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The pursuit of leisure cost more than most single working-class women (paid a fraction of what men were) could readily afford.Weigel quotes a 1915 report by a New York social worker: “The acceptance on the part of the girl of almost any invitation needs little explanation, when one realizes that she often goes pleasureless unless she accepts ‘free treats.’ ” To have fun, a woman had to let a man pay for her and suffer the resultant damage to her reputation.Daters were “Charity Girls”—“Charity Cunts,” in a dictionary of sexual terms published in 1916—so called because they gave themselves away for free. If women went out, they were seen as akin to whores, who at least got cash for their trouble—a distinction that was lost on the police, who regularly arrested female daters for prostitution.On the other hand, if women stayed in they couldn’t bump into eligible bachelors.However much you might enjoy going out to dinner or stumbling home with someone new, you date in the hope that the day will come when you’ll never have to date again.“If marriage is the long-term contract that many daters still hope to land, dating itself often feels like the worst, most precarious form of contemporary labor: an unpaid internship,” Weigel writes at the start of her book.So they went out, to parks and dance halls, saloons and restaurants, nickelodeons and penny arcades—to the streets themselves, teeming centers of working-class social life—where they could have a good time and meet men on their own. The term “date” originated as slang referring to a woman’s date book, and showed up in print in 1896, in “Stories of the Streets and Town,” a column that offered middle-class readers a taste of working-class life.Artie, a young clerk, confronts a girlfriend who’s been giving him the slip: “I s’pose the other boy’s fillin’ all my dates? A later column reports Artie’s admiring observation that a certain girl’s date book was so full she had to keep it “on the Double Entry System.”Not surprisingly, these new female freedoms came with a catch.
Weigel begins her survey at the turn of the twentieth century, when single women were increasingly leaving the towns and farms where they’d been brought up and flocking to industrializing cities to work in factories, laundries, and department stores, their ranks swelled by the arrival of immigrants. Working women bunked in tenements with relatives or streamed into boarding houses with rules against male visitors.
They’re a staple of Jane Austen novels: John Willoughby, who caddishly breaks Marianne’s heart in “Sense and Sensibility”; George Wickham, who reels in both Lizzy and Lydia Bennett in “Pride and Prejudice”; Frank Churchill, in “Emma,” who flirts with Miss Woodhouse while being secretly engaged to her frenemy, Jane Fairfax. As a twenty-first-century guy living in one of the most culturally liberal of American cities, he had options available to him that men in Regency England did not.
He could have chosen to be a player, sleeping around with abandon, or the kind of cheater who supplements monogamy with a series of flings.
He might have practiced polyamory, consensual open love.
But John, with his flair for saccharine cuteness and his insistence on treating his conquests like romantic-comedy heroines, didn’t like just to play or cheat, and he certainly didn’t like any of his girlfriends to suspect that they didn’t have his full attention. According to Moira Weigel, the author of “Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), most people are not like John in this respect.