How Forgotten Trailblazer Marjorie Hillis Helped Women Live Alone
Joanna Scutts on the Moment She Discovered the Original "Extra Woman"
Long before I read Virginia Woolf’s manifesto, my dreams of the future were creative and solitary. I had no fantasies about my wedding day, only about my writing place: a little garret overlooking some scenic rooftops, precise location to be determined, where nobody, least of all my parents, could come in without knocking and accidentally banish the muse. I was always, in these dreams, in the middle of some great creative project, never at the tentative beginning or the slog-like end, never stuck and procrastinating by looking up pictures of bigger, better, prettier garrets online. I never particularly worried about how I would manage the other part of the equation that Woolf lays out, the 500 a year or whatever that would be today, in London or Paris or New York or wherever my room happened to be. The important thing was the room.
I never managed it. I followed my obsession with Woolf and her Bloomsbury friends to Cambridge, studying and taking my degree alongside the boys as she could not. There, I lived in a succession of semiprivate rooms, overlooking first a market square, then the library’s mullioned windows. The rooms always had shared bathrooms up one flight of stairs and shared kitchens down another, friends across the hall, and fascinating semi-strangers above and below. I could close my door, but I was never really alone, and it was never really mine. Next year some other student would put her feet up on my desk, doze in my armchair, make out on my squeaky single bed, puke in my sink—and the room would never know the difference. After graduation I kept on sharing and moving through flats and houses that were always just a rehearsal for that real space of my own, the magical room that would turn me into a writer.
When I applied to graduate school, I dreamed of a studio—a lovely, loaded word that conjured for me a tiny but magically unfolding place, where an artist might work and an adult might live. It had to be in New York, of course, despite the mathematical impossibility of renting my own place on a student stipend in the middle of an economic bubble. But I made it to the city and spent my twenties there, single, in apartments that were mine, but never mine alone. There were summer rentals in Paris and Berlin, a few weeks of making space among a stranger’s belongings, lying awake as strange pipes clanged and neighbors fought in other languages, short breaks playing at living alone, tasting the fear and the dizzying lightness—what can’t I do, what can’t I get away with, if nobody’s watching?
I was neither gloriously independent nor cozily coupled. Friends got married and had babies, but I was stuck with a roommate’s cat that peed determinedly on the couch. I was broke, lonely, and nearing the end of my PhD program when the 2008 financial panic canceled just about all the jobs for newly minted English professors. That Christmas, as I was about to graduate, turn 30, and start my belated independent life, my father died suddenly of a heart attack, a month after his 67th birthday. I went home to London to my mother and a house full of his books and his unfinished projects, where everything that could be used as a vase was stuffed with dying flowers.
One evening, my best friend Ali, who knew better than to send yet another bouquet, came to visit bearing two bottles of supermarket Prosecco and a gift for my mother and me. It was a burntorange hardcover book with stiff, lightly foxed pages and a title picked out in navy-blue capital letters: LIVE ALONE AND LIKE IT. For a second that title stung like a slap, as lonely and unmoored as I felt. But as the three of us drank the wine we began to turn the pages, taking turns reading snippets aloud, from chapters called things like “A Lady and Her Liquor” and “Pleasures of a Single Bed,” and the question-and-answer section “Etiquette for a Lone Female.” (“Question: Is it permissible for a youngish un-chaperoned woman living alone to wear pajamas when a gentleman calls?”) Despite my proud skepticism toward anything that could be labeled self-help, I found myself devouring the whole book, and taking its lessons quietly to heart.
A forgotten bestseller from 1936, Live Alone and Like It: A Guide for the Extra Woman (to give the book its full, even less comforting title) had recently been reissued with a pale pink dust jacket. Not one to buy anything wrapped in such blatant chick-lit clothing, Ali had gone online to find this worn, jacketless original, which bore no more information about the author than her old-fashioned name: Marjorie Hillis. Her book celebrated guts, indulgence, and above all, independence; it was funny, brisk, and endlessly quotable. There were sections on fashion, money, cocktails, travel, and having affairs—all of which played their part in the practical and adventurous life of the woman the author nicknamed the “Live-Aloner.” As important and interesting as I found my graduate work, which focused on the literature and commemoration of World War I, it was undeniably grimmer than this lighthearted little book, and I was in no mood to read about mourning. So I started cheating on my dissertation with Marjorie Hillis.
But this turned out to be harder than I expected. She had left only the faintest of Internet traces—not even a Wikipedia page—and I could glean little beyond the fact that she had worked at Vogue in New York, and her book had been a surprise international hit. My copy, I eventually worked out, was a British “translation” of the American original, with references to Broadway and the Metropolitan Museum swapped out for the West End and the National Gallery. A few crumbs of information led me to archives in Brooklyn and Indiana, where I pieced together a picture of this plain, pragmatic daughter of a once-famous Brooklyn preacher. Once an aspiring poet, Marjorie became a magazine editor and eventually transformed herself into a self-help guru, who elevated the status of single women from pitiful “extras” into glamorous and self-possessed “Live-Aloners.” She followed up Live Alone with a series of sequels, mostly out of print, that covered budgeting, entertaining, New York City, and life as a widow and solitary senior citizen. There was even an intriguing little book called Work Ends at Nightfall that turned out to be a long poem about the careers and love lives of seven female friends in New York.
Despite the charming retro touches, like the insistence that any self-respecting Live-Aloner ought to own at least four styles of a mysterious garment called a “bed-jacket,” Marjorie Hillis’s philosophy struck me as almost painfully relevant to modern single women like me who were balancing the fantasy of independence with the fear of being alone. Carrie Bradshaw, Bridget Jones, the girls of Girls, and all their real-life counterparts owed an unspoken debt to Marjorie Hillis, the original guru of the “extra woman” whose solitude was nobody’s business but her own. And unlike other stories of single women in which getting a partner is the end of the story, Live Alone and Like It was bracingly realistic about every eventuality: “The chances are that at some time in your life, possibly only now and then between husbands, you will find yourself settling down to a solitary existence.”
“Carrie Bradshaw, Bridget Jones, the girls of Girls, and all their real-life counterparts owed an unspoken debt to Marjorie Hillis.”
In the United States, single people now make up the majority of the population, and there’s little sign of this historic shift reversing. The balance tipped in 2014, when it was reported that 50.2 percent of adults over the age of 16 were now unmarried. Of course, being unmarried is not the same thing as being single, and this rough measure doesn’t take into account all the permutations of modern commitment. The tilt of the scale nonetheless felt significant, both to single people tired of their second-class status, and to those doom-laden pundits who saw it as evidence of the further decline of the nuclear family and society as we know it. Whether it’s cause for celebration or despair, the shift toward singleness has profound social consequences. It affects the homes we build, the cities we design, and the priorities of government—and in more abstract terms, changes our ideas of happiness, fulfillment, and the meaning of a good life.
Now that being single is so common—especially in cities, and especially while young—it’s easy to overlook the radical potential of the uncoupled state, especially for women. To live alone as a woman used to invite a toxic blend of suspicion, pity, and mockery, and those witchy stereotypes sought to isolate the spinster and turn her into a cautionary tale. But although single women today have probably heard enough cat-lady jokes to last a lifetime, their identity and place in society no longer hinges so strongly, or so negatively, on their uncoupled state. In 2015, when writer Kate Bolick set out to reclaim the label “spinster” in her memoir of the same name, the stakes and the stigma of that word had arguably never been lower. But 80 years ago, when Marjorie Hillis celebrated single women as happy and fulfilled members of society, she was taking aim at the very basis of American women’s citizenship.
For most of American history, as for most of human history around the globe, a woman’s place in the world was marked out and fiercely guarded by men. Except in a handful of exceptional situations, she could not stand in the full sun of citizenship, but lived in the shadow of her father, husband, or another male relative, “protected” by him from the world—protection for which she paid with all the property she had. Her children belonged to him. If she happened to be a published author, her copyrights belonged to her husband. The legal term for this is “coverture,” derived from the French couvrir, to cover, evoking both protection and privacy. Coverture deprived women of independent legal identities, effectively conflating the categories of “woman” and “wife.” Within this dominant legal framework, “uncovered” women were inconvenient, disruptive, and downright subversive—so much so that their very existence was obscured and denied.
Before the 20th century, if a single woman needed to bring a case to court, she had to present herself as a wife—in spirit if not in name. Thus a woman who had been abandoned by her lover might sue him for breach of promise and the financial support that would have been due to her as his wife, in what was evocatively known as a “heart-balm” action. A woman who had lived with a man for some time without marrying him could defend herself in court as his common-law wife. A widow, meanwhile, often had to go to court to fight for a more appropriate share of her late husband’s estate than the meager one-third that was the traditional “widow’s portion” (needless to say, widowers in the same era automatically inherited everything from their wives). In a legal system based on old English common-law principles, single women were forced to open up their intimate relationships for public reckoning if they hoped to survive financially. In each case, the woman had to present herself under “the shadow of marriage” as a wannabe wife, a de facto wife, or a former wife.
According to legal historian Ariela R. Dubler, an expert in the entwined history of marriage and the state, “the law compelled single women [. . .] to construct their intimate identities as internal to the general regulatory structure of marriage proper.” In 1872, Supreme Court justice Joseph Bradley went even further in declaring that women were wives first, citizens second. In a landmark decision, he reframed an American woman’s patriotic duty as owing first and foremost to the “constitution of the family,” before the Constitution that was the law of the land. Although the judge briefly acknowledged the obvious problem of women who had no family, he waved them away as too rare to challenge the basic rule.
The strenuous 19th-century effort to define all women as wives was a deliberate tactic in the long, bitter fight over women’s suffrage. To antisuffragists, Justice Bradley’s ruling made it clear that there was no need to give women the vote, because marriage would supply all their legal, economic, and political needs, and their husbands could stand in for them in the public sphere—a concept known as “virtual representation”—since it was unthinkable that a man and wife would vote differently from each other. This tenacious argument rested on what Dubler calls a “willful blindness” to the very existence of unmarried women. Even widows, who inspired many pious professions of sympathy from powerful men, were unable to come together and present themselves as a visible social group, and thus a deserving voting bloc.
It’s important to note that this brief sketch of the history of marriage, singleness, and citizenship focuses on white American women. Enslaved African Americans were not permitted to marry, so their family structures and intimate relationships were always vulnerable to abuse and rupture. Justice Bradley’s equation, marriage = citizenship (and by extension, woman = wife), was a form of white privilege that for generations deliberately excluded black women. Even after emancipation, their access to the rights of citizenship whether through marriage or the vote was relentlessly undermined. The legacy of this racist system lingered into the modern era, in negative stereotypes about the “broken” black family, and in contrasting attitudes to the singleness of black and white women— anxious terms like “spinster” and “old maid” were rarely applied to single black women, whose “safe” incorporation into the regulatory system of marriage was never really the point.
In the early years of the 20th century, lifestyles and laws changed rapidly for women of all backgrounds. Common-law principles as a basis for American jurisprudence began to fall away—the treatment of widows started to look heartless, while heart-balm actions, by contrast, struck a cynical modern world as an opportunity for bad women to extort good men. These laws were relics of older, preindustrial societies, where kinship ties were paramount. They couldn’t serve the needs of the booming, teeming new cities, which were attracting hordes of unattached young men and women eager to make their fortunes. Not for the last time, the dangerous freedom of urban working girls became a national obsession, worried over endlessly by conservative writers including Marjorie Hillis’s own mother.
By 1920, it had become clear that single women were not simply exceptions whose situations had to be distorted or denied to fit them into the marriage-based legal structure. The long-awaited victory of the suffrage movement allowed all women, married or not, to emerge into the full light of citizenship—represented not virtually by their husbands but through their own fully fleshed presence at the ballot box. But it wasn’t until the 1930s, when the vogue of the Live-Aloner took hold, that single women of all ages and stages of life truly asserted their political and cultural independence by declaring themselves happy and fulfilled in their solitary state. Seen in this light, Marjorie Hillis’s book becomes much more than a treasure trove of vintage style tips: It was a beacon of social change and a precursor to the feminist revolutions of the 1960s and ’70s. Live Alone and Like It, along with its many sequels and imitators, helped to make single women visible and their way of life not only viable but enviable, free of the sympathy and scandal it had attracted in the past.
From the introduction to The Extra Woman: How Marjorie Hillis Led a Generation of Women to Live Alone and Like It. Used with permission of W.W. Norton & Company. Copyright © 2017 by Joanna Scutts.