biggest criticism is that Israel's work fails to adequately address the lives of single women of color, lesbians, and working class women. Of the three she probably does the best job with the latter, as she does briefly examine what it was like for very low paid factory workers around the turn of the nineteenth century. She then largely abandons further discussion of poor women, however. Her discussion of women of color and lesbians amounts to no more than a dozen or so sentences in her 200+ pages. I was really disappointed by this. I would have been more forgiving if she had at least included race and sexuality analysis in her discussion of the last half century. After all, that doesn't seem too difficult to research (though SOMEONE needs to be doing the harder early research because WOC and women-loving-women did not miraculously come into existence without a history). Much of her last chapter was devoted to personal interviews, yet she never once indicated that she thought about race or sexuality while talking to her many interviewees. I don't mind reading about marriage for page after page after page as long as I get to hear what lesbian and bisexual women have to say about their concerns. I don't mind endless input from white women as long as that is balanced by representing the myriad experiences of Women of Color. Unfortunately, I got mostly marriage and white women. I guess if I get all bright and shiny, silver liningish I could say that at least this leaves room for someone else to write a more encompassing book. The thing is, I'm tired of waiting for it.
In her introduction, Israel admits that because WOC "make few primary appearances in the public record until occasional stories on the 'sad,' 'dreary,' or 'dead-end' world of the 'Negro single,' circa 1966" they make an insignificant appearance in her text. She pleads, "it would be impossible, anyway, to do justice to the complexities of the black single experience in this volume. It deserves its own study." Yes, we've heard it all before: it isnt possible to include black women because it wouldn't be fair to them. Their experiences are too varied, complicated, fill-in-the-blank to be included (by the way, Israel doesn't mention whether it would be unfair to other WoC) in this book. The thing is, you can't title a book Bachelor Girl: 100 Years of Breaking the Rules -- A Social History of Living Single and then use your introduction to explain that large parts of the population just didn't fit neatly into your design. Perhaps she should have subtitled it A Social History of Living Single, White, Straight and Mostly Monied. That's a more accurate description.
And for freak's sake, how do you talk about spinsters without talking about lezzies? If we didn't invent spinsterdom then we at least perfected its practice! She gives an even shorter excuse for that exclusion.
I'm practical enough to know that a book cant be everything for everyone, but apologizing upfront for everything that a book is not does not let you off the hook for what I consider to be egregious omissions.
Overall, I really liked the book for what it was; I just thought it could have been a lot more....more