on October 16, 2003
In writing the history of America's women Gail Collins tells us that " the pendulum swings wide." In this fascinating book Ms. collins lays out for us 400 years of the history of American women from 1587 to the mid-1970s. The pendulum swings not only through time but it also swings from North to South, from the very poor to the very rich, from the enfranchised to the disenfranchised, from the illiterate to the women of letters, from the vomen desperate to create a home to the women desperate to leave a home.
In the book the author presents us with the history of American women, both the obscure and the celebrated. Who, for example, knew that during World War II Maya Angelou's great ambition was to be a street car conductor? To accomplish her goal she had to spply and re-apply because of the great reluctance to hire a black woman as conductor.
Free from strident ideology Ms. Collins has written 452 pages of text (and 104 more of notes, bibliography and index) with impeccable even-handedness and tongue-in-cheek humor. As a result, reading the book is a highly enjoyable journey during which one meets our very often hardworking, often brave, sometimes extraordinary foremothers. We meet Hannah Dustan who, in 1697 as a captive of a local tribe, scalped her captors and returned home to a herone's welcome.
We meet the visionary Grimke sisters, Southern abolitionists, and we see how they transformed their extraordinary vision, seemingly having arisen from nowhere, into a powerful and far-reaching voice for Emancipation...and we meet many others. We see the pendulum swing of women from Dorothy May Bradford who in 1620 took one look at the wild, uncultivated Plymouth forest and jumped from the ship to Betty Friedan who in 1970 took one look at the thousands of women pouring onto the sidewalks of New York to demonstrate on behalf of themselves. Whereas Dorothy took to the water, Betty took to the street. Indeed, the pendulum has swung wide.
Last September in Fast Company magazine, there was a brief commentary on this book which caught my eye. It cited a number of historical facts of which I had previously been unaware. For example:
1. In 1637 in Virginia, Ann Fowler was sentenced to 20 lashes after she suggested that Adam Thorowgood (a county justice) could "Kiss my arse." The state's General Assembly then ruled that husbands would no longer be liable for damages caused by their outspoken wives.
2. During the 18th century in Pennsylvania's Brandywine Valley, impoverished single women with children were required to wear a P (for pauper) when appearing in public.
3. In the 19th century during Civil War era, about 80% of the reading public was female.
4. "In World War II, 1,000 women pilots flew 60 million miles -- mostly in experimental jets and planes grounded for safety reasons --and often towed targets past lines of inexperienced gunners. Then [they] would get arrested for leaving base wearing slacks after dark."
As Collins examines four centuries of historical material, much (most?) of it is probably unfamiliar to most readers. In process, she focuses on various "dolls, drudges, helpmates, and heroines" and their diverse contributions -- both positive and negative -- to the evolution of American history. Although Collins is renowned for her work as a journalist (editorial page editor of the New York Times), she displays in this volume all of the skills of an accomplished historian as well as those of a cultural anthropologist. Also, she's a terrific storyteller.
I wholly agree with Ellen Chesler (who reviewed this book in The New York Times) that "vast scholarship on women has dramatically reshaped academic thinking about American history....Curiously little of this scholarship has found its way into popular imagination, however, which is why Gail Collins' book is such a welcome development." My own hope is that America's Women will have substantial influence on the revision of curricula for U.S. history courses, especially those now required in public schools. Presumably Collins and Chesler share that hope. The objective would NOT be instruction driven by gender-specific values from feminist perspectives; rather, what Chesler characterizes as a "deft and entertaining" synthesis of historical materials within "a rich narrative."
Who knows? If American history courses properly acknowledge, indeed celebrate the achievements of women such as the Grimke sisters, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Jane Addams, and Dolores Huerta, perhaps (just perhaps) several of the young women enrolled in those courses will be inspired to make their own contributions at a time when opportunities for America's women are greater than ever before.
on October 8, 2003
WOW! I love this book. It is enjoyable to read -- not all dry like so many history books. It is interesting and informative. I am using excerpts from the book in my Psychology of Women course. I've recommended this book to my friends and requested the library order it. Great read and I'm learning a lot.
on October 17, 2003
Forget Hillary Clinton, Madonna, Queen Latifah, and Diane Sawyer. Today's media magnets are nothing compared to the forthright ladies and rustic women who helped create the United States of America. The names we should know are Eleanor Dare, Temperance Flowerdew, the Brent sisters, Mary Johnson, Susan Blunt, Eliza Lucas, Phillis Wheatley, Deborah Sampson Gannett, Sarah Hale, Katy Ferguson, Maria Chapman, Mary Ann Bickerdyke, and Jane Addams, to name just a few of the thousand women Gail Collins has put on display in the seductive and sprawling historical romp AMERICA'S WOMEN. From the Victorian age to the Age of Aquarius, this ambitious volume brings to life the brave, selfless and patriotic ladies who stood in front of, on top of, in spite of and sometimes even behind the men America still stubbornly celebrates as the sole defenders of freedom.
So richly filled with newly uncovered historical fact and biographical detail, the book is a fantastic time machine, beginning in braless 1587 and ending in the bra-burning era of 1960-1970. Collins's effort is unique because it is not just another encyclopedic listing of famous women of the ages that choke our library shelves. With a diary quote opening each section, AMERICA'S WOMEN relies on the original sources to tell the tales, interspersed with spicy and informative editorialization from Collins. "One of the tricks to being a great historical figure is to leave behind as much information as possible," the author explains, revealing that primary source material was drawn from the New Englanders' "winning habit of keeping diaries." However, Collins, herself a noteworthy figure as the first female editorial page editor for the New York Times, digs deep to chronicle the lives of the women who "left behind almost nothing of their voices," like the Native Americans who met the first English settlers.
Collins introduces Eleanor Dare, purportedly the first female colonist; Margaret and Mary Brent, unmarried sisters who ran the colony of Maryland during wartime, Margaret being the first woman to demand the right to vote in the Assembly; and Temperance Flowerdew, the wife of two of the Virginia colony's governors. Mary Johnson arrived in Virginia in 1620 as the first African American woman. Susan Blunt was appointed at just 10 years old as housekeeper for twin girls and an elderly man. It's hard to imagine an elementary school girl today even attempting Blunt's duties, which began each day at 5 a.m., toting water from a well, making breakfast, caring for the old man, making dinner, cleaning and mending. "As her reward, she received enough money to buy a new apron," Collins reports. No Playstation, Eminem, air conditioning, hair dryers, cell phones, or Powerpuff Girls. While cleaning and mending might sound easy enough, Collins continually offers solid doses of colonial reality: "Washing clothes was an arduous process... The laundress scrubbed and pounded the clothes in the tubs, working up to her elbows in hot water, sometimes for hours on end." Then there was the farm work, the animals, the children, the weather, and the husband, who was off politicking or fighting and dying in a war.
Eliza Lucas ran her father's Charleston plantation and cared for her invalid mother and young sister; Phillis Wheatley, a 13-year-old slave, published her poetry in the New England newspapers, and Deborah Sampson Gannett pretended to be a man so she could fight alongside her husband in the Revolutionary War. Sarah Josepha Hale was a powerful magazine editor in the 1830s, slave Katy Ferguson established New York's first Sunday school, Maria Weston Chapman led abolitionists, Mary Ann Bickerdyke took control in Illinois to aid the soldiers, and Jane Addams was a famous journalist who exposed the social wrongs that crippled the nation.
Collins makes each page exciting in this powerfully moving, funny and emotionally charged tour of our past, making the perfect history book for the millennium. The brisk narrative suffers only by the author's lack of attention to early lesbianism, which is not even mentioned until page 256, and overly extensive coverage of the Salem Witch Trials, with no reference to the telling theory that the children's claims of witchcraft might have been caused by hallucinations brought on by eating LSD-laced rye bread. While Mormon renouncer and author Ann Eliza Webb Young, the wealthy beauty product mongering Seven Sutherland Sisters, and pioneer obstetrician Peggy Warne are unfortunately missing from AMERICA'S WOMEN, there are still plenty of heroines here who contemplated, labored, mothered, lobbied, wrote, spoke out, fought, and even gave their lives to make far more than just a village.
--- Reviewed by Brandon M. Stickney
America's Women is the most comprehensive, informative, and entertaining book about the history of women I have ever read. There are many achievements by female pioneers I never even heard of. Nellie Bly was a newspaper reporter who became a national celebrity when she went around the world in 80 days in 1888. Sarah Josepha Hale became the first female editor of a fashion and advice magazine in 1836. Phillis Wheatley was an extraordinary female slave who learned to speak fluent English in a year and a half. She was the first American writer to achieve international fame with her poetry. She was also credited in persuading George Washington to allow black men to serve in the Continetal Army. I also learned about Ellen Swallow Richards who became the founder of home economics in the early 20th century Girls were able to take chemistry, biology, and geology classes under her theory that it would help them become better homemakers.
The causes that women in history have fought for are logical, diverse, and interesting. Women have fought for the right to vote, the prohibition of alcohol, and the sexual purity of men which I found interesting. Women also won the right to schooling during the Revolutionary War which I never knew.
There were some people I only recoginized by name in this book. However, after reading about their accomplishments, I had a better understanding of what their influence was. Jane Addams was the founder of a housing settlement called Hull House in Chicago. She provided housing for thousands of poor people and immigrants in the early part of the 20th century. Eleanor Roosevelt was a model for future first ladies. She wanted to give black people equal access to government services. She aimed to improve housing conditions for all people. She seeked for ways to stimulate the economy during the Great Depression and World War 2.
America's Women covers every subject related to women with such depth and accuracy. Gail Collins really traces well how the attitudes about education, women in the work place, family, and even sex has evolved over 400 years. Today women are more educated and more self confident about their decisions than ever before. They have made a mark in every field of endeavor. America's Women is an excellent book.
on January 26, 2005
This is a fascinating, absorbing and thoroughly entertaining history of American women, starting with a mention of the Viking women Gudrun and Freydis, and working through to the present.
Some of the information in this book I was already familiar with, but most of it was new to me, and all of it was interesting. I learnt some surprising things, I had no idea, for instance, that the first black people in America were free settlers, not slaves.
some parts of the book are painful to read, you need a strong stomach to get through the chapter on women slaves, which is incredibly harrowing. And there are some appalling details about domestic life, the horrors of medical treatment, , and the terible difficulties involved in keeping clean
in the pre-Civil War era. It's a wonder women had the energy left to do anything at all apart from coping with the complications of domestic life.
In this book you will meet famous women like Pocahontas, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth, Annie Oakley, Lillian Russell, and many other lesser-known women. You can admire their efforts to forge lives for themselves in the wilderness, to raise families, follow careers,and have their own adventures.It's thrilling to read the stories of the women who fought and spied in the revolutionary and civil wars, and the heroines of the Wild West. You can read of the struggle for political recognition,sometimes against almost insurmountable odds, especially in the case of black women, who were fighting racial as well as sexual prejudice in their efforts to gain legal right for themselves. The story of Rosa Parks and how she started the Civil Rights movement simply by refusing to give up her seat on a bus is moving and thrilling.
Gail Collins tells the fascinating story of American womanhood in a lively, witty style that carries you easily through the book and leaves you wishing it were twice as long.
on October 11, 2003
This is an incredible book,and an amazingly easy read. Not only does it deal with the "important women of history", it also gives equal time to the ordinary jane. I particularly liked the parts which described the day to day lives of the women, the early settlers, the women on the frontiers and the immigrants in the 1900's. A wonderful read.
on December 30, 2004
Heard the taped version of AMERICA'S WOMEN: 400 YEARS OF DOLLS, DRUDGES, HELPMATES, AND HEROINES narrated by Jane Alexander . . . don't put off by the title; it is a fascinating account of the women's movement that wasn't boring in the least . . . in fact, I found parts very moving; others were downright funny.
It made me greater appreciate the role women have played in our country . . . in particular, I was knocked for a loop when I read about all that women had to do in colonial America while also raising families that very often included 10 children or more . . . they not only had to care for the children, but they had to grow the vegetables, cook the meals, make the clothing, and perform so
many other tasks that I'm getting tired even typing this.
I liked learning more about the epic struggle faced by Rosa Parks to help integrate our country, yet found it equally thought-provoking to hear the story of Ann Fowler . . . in 1637 in Virginia, she was sentenced to 20 lashes after she suggested that Adam Throwgood (a country justice) could
"kiss my arse" . . . the states' General Assembly then ruled that husbands would no longer be liable for damages caused by their outspoken wives.
Unlike some other books of this nature, there was no male-bashing;
in fact, Chubby Checker gets praised for helping advance the women's movement . . . it seems "The Twist" was the first time that women could dance without needing a male to lead.
Jane Alexander's excellent narration added to my enjoyment
of AMERICA'S WOMEN.
on September 4, 2005
I agree with the positive reviews of this book. It is one of the best books I have ever read, and I love to read. Even before I finished reading it, I found that it was a key to many other personal stories as I began talking about it to other women - especially older women. So far, every personal story and my general knowledge is in sync with what is written. Much of the info is disconcerting, for sure. However, to say it "whiny" (the one negative review I scanned), certainly misses the point. I am lending my copy to my mom, and I just sent a copy to my 88 year old grandmother.
On an even more personal note, I read this while home bound recovering from a broken back. It was incredibly helpful to put my sense of "home bound" in the bigger perspective!
I would love to see a similar children's book written from the perspective of children (skipping the bone chilling realities, but something that would help them to better appreciate how good they have it now).
on June 20, 2005
First, the writing is excellent making the read itself very enjoyable. Second, the book is filled with mind boggling tidbits that history seems to have forgotten until now. It not only holds a looking glass to the names we know, but more importantly all the names of everyday women who helped shape our history, but whose stories until now haven't had a voice. Highly recommended.