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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.
It trained women “in how to be if we wanted to be wanted.”Hence “Labor of Love,” an exploration of that training, in which Weigel reaches two main conclusions.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.Maybe he wouldn’t choose either of them; he told Weigel that he found the whole premise of long-term romance “ideologically suspect.”She realized that she had no idea what she herself wanted from romance.Her Irish Catholic mother and the self-help industry told her that the goal should be marriage, and soon. He thought that everyone should want to pursue happiness.
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.