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All the Single Ladies

Written by Kim van Alkemade

Before she was called a “spinster,” a single woman living independently was known as a “bachelor girl.”

Protagonists in historical fiction are often feisty women pushing back against the gender norms that constrain them in their time. Some readers might assume these characters reflect contemporary sensibilities imposed on the past, but the character you meet in my novel, Helen Winthrope, is actually part of a cultural movement that vigorously debated the life choices of single women. In the 1920s, many single women in America, especially in urban environments, defined their own place in society—not as flappers flouting convention, or debutants seeking a husband, or spinsters who failed to find one—but as independent women known as Bachelor Girls.

In New York City, thousands of working, single women roomed together in boarding houses, longing for a room of their own—a desire thwarted by the reluctance of the city’s landlords to rent to single women. The chaffing dish became a symbol of independence for Bachelor Girls because it enabled a woman to prepare her own meals even when her tiny apartment lacked a kitchen. Department stores advertised chaffing dishes for this very purpose, eager to market to women who made their own decisions about how to spend their money. In researching my novel, Betsy Israel’s book Bachelor Girl: The Secret History of Single Women in the 20th Century was an invaluable source, as was Kate Bolick’s Spinster. But more influential to me were archival newspapers that Helen Winthrope herself might have read, where the question of the Bachelor Girl was publicly debated in opinion essays and advice columns.

My favorite column was Helen Rowland’s “Reflections of a Bachelor Girl.” Ms. Rowland churned out a weekly collection of acerbic observations and pithy sayings that were widely syndicated—columns she then collected and published in books like the 1909 volume I have on my desk. I also have framed a well-known postcard by Lou Mayer from 1910 depicting the Bachelor Girl at leisure in her apartment surrounded by her own things.

In Bachelor Girl Helen Winthrope is aware of her situation, and makes her choices, in the context of her own times. Women throughout American history have been demanding respect, agitating for their rights, and striving for social justice. Seeing Helen as a Bachelor Girl was as easy as preparing a fillet of flounder in a chaffing dish.