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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.
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.Every so often, one of his paramours would catch on and alert the others.Then he’d block them all on social media and begin the whole thing again.All of them had received the couch-spooning treatment.John was a champion girlfriend accumulator, the ringmaster of a romantic circus that only he could see.Dating is therefore a powerful force of social control—but what do we actually mean by “dating”?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.Weigel had a revelation: she was always turning to a man to tell her what she was after, and the institution of dating was to blame.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.In one sense, this is a story about the exploitative possibilities of online matchmaking: the opportunities to flagrantly misrepresent oneself, the ease of trawling for specific targets.(John, who was white, pursued only Asian women, leaving his girlfriends with the icky sense that they’d been fetishized as well as deceived.) Still, romantic scammers aren’t an invention of modern courtship and its digital devices.