Melanie Baker's Reviews > Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived Without Men After the First World War

Singled Out by Virginia Nicholson
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Jan 30, 2011

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Read from January 22 to 30, 2011

An interesting look at the consequences of history-shaping events. In this case, due to the carnage of WWI, after there were ~2 million "Surplus Women" in Britain -- a major gender disparity due to the number of men killed in the war. As a result, few of these women would ever marry and have families (which was what women were *for* in those days).

Additionally, the numbers of dead were much higher in certain echelons of society, i.e. the young men of the upper classes were more likely to become officers, and thus more likely to die, being at the front of so many charges with their men. As a result, marriage prospects were even more bleak for upper class young women who, even more than working class women, were expected to marry, bear children and... well, not really do much else of anything.

Societially spinsters were often derided, seen with pity or contempt, mocked, and viewed with suspicion. Often they were even blamed for their spinster states, which makes about as much sense as you'd expect from "society". The wealthy had some freedom from this that money brings, though in the upper classes they had their own prisons of opinion given that expectations were generally even more rigid.

However, the lack of availability of traditional lifestyles meant that, for some women at least, they could pursue careers and lives unthinkable even 20 years before. Earning PhDs, running companies, travelling the world... Of course, at the same time, many, many women lived in poverty, earning little and working endless hours in often deplorable conditions at the low-end jobs (often clerical or retail) that they were qualified for, and living in what was frequently squalor in rented lodgings.

All these things led to vast societal change, however. Women crusaded for pensions for spinsters -- before, you could work your whole life and be entitled to nothing on retirement, when a woman who was married for even one day was entitled to a comfortable pension if her husband was killed in the war. The suffrage movement really became a force at this time as well.

And, of course, simply being tired of war and death and the still-clinging tendrils of Victorian society, people -- but women especially -- cast off many restrictions, and hiked their skirts, cropped their hair, got educated and built careers, and went drinking, dancing, and had love affairs. (And basically once the horse was out of the barn, there was no putting it back...)

All in all, there's a fair bit of repetition in the book, about the prejudices the women faced, about the loneliness and longing many never really got over, etc. And it can be a really depressing read. Especially when you realize that, in certain ways, not that much has changed in nearly 100 years.

However, given that time period is History now, that any of those women left are centenarians, and that it's been over six decades since the end of WWII, it's fascinating to try and wrap your brain around that world and what normal life looked like compared to now.
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