Antonomasia'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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Dec 29, 2014

really liked it
bookshelves: history, feminism, 2013, 2014, lgbtq, decade-2000s
Read from December 07, 2013 to November 05, 2014

This book isn't exactly short of faults, but it's incredibly companionable.

Problems
- As several others have said, it's repetitive. I read the book in two chunks almost a year apart which reduced the effect - though by no means completely. Nicholson, a great-niece of Virginia Woolf, has tried to organise the book into themed chapters, but in order to try and present a rounded picture of life for many women, some ordinary diarists, others [semi] famous, who feature, details already mentioned under one theme keep appearing in other chapters.

-Despite information about some of these ladies being repeated, there was still frustratingly little about many of them: people about whom I wouldn't necessarily want to read a whole biography, but easily 20+ pages. Perhaps the strangest material to leave out was about Victoria Drummond, the first female marine engineer, who began her maritime career just after WWI. Whilst it was possible to understand how everyone else achieved their careers, I couldn't imagine sailors of that period accepting a woman as part of the crew, no matter her personality or talent. They did, with a little grumbling - but I had to find out the longer story from Wikipedia. There is less information online about Beatrice Gordon Holmes, the first female stockbroker, another great character from this book I'd like to hear more about, though at least there's a little more about her in the pages of Singled Out.

- Whilst Nicholson does highlight and criticise the ways in which media disparaged unmarried women in the interwar period (quite illogically as they had access to population statistics which would indicate it wasn't possible for a lot of them to marry) I felt that at times she leant too much towards pity in the narrative. Most of the women of the WWI generation had of course been brought up to expect marriage to be at the centre of their lives; some, of their own accord, didn't agree and for them the war was always massively liberating. Some grew to love a different way of life. Many others did experience a sense of loss and dislocation. It may be kind of tricky to reflect the times well and not feel sorry for them, but I would have opted for less of that kind of commentary whilst not omitting direct quotes to explain how these women felt.
- Nicholson appears to consider maternal instinct and the desire for children as a biological norm. (There are still women featured here who said they never felt any maternal instinct and they are not in the least criticised.) Okay, this isn't a sociology book, but she never speculates as to what extent it was the result of conditioning - of being brought up to expect to have children, or would have been there regardless, and whether the extent of this may vary between individuals.
- I think she actually adds pity to the stories of women who never had or loved another man after their beau / fiance died, or in a few cases, jilted them. Regardless that they did plenty of other things with their subsequent lives, this way of being seems to be looked down on now as a failure - for no good reason other than social convention. Ladies who eventually settled with someone else seem to get more praise - yet they are all people who lived their lives in a way that they felt best.

- I would have liked to see more material about competitive sportswomen.


Positives
- Simply, it was great hearing about a lot of interesting women - and often their own writing about their lives - who were either entirely unfamiliar, or whom I only vaguely knew of (e.g Winifred Holtby, a couple of the archaeologists. Though I'd already heard a lifetime's worth about Gladys Aylward *yawn* at school.)

- I find everything to like about the feminism of this period, and it was nice and almost odd to get misty-eyed about some of these women's achievements - such contrast with the anger I often feel towards current internet feminism and its infinitely petty squabbles.
As well as various individuals in pioneering careers, I admired those who campaigned for statutory rights, such as the Spinsters' Pensions Association (and felt disappointed in contemporary feminists' failure to exert more pressure over practical issues that would make a difference to a lot of ordinary women, such as childcare provision and lower fees on a par with many other European countries).

- Nicholson does her best to cover the experiences of women of all classes, and appears to make the most of the smaller amount of evidence about those in manual occupations.

- The book acknowledges the evils of the colonial era at various points, but understands the spirit of its subjects and the times by creating a sense of adventure, far more than guilt, around travel.

- It's never twee and isn't part of frilly neo-domesticity.

-Whilst there are a few people discussed who must have been very difficult to live with, the author never labels them. Perhaps the implication is that commentators of the period made enough criticism of women who didn't fit in, without adding to it.

- There is really quite a lot of material about lesbian (and a few bisexual) women, both those who were as out and proud as you could be in the twenties, and those who simply appeared to live together as two respectable ladies sharing expenses. There are a lot of very interesting women among the famous names and the big achievers and I found myself wishing I'd heard more about these when I was younger - absolutely excellent counterexamples to to Camille Paglia's characterisation of the lesbian scene as intellectually and aesthetically dull, which had a disproportionate influence on me in my teens and early twenties.

- The achievements of the generation of "Surplus Women", who broke down many barriers, makes it evident just how instrumental the First World War was for British feminism. (This is an entirely British, and 99% English, book.) Not only via women's work during the war - but all these women afterwards who, unable to marry, had to have jobs and create an independent way of life. They took the ball and ran with it.

- All the stories of the women who lived on a shoestring, the "business girls" and teachers and carers are incredibly companionable if you are sitting reading whilst eating special offer cheese on toast, sitting by the tumble dryer to keep warm and such. For all that I've written more here about the women who had extraordinary lives, the majority gets more space. And regardless of its faults, Singled Out presents a sense of 'how to be' that works if, for whatever reason, you don't have the kind of single life that's likely to conform to glamorous contemporary ideals. Its resolute focus on real experience rather than image is part of that.
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