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‘The Extra Woman’ review: Joanna Scutts on Marjorie Hillis and the 1930s self-help book that changed American women

Photo Credit: Lilly Library, Indiana University

THE EXTRA WOMAN: How Marjorie Hillis Led a Generation of Women to Live Alone and Like It, by Joanna Scutts. Liveright, 335 pp., $27.95.

In August 1936, Marjorie Hillis, an unmarried 47-year-old features editor at Vogue, published a self-help book that catapulted her to unexpected fame and changed the way single women thought about themselves and their prospects. Celebrating the joys of independent living, “Live Alone and Like It: A Guide for the Extra Woman” sold more than 100,000 copies by year’s end. It made Hillis a self-help guru, like her contemporaries Norman Vincent Peale, a Methodist preacher who touted the power of positive thinking, and Dale Carnegie, whose “How to Win Friends and Influence People” appeared the same year.

In the mid 1930s, Joanna Scutts reports in her smart, informative and insightful cultural history, the “public’s yearning for a formula for happiness translated into huge sales for self-help books” that offered consolation, inspiration and encouragement in the aftermath of widespread economic depression and hardship. Single women, especially, craved advice about their particular challenges, a need that Hillis fulfilled in six more books — about traveling alone, entertaining alone, decorating a small apartment and, after she had been married and widowed, about starting over — and in a syndicated advice column that appeared in 65 daily newspapers.

Even after women moved into the workplace during the First World War, after they finally got the right to vote in 1920, after the notorious flapper era, an unmarried woman was subject to derision as a spinster and old maid. With marriage and children held out as woman’s sacred and supreme destiny, those who opted to live independently seemed positively anti-social. For some women, living alone was not a matter of choice: women outnumbered men by millions, and competition for a husband was a dismal reality.

So was competition for a job, and for most women workers, the reality of living on a smaller salary than men earned could be daunting. Hillis conveyed the optimistic message that looking stylish, entertaining guests in a tiny apartment and indulging in a few personal treats were not beyond any woman’s means: living on a budget did not require self-denial. Hillis, Scutts writes, never forgot “the power of fantasy and aspiration” touted in the glossy pages of Vogue. “She urged her readers to study fashion magazines and never to discount the importance of keeping up appearances.”

Scutts focuses on Hillis’s long career — her last book, published in 1967, when she was 78, addressed women in their 60s and older — to chronicle changes in women’s lives. In the 1940s, another war presented women with burgeoning job opportunities; in the 1950s, women gave up those jobs to returning soldiers and retreated into domesticity; in the 1960s, second-wave feminism sent women contradictory messages, notably from two notorious books: Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” and Helen Gurley Brown’s “Sex and the Single Girl.”

According to Friedan, women were trapped, angry and smothered in their role as homemakers. According to glamorous Cosmopolitan editor Gurley Brown, who offered breezy advice about how to catch a husband, “the married state is the normal one in our culture, and anybody who deviates from ‘normal’ has a price to pay in nonacceptance and nonglorifcation.”

Scutts underscores the advice common to generations of self-help books — and emerging, also, in contemporary fables like “Sex and the City”: women had to change themselves to catch a man and hold him, an exhausting, all-consuming effort to win what Scutts calls “the dubious, high-stakes game of marriage.” Hillis offered a brave counterpoint to that message. And though her advice about bed jackets and bubble baths seems quaint today, her celebration of solitude, independence and integrity is, as Scutts reminds us, worth reviving.

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