...[a] smart, informative and insightful cultural history ... Scutts underscores the advice common to generations of self-help books — and emerging, also, in contemporary fables like Sex and the City: women had to change themselves to catch a man and hold him, an exhausting, all-consuming effort to win what Scutts calls 'the dubious, high-stakes game of marriage.' Hillis offered a brave counterpoint to that message. And though her advice about bed jackets and bubble baths seems quaint today, her celebration of solitude, independence and integrity is, as Scutts reminds us, worth reviving.
The resulting book is itself a kind of a marriage, between Scutts’s academic training and her more personal engagement with Hillis as a flesh-and-blood character. The resulting book is far from a straight biography and offers instead a colorful dissertation on midcentury womanhood, exploring Hillis’ impact from several angles in order to sketch out a prismatic understanding of feminism and freedom at the time ... Scutts was smart to continually weave Hillis’ story into her diversions. This makes Hillis’ story feel far-reaching — she touched so many aspects of women’s rights and financial independence — but it also grounds an enormous history in a personal narrative ... One obscure woman’s story can be a vessel for understanding the lives of thousands; it is in doing justice to this fact that Scutts does justice to her leading lady.
...[an] eye-opening if often frustrating attempt to rescue Hillis from obscurity and to make the case for her as a proto-feminist ... Ms. Scutts, a postdoctoral fellow in women’s history at the New York Historical Society, is an assiduous researcher and makes some astute observations ... Far too frequently, though, the very, very wordy Ms. Scutts skitters off on tangents whose connection to the subject at hand is remote at best ... Rather more vexingly, The Extra Woman tells more than it shows.
...provocative and in-depth ... Scutts covers a lot of ground here, and she does it all so well that her readers may be inspired to dig further: the New-York Historical Society’s Center for Women’s History, where Scutts currently serves as a fellow, is a good start.
Scutts’s account of Hillis’s life is a scholarly work, thick with biographical details and historical context. And because of that, I was tremendously grateful that Scutts leavened the tome with some compelling first-person narrative … Scutts does an impressive job tracking Hillis’s life, from a pastor’s daughter to a columnist, magazine editor and career-loving author, and establishing her bona fides as a groundbreaking voice in championing women’s self-sufficiency. And doing it with wit and verve … Scutts should feel proud that she did what she set out to do: return Hillis to her rightful place in the pantheon of women who made it possible for the rest of us to enjoy that freedom.
Occasionally, Scutts’ stated bias against most self-help (aside from Hillis’) leads her to conflate shallow nostrums with practices such as mindfulness, as if both were distractions from pressing social and economic problems. That’s a small quibble, however, in a book that is both absorbing and, in the best way, unsettling. The Live-Aloner’s fight to be accepted in her full humanity is a battle her great-granddaughters (or great-grandnieces) are still waging.
Scutts is a fluid writer. But the history she relates seems at once familiar and diffuse. The Extra Woman reacquaints us with the feisty movie star heroines of the 1930s, the wartime rise of Rosie the Riveter, the 1950s retreat into domesticity and 'gender extremism,' and the first stirrings of second-wave feminism. These are stories we have heard before, but Scutts does excavate some curiosities ... the most interesting aspect of Scutts’ project, as well as its unifying thread, is the story of Hillis herself.
...smart and enjoyable … The years between feminism’s first wave...and its second, nearly five decades later, are often thought of as a dormant period in the struggle for women’s rights, particularly with the postwar pressure on women to retreat to the suburbs and embrace domesticity. But Scutts elegantly argues that Hillis was a trailblazer during this period … Scutts's affectionate portrait of Hillis helps draw a line from her subject’s cheerful independence to the choices we enjoy today.
“Before there was a Carrie Bradshaw or a Mary Richards, a Bridget Jones or a Holly Golightly, there was Marjorie Hillis ... Scutts’ biography of this Depression-era feminist positions Hillis very much as a woman of her own time, and her thorough scholarship deftly illustrates how Hillis’ iconic views continue to make her a woman for all time.”
Throughout, Scutts provides women’s labor statistics and smart analyses and brings them to life with the stories of other advice mavens and lifestyle gurus ... Like her protagonist, Scutts has a voice that is zesty, dashing, and full of verve. Scutts is also sensitive to the impact of class and race on those opportunities, recognizing that Hillis’s glamorous prescriptions worked best for the wealthy and white. Scutts finds in Hillis a feminist pioneer and a forward thinker, even when 'the Live-Aloner,' as she calls her, became a figure of nostalgia. Scutts uncovers the life of a little-known feminist hero in this thoroughly enjoyable romp through 20th-century American history.
Rich in historical detail, Scutts’ book is not just an elegant biography of a neglected protofeminist figure and a vivid exploration of American sociological history; it is also an important homage to a woman’s right to choose how to live her life. A sparklingly intelligent and well-researched cultural history.