Forgotten Among the Famous
The Extra Woman: How Marjorie Hillis Led a Generation of Women to Live Alone and Like It by Joanna Scutts
A Review by Pam Munter
Most of us think of pop psychology as a 1960s phenomenon, one still oozing into our media-saturated lives today. The message is ubiquitous and predicable: you can solve any problem, tamp down any unwanted emotions while welcoming unprecedented happiness. Just buy the book and follow the instructions. However, a reading of social history reveals a legacy leading back to the desperate 1930s, a time when many relished the idea of simple solutions to the dismal reality of the Depression. The most notable authors of this era were Dale Carnegie (How to Win Friends and Influence People) and Norman Vincent Peale (The Power of Positive Thinking). But in that august company was a woman nearly forgotten today. Author Joanna Scutts has written The Extra Woman: How Marjorie Hillis Led a Generation of Women to Live Alone and Like It (Liveright, 2017). She describes the woman and the culture into which she brought her radical notion that female “Live-Aloners” were entitled to exist and even flourish though unattached to men. Most of society viewed this affirmation as “playing hard to get,” the end goal rightly being marriage to a protector and provider.
At the start of her writing career, Hillis was the prototypical “old maid.” At 47, she was a never-married editor at Vogue. But when her first book came out in 1936, the notion that single women could be happy and productive members of society seemed over-compensatory, glossing over a sad and lonely lifestyle. To most everyone’s surprise, the book sold over 100,000 copies and led to six similarly-themed others over the next 30 years.
Scutts came across Hillis when a friend gave her that seminal book. She was just finishing up her Ph.D. in English and became fascinated with this nearly unknown trailblazer. Scutts, a cultural historian, weaves a colorful tapestry, inter-splicing Hillis’ books with the prevailing zeitgeist. She describes historical events at length, and the prominent female players – Eleanor Roosevelt, Katharine Hepburn and Helen Gurley Brown, and includes even fictional heroines.
Curiously, however, we have no idea if Hillis had any personal interactions with any of these pioneering women. Back in the days of a smaller, media-limited universe, famous people were frequently acquainted with each other and even socialized. While the book is an entertaining romp through a rich and diverse era, the personal side of Hillis is often left behind, lost within Scutts’ dazzling intellectual eclat.
Scutts quotes from the Hillis books, all of which sound far less revolutionary than advertised. Much of Hillis’ pragmatic advice reflects traditional concerns – decorating, dressing, dating, cooking, presenting oneself in public but as a single person. The dearth of personal information about Hillis is most jarring when we’re informed that she decided to wed in 1939. The author says she married because “she liked him.” How do we know this? There are no citations, no quotes, no proof, no evidence of even a hint of any ambiguity. At 49, the nation’s ‘spinster-in-chief’ married a dapper, wealthy, widower ten years her senior. This was shocking, given that “Marjorie warns that dependence on others – whether friends, family, or a husband – will corrode affection and poison pleasure.” Scutts concedes, “To the more cynical…Marjorie Hillis was exposing herself as a fraud for getting married.” Well, yes. Scutts confirms the decision was life-changing. “Whatever else it may have done for her, marriage effectively silenced Marjorie Hillis.” This bombshell revelation needed far more explication and discussion.
After Hillis’ husband died some ten years later, she never remarried. The writer presumes the marriage was problematic for one who publically carried the torch for a solitary life. Scutts writes, without apparent irony, “Marjorie was firm in her belief that it was better to find a rewarding hobby than a second husband.” Hillis resumed her writing, even attempting an autobiography that she never finished.
Who were her friends? Were there personal journals? For many years, Hillis wrote didactic newspaper columns about the pleasures of being single but where are the personal asides? The humor? The disappointments? How did she feel about the reversion to repressive sex-role stereotypes in the 1950s? The publication of “The Feminine Mystique”?
Scutts concludes that Hillis’ message was best lived out by upper middle-class women who could and did fend for themselves. The “shop girl” in the Depression era might have had difficulty following Hillis’ plans for self-containment. Her advice tended to be micro not macro, specific to her own class.
Hillis is such an intriguing figure that it’s frustrating when too much space is given over to other noteworthy figures or tumultuous cultural shifts, often without a direct link back to Hillis. We read of the plots of movies (even a brief summary of Rosalind Russell’s career), lengthy discussions about how women were viewed by society. But again, Hillis is frequently on the periphery, absent for too many pages. Apparently, both Hillis and Scutts share a disdain for psychological musings or in-depth analysis.
More intrusive is Scutts’ insertion of herself in this already cluttered narrative. She begins the book with stories from her own life and ends it the same way, telling the reader in the epilogue about meeting a man in a bar and quickly marrying him. This seemingly irrelevant afterthought as well as her reasons for writing the book could have best been summarized on a dust jacket. It’s further evidence that the book needed a sharper focus.
Hillis’ last book came out in 1967, reiterating her quasi-feminist message but never quite shucking her traditional bias. The point was to teach readers “How to be as glamorous in December as you were in May.” At this point, she’s a mature dowager living in an elegant upper eastside apartment in Manhattan, far away from her readers in nearly every way.
Four years later in 1971, Hillis died at 82, just short of the feminist era. Sadly, she missed the debut of Ms. Magazine, the passage of Title IX and Roe v. Wade. What might she have made of the struggle for equal rights, a woman running for President or a female astronaut? We can only speculate and we wish Scutts had done so, too.
Pam Munter has authored several books including When Teens Were Keen: Freddie Stewart and The Teen Agers of Monogram. She’s a retired clinical psychologist, film historian and former performer. Her essays and short stories have appeared in The Rumpus, The Manifest-Station, The Coachella Review, Lady Literary Review, The Creative Truth, Adelaide, Litro, Angels Flight—Literary West, TreeHouse Arts, Persephone’s Daughters, Canyon Voices, Open Thought Vortex, Fourth and Sycamore, Nixes Mate, Scarlet Leaf Review, Cold Creek Review, Communicators League, Switchback, and many others. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.