Dating itself is a recent invention. It developed when young people began moving to cities and women began working outside private homes. By 1900, 44 percent of single American women worked. Previously, courtship had taken place under adult supervision, in private places: a parlor, a factory dance or church social. But once women started going out and earning wages, they had more freedom over where and how they met prospective mates. Because men vastly out-earned women, they typically paid for entertainment.
Today, we refer to a man inviting a woman to dinner as “traditional.” At first it was scandalous: A woman who arranged to meet a man at a bar or restaurant could find herself interrogated by a vice commission. In the 1920s and ‘30s, as more and more middle-class women started going to college, parents and faculty panicked over the “rating and dating” culture, which led kids to participate in “petting parties” and take “joy rides” with members of the opposite sex.
By the 1950s, a new kind of dating took over: “going steady.” Popular advice columnist Dorothy Dix warned in 1939 that going steady was an “insane folly.” But by the post-war era of full employment, this form of courtship made perfect sense. The booming economy, which was targeting the newly flush “teen” demographic, dictated that in order for everyone to partake in new consumer pleasures — for everyone to go out for a burger and root beer float on the weekends — young people had to pair off. Today, the economy is transforming courtship yet again. But the changes aren’t only practical. The economy shapes our feelings and values as well as our behaviors.
Moira Weigel, “Sexual Freelancing in the Gig Economy”, The New York Times (15 May 2016), SR5.