Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating

Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating

by Moira Weigel

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“Does anyone date anymore?” Today, the authorities tell us that courtship is in crisis. But when Moira Weigel dives into the history of sex and romance in modern America, she discovers that authorities have always said this. Ever since young men and women started to go out together, older generations have scolded them: That’s not the way to find true love. The first women who made dates with strangers were often arrested for prostitution; long before “hookup culture,” there were “petting parties”; before parents worried about cell phone apps, they fretted about joyrides and “parking.” Dating is always dying. But this does not mean that love is dead. It simply changes with the economy. Dating is, and always has been, tied to work.

Lines like “I’ll pick you up at six” made sense at a time when people had jobs that started and ended at fixed hours. But in an age of contract work and flextime, many of us have become sexual freelancers, more likely to text a partner “u still up?” Weaving together over one hundred years of history with scenes from the contemporary landscape, Labor of Love offers a fresh feminist perspective on how we came to date the ways we do. This isn't a guide to “getting the guy.” There are no ridiculous “rules” to follow. Instead, Weigel helps us understand how looking for love shapes who we are—and hopefully leads us closer to the happy ending that dating promises.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374713133
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 05/17/2016
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 355,300
File size: 993 KB

About the Author

Moira Weigel was born in Brooklyn. Her writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, The New Republic, n+1, and The New Inquiry, among other publications, and she is currently completing a PhD in Comparative Literature at Yale University. After years of first-person research on dating, she is off the market. This is her first book.
Moira Weigel was born in Brooklyn. Her writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, The New Republic, n+1, and The New Inquiry, among other publications, and she is currently completing a PhD in Comparative Literature at Yale University. After years of first-person research on dating, she is off the market. Labor of Love is her first book.

Read an Excerpt

Labor of Love

The Invention of Dating

By Moira Weigel

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2016 Moira Weigel
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-71313-3



A free lunch is getting harder to come by in business or pleasure. When I ask people how they would define what "a date" is, they usually say that it involves a person inviting another person out to eat or drink something, or to consume some other kind of entertainment. Then they note wistfully how rare this has become. Articles that lament the death of dating frequently cite the absence of such excursions as evidence of the decline of romance. Yet at the dawn of dating, the idea of a man taking a woman somewhere and paying for something for her was shocking.

Previously, looking for love had not involved going out in public or spending money. So around 1900, when the police started to notice that young people were meeting up on city streets and going out together, they became concerned. Many early daters — the female ones, anyway — were arrested for it. In the eyes of the authorities, women who let men buy them food and drinks or gifts and entrance tickets looked like whores, and making a date seemed the same as turning a trick.

The word "date" first appeared in print in the sense that we now use it in 1896. A writer named George Ade dropped it in a weekly column that he wrote for The Chicago Record. The column was called "Stories of the Streets and Town." It promised to give his middle-class readers a glimpse into how the working classes lived.

The protagonist of the column is a young clerk named Artie. When Artie suspects that his girlfriend has been seeing other people, and is losing interest in him, he confronts her. "I s'pose the other boy's fillin' all my dates?"

In an installment published three years later, he gawks at another girl's popularity. "Her Date Book had to be kept on the Double Entry System."

The girls a boy like Artie would have dated were a brand-new type. In Chicago, people called them "women adrift."

Starting in the 1880s, more and more women who had grown up on farms or in small towns began leaving their homes to go look for work in cities. When they arrived, they crashed with distant relatives or found cheap rooms in boardinghouses. Changes in the economy were creating more and more opportunities for them. They could make garments and other light goods in factories. They could become salesgirls in department stores or day servants in the homes of rich families. They could learn shorthand and become office secretaries. Or they could work in the laundries, restaurants, and cabarets.

African American women were even more likely than white women to be looking for work outside their homes. After the Civil War, a huge population of former slaves tried to find jobs. Discrimination kept many black men from earning living wages, and black women in cities often ended up stuck in positions that nobody else wanted. In 1900, 44 percent of them worked in domestic service. Most were desperate to leave it. While in a white household, they remained vulnerable to physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. Many tried to transition to "day work." Others even opted for heavy labor.

In the 1890s, a stock market crash set off the worst economic crisis that the United States had ever experienced. This sped up the flood of single women into cities. At the same time, a huge wave of immigrants arriving from Italy and Eastern Europe crammed into tenements alongside the Irish who already lived there. The female members of these families joined the job hunt.

In the 1960s, the second-wave feminist movement canonized the appeal that Betty Friedan made in The Feminine Mystique. Friedan told housewives to flee the suburbs and take on paid work. So today it is easy to forget that by 1900, more than half of American women were already working outside their homes. Many of them were unmarried. At work, or on the way to and from work, they crossed paths with men. It is hardly surprising that some of these singles were interested in flirting and pursuing relationships with one another. And it made sense for them to do so in public places. Where else did they have?

* * *

The son of a rabbi, Samuel Chotzinoff came with his family from Vitebsk, Russia, to New York when he was seventeen years old. They lived in a housing project on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Chotzinoff grew up to be a well-known music critic, and in his memoirs he described their home in the Stanton Street Settlement.

"The average apartment consisted of three rooms: a kitchen, a parlor, and a doorless and windowless bedroom between.

"The etiquette of courting was strict," he added.

If a young man came to call on his older sister, the two of them would have to crowd in the kitchen. If his parents were out, they made Samuel stay in to spy on his sister and any suitors who turned up.

"Privacy in the home was practically unknown," the grown-up Chotzinoff recalled. "Privacy could be had only in public."

Of course, traditional parents would have preferred to set up their children through family members or matchmakers. In the Old Country, your family and community had controlled courtship. Many ethnic and religious groups funded political and theatrical clubs in the hopes that their children would meet there. But even strict parents tended to trust their children not to do anything too untoward outside. Many courting couples were allowed to go walking and attend concerts, balls, and plays together. When young Samuel headed out to the park near his home, he saw young men and women everywhere. They strolled hand in hand and squeezed next to each other on benches. They tucked themselves between trees to steal kisses and caresses. English, Russian, and Yiddish drifted through the air.

The girls mostly worked in laundries and textile factories. The boys worked in industrial sweatshops. As soon as they punched out, they met up. As twilight wore on, the streets became like one large party, into the darkening corners of which couples slipped. Someone might see you, but nobody was likely to. The risk you took became part of your bond. It was a secret that you shared.

For people who could afford it, there were a growing number of other date spots. In cities across the country, saloons, restaurants, dance halls, and amusement parks were springing up to cater to new arrivals.

The more daters went out, the more destinations they had to choose from. There were penny arcades packed with games. As films grew in length and quality, the owners of such establishments added projectors and started charging five cents admission. By 1908, there were ten thousand "nickelodeons" across America.

* * *

Earning money gave young women a new degree of freedom to decide where they would go with whom. Still, their wages did not amount to much. Despite the record numbers of women entering the workforce, the belief remained widespread they were working not to support themselves but only to supplement the earnings of fathers or husbands. Employers used this misconception as an excuse to pay women far less than they paid men. In 1900, the average female worker earned less than half of what a man would earn in the same position. This meant that women adrift hardly made enough to eat, much less to spend on leisure.

"If I had to buy all my meals I'd never get along," a young woman living in a boardinghouse in Hell's Kitchen told a social worker in 1915. The social worker, Esther Packard, was preparing a series of reports on the lives of women and children in the neighborhood.

"If my boyfriend did not take me out," another woman asked, "how could I ever go out?"

Packard saw her point. In her case file she noted: "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.'"

* * *

Most middle-class onlookers were less sympathetic. They had their own system of courtship. It was called "calling," and around 1900, it still followed an elaborate set of rules. When a girl reached a certain age, usually around sixteen, she became eligible to receive suitors. For the first year, her mother would invite men to call on her on one of several afternoons per week that they both spent at home. After that, if she met a man she liked at one of the social gatherings she attended, she could ask him over to the house herself.

A man might simply show up at the home of a young lady he admired. In this case, however, decorum required him to present his card to the servant who opened the door. Until the beginning of the First World War, it was common for even households with average incomes to employ one servant. She would ask him to wait while she saw whether the young lady was "in."

If the girl did not want to see her visitor, she could tell her servant to say she was not there. If she did, he could come into her parlor. There, the pair could talk, or sing and play the pianoforte, chaperoned by her mother and other relatives and friends.

Today, calling sounds like holding an awkward kind of office hour. But to the people who did it, it offered the comforts of clear conventions and a community to watch over you while you performed them. It also reinforced a set of strong beliefs about the proper places of men and women. The ritual made men into agents in pursuit. It made women the objects of desire.

Some called it the "doctrine of separate spheres." It held that women should stay in their homes, tending lovingly to their families. Men, by contrast, should compete with one another to earn money in public. Political conservatives now call these gender roles "traditional" and claim that they have been hardwired into us by evolution. But there is nothing timeless about them. In fact, the idea that men and women were so fundamentally different would have made little sense to people who lived even a few hundred years ago.

Before the Industrial Revolution, most people in Europe and the United States subsisted by running small farms or businesses with members of their extended families. The men and women assumed different responsibilities. He plowed the fields; she killed the chickens. She churned the butter; he took it to town to sell. But both were clearly engaged in the same endeavor. So were their children. It's no accident that in English we call childbirth "labor." After the physical burden of pregnancy and giving birth, there is all the work that follows: feeding and caring for your offspring, teaching them enough to get by and get along with others. You had children because you expected them to help you at work and to care for you during your old age. In this way, the goals of labor and the goals of love dovetailed.

When masses of people began to leave farms for factories and family businesses for large corporations, the work that women did having and raising children and caring for their husbands continued to create economic value. Women sustained and replenished the workforce. And they drove consumption. As industrialization progressed, and lighter industries began mass-producing items like clothing and food, it became vitally important that there be households — meaning housewives — to buy them. But as working for a salary became standard practice, the reality that housewives contributed to the economy became harder to see. The idea arose that work was what someone else paid you money to do. Not-work was what you were not paid to do. Work was what men did out in public. Not-work was what women did at home.

According to this theory, women had no desire to be compensated. They did all they did out of instinct. We give our time and energy to others as automatically as a cow grazes or the grass grows. Our caring is a natural resource. It follows, from this worldview, that female labor did not count. Of course women should do their work for free. Many women even came to believe that it was simply in their natures to do anything for love.

* * *

The Calling Class had a lot at stake in the idea that women cherished being confined at home, providing attention and affection to the men around them. So they were both repulsed and fascinated by "public women." Whores went out and demanded to be paid for what wives had to give away for free. Their existence challenged everything that middle-class people believed about female nature.

Prostitution has been called "the world's oldest profession." But, like many professions, it was changing dramatically around the turn of the last century. In the late 1800s, more and more women, struggling to get by in the industrializing economy, took on sex work. Individual prostitutes had once operated like artisans, small-business owners, or housewives who dabbled in freelance consulting. But as cities grew, brothels began to be organized on a corporate basis. Men were the bosses. By the 1890s, several cities had large, well-organized, and officially tolerated red-light districts. In New Orleans, the city government printed brochures listing the names of establishments in its vice quarter, Storyville, the acts they offered, and the going rates for each. The San Francisco Tenderloin included multistory brothels that incorporated light shows.

Critics who were horrified by these places said there was no way women could be choosing to work in them. The belief became widespread that vulnerable girls were being abducted and sold into "white slavery." In the summer of 1910, the newly founded Bureau of Investigation (BOI), the precursor to the FBI, launched an investigation into brothels around America. Agents warned women that making dates with strangers could send them down a slippery slope toward disrepute, disease, and death.

It took a spitfire like the anarchist Emma Goldman to point out that the white slave hysteria seemed a little misplaced. In a scathing article criticizing the popular obsession with prostitution, Goldman quoted the famous British sexologist Havelock Ellis: "The wife who married for money, compared with the prostitute, is the true scab. She is paid less, gives much more in return in labor and care, and is absolutely bound to her master."

* * *

Our culture remains fascinated by the myth of the all-giving wife and mother and her twin, the prostitute. Trashy pleasures like The Real Housewives franchise appeal to viewers precisely because they play on cherished convictions saying that love and money should not mix, while also winking at the fact that they often, obviously, do.

On an episode of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills that became notorious, one of the housewives, Yolanda, hosted a group of friends in her recently remodeled kitchen. Over white wine, she delivered some real talk on the importance of keeping sexual passion alive in marriage.

"Let's get it straight," Yolanda said. "Men love beautiful women and beautiful women love rich men. They will fuck your husband for a Chanel bag." This, she seemed to be saying, was why it is imperative to fuck your husband first.

"If you have found your true love, it should be easy."

According to Yolanda, "true love" is what you share with a man who finds you as sexy as you find him rich. It makes that exchange — of sex for financial security, consumer pleasure, and social status — easy. Not like work at all.

The irony of course is that all of the housewives who appear on Real Housewives thereby become professional housewives. Impersonating themselves, they gain credentials that let them leverage their stay-at-home identities into lucrative careers as consultants and businesswomen. In that capacity, they sell products to enrich the housewife experience, like Skinny Girl Margaritas.

No wonder the Real Housewives are so beloved. We live in an era that tells people to do what they love and let their passion take care of their profession. Yolanda is a heroine for an age that believes in getting rich by turning your feelings into assets.

* * *

The old-fashioned practices of chaperoned courtship and calling had drawn clear lines between the worlds of men and women. Dating undid them. It took courtship out of the private sphere and into public places. It transferred control over the process from the older generation to the younger generation, from the group to the individual, and from women to men.

It all seemed highly suspicious to the authorities. In the early 1900s, vice commissions across the country sent police and undercover investigators to check out spots where people went to make dates. As early as 1905, private investigators hired by a group of Progressive do-gooders in New York City were taking notes on what we can now recognize as the dating avant-garde.

At the Strand Hotel, in Midtown, an agent named Charlie Briggs saw many women who did not seem to be prostitutes, exactly, but who definitely seemed shady. The majority were "store employees, telephone girls, stenographers, etc."

"Their morals are loose," he wrote, "and there is no question that they are on terms of sexual intimacy with their male companions."

When a female investigator named Natalie Sonnichsen and her male colleague T. W. Veness went to an uptown dive called the Harlem River Casino several months later, they deemed the floor to be too small and "much too crowded for decent dancing." Sonnichsen was appalled by how the women were dressed.

"Two girls [wore] very tight knickers," she noted. Another had "a very décolleté costume with practically no sleeves, tights, with very short and skimpy knickers."

The idea that young women might want to go out and enjoy themselves — and, maybe, even enjoy sex — was a lot for the Calling Class to process.

In the 1910s, John D. Rockefeller Jr., the son of the Standard Oil founder, funded investigations into the commercialized vice industries of more than a dozen American cities. The reports that they produced are full of anecdotes about young people making dates.

The Chicago committee found that many young girls often used their charms as a ticket to a day's entertainment at boardwalks and amusement parks: "Some young girls go regularly to these parks. They come with the price of admission and carfare, and as they have no money for amusements, seek a good time at some one's expense."

The write-up on New York described a cruise that took place in August 1912, between New York and New Haven. Two girls, accompanied by a woman who seemed to be their mother, rented a stateroom on the boat, where they stayed all day and were visited by different men. At some point on the trip, "the girl became friendly and offered to make a 'date' with the investigator." The report does not mention whether he said yes.


Excerpted from Labor of Love by Moira Weigel. Copyright © 2016 Moira Weigel. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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