March is Women’s History Month – an encouragement to explore that vast and varied history of our gender. I recently found an article that opened up a window into the years when my mother was a young woman – early 1930s into the 1950s. It is entitled “How Marjorie Hillis Changed the Way the World Thought About Single Women With Her 1936 Book ‘Live Alone And Like It’” by Dr. Joanna Scutts. I have never heard of Marjorie Hills. Have you?
She published her first book in 1936 while working as an editor at Vogue Magazine in New York City. That book was titled Live Alone and Like It: A Guide for the Extra Woman.
Dr. Scutts describes the book in this way: “The book offered ‘old maids’ and ‘spinsters’ an enviable new identity. Instead of ‘extra women,’ surplus to society’s requirements, they could reinvent themselves as ‘Live-Aloners,’ defined by what they did, not what they lacked.” She spoke around the country on the topic and department stores did tie-in promotions. It was quite the splash! Ms. Hillis followed this book with others which reflected her life changes over the following 20 years. The article scans the societal changes during those years as well and how they impacted women’s lives and expectations.
The last paragraph of Dr. Scutts article is a statement for all of us to ponder:
Yet there is still something subversive in Hillis’s call for women to live exactly as they chose — to “be a Communist, be a stamp collector, or a Ladies’ Aid worker, if you must, but for heaven’s sake be something!” She was radical in her awareness that singleness was not just the happy, voluntary, temporary state of the young but that older women, widows, and divorcées had a right to their own pleasure and needed to defend it throughout their lives. Even today, it’s hard for a woman to declare that she has made her choice to live alone, and not have people assume it’s a fallback option, or denial, or just what she’s doing until she meets someone. There are still limited ways of talking about happiness, fulfillment, and a good life outside of the model of the nuclear family. As Marjorie Hillis preached, exercising the right to live your life as you choose is still a political act.
There is great value in knowing our history. It gives us perspective, appreciation, and a challenge to reflect on who we are and who we can be.
In addition to reading the article, you may be interested in Dr. Scutts 2017 book: The Extra Woman: How Marjorie Hillis Led a Generation of Women to Live Alone and Like It.