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"The history of American women is about the fight for freedom," Collins writes in her introduction, "but it's less a war against oppressive men than a struggle to straighten out the perpetually mixed message about women's roles that was accepted by almost everybody of both genders." Told chronologically through the compelling stories of individual lives that, linked together, provide a complete picture of the American woman's experience, America's Women is both a great read and a landmark work of history.
|1||The First Colonists: Voluntary and Otherwise||1|
|2||The Women of New England: Goodwives, Heretics, Indian Captives, and Witches||23|
|3||Daily Life in the Colonies: Housekeeping, Children, and Sex||47|
|4||Toward the Revolutionary War||67|
|5||1800-1860: True Women, Separate Spheres, and Many Emergencies||85|
|6||Life Before the Civil War: Cleanliness and Corsetry||115|
|7||African American Women: Life in Bondage||140|
|8||Women and Abolition: White and Black, North and South||161|
|9||The Civil War: Nurses, Wives, Spies, and Secret Soldiers||188|
|10||Women Go West: Pioneers, Homesteaders, and the Fair but Frail||208|
|11||The Gilded Age: Stunts, Shorthand, and Study Clubs||238|
|12||Immigrants: Discovering the "Woman's Country"||258|
|13||Turn of the Century: The Arrival of the New Woman||279|
|14||Reforming the World: Suffrage, Temperance, and Other Causes||304|
|15||The Twenties: All the Liberty You Can Use in the Backseat of a Packard||327|
|16||The Depression: Ma Perkins and Eleanor Roosevelt||350|
|17||World War II: "She's Making History, Working for Victory"||371|
|18||The Fifties: Life at the Far End of the Pendulum||397|
|19||The Sixties: The Pendulum Swings Back with a Vengeance||421|
The Extremely Brief Story of Virginia Dare
Eleanor Dare must have been either extraordinarily adventurous or easily led. In 1587, when she was pregnant with her first child, she set sail across the Atlantic, headed for a continent where no woman of her kind had ever lived, let alone given birth. The only English-speaking residents of the New World at the time were a handful of men who had been left behind during an earlier, unsuccessful attempt at settlement on Roanoke Island, in what is now Virginia. Eleanor's father, John White, was to become governor of the new colony. Her husband, Ananias, a bricklayer, was one of his assistants.
Under the best of circumstances, a boat took about two months to get from England to the New World, and there were plenty of reasons to avoid the trip. Passengers generally slept on the floor, on damp straw, living off salted pork and beef, dried peas and beans. They suffered from seasickness, dysentery, typhoid, and cholera. Their ship could sink, or be taken by privateers, or run aground at the wrong place. Even if it stayed afloat, it might be buffeted around for so long that the provisions would run out before the travelers reached land. Later would-be colonists sometimes starved to death en route. (The inaptly named Love took a year to make the trip, and at the end of the voyage rats and mice were being sold as food.) Some women considered the odds and decided to stay on dry land. The wife of John Dunton, a colonial minister, wrote to him that she would rather be "a living wife in England than a dead one at sea."
But if Eleanor Dare had any objections, they were never recorded. She and sixteen other women settlers, along with ninety-one men and nine children, encountered no serious problems until they stopped to pick up the men who had been left at Roanoke. When they went ashore to look for them, all they found were the bones of a single Englishman. The uncooperative ship's captain refused to take them farther, and they were forced to settle on the same unlucky site.
Try to imagine what Eleanor Dare must have thought when she walked, heavy with child, through the houses of the earlier settlers, now standing empty, "overgrown with Melons of divers sortes, and Deere within them, feeding," as her father later recorded. Eleanor was a member of the English gentry, hardly bred for tilling fields and fighting Indians. Was she confident that her husband the bricklayer and her father the bureaucrat could keep her and her baby alive, or was she beginning to blame them for getting her into this extremely unpromising situation? All we know is that on August 18, the first English child was born in America and christened Virginia Dare -- named, like the colony, in honor of the Virgin Queen who ruled back home. A few days later her grandfather boarded the boat with its cranky captain and sailed back to England for more supplies, leaving Eleanor and the other settlers to make homes out of the ghost village. It was nearly three years before White could get passage back to Roanoke, and when he arrived he discovered the village once again abandoned, with no trace of any human being, living or dead. No one knows what happened to Eleanor and the other lost colonists. They might have been killed by Indians or gone to live with the local Croatoan tribe when they ran out of food. They were swallowed up by the land, and by history.
The Dares and other English colonists who we call the first settlers were, of course, nothing of the sort. People had lived in North America for perhaps twenty millennia, and the early colonists who did survive lasted only because friendly natives were willing to give them enough food to prevent starvation. In most cases, that food was produced by native women. Among the eastern tribes, men were generally responsible for hunting and making war while the women did the farming. In some areas they had as many as 2,000 acres under cultivation. Former Indian captives reported that the women seemed to enjoy their work, tilling the fields in groups that set their own pace, looking after one another's youngsters. Control of the food brought power, and the tribes whose women played a dominant role in growing and harvesting food were the ones in which women had the highest status and greatest authority. Perhaps that's why the later colonists kept trying to foist spinning wheels off on the Indians, to encourage what they regarded as a more wholesome division of labor. At any rate, it's nice to think that Eleanor Dare might have made a new life for herself with the Croatoans and spent the rest of her life working companionably with other women in the fields, keeping an eye out for her daughter and gossiping about the unreliable men.
Jamestown was founded in 1607 by English investors hoping to make a profit on the fur and timber and precious ore they thought they were going to find. Its first residents were an ill-equipped crew of young men, many of them the youngest sons of good families, with no money but a vast sense of entitlement. The early colonists included a large number of gentlemen's valets, but almost no farmers. They regarded food as something that arrived in the supply ship, and nobody seemed to have any interest in learning how to grow his own. (Sir Thomas Dale, who arrived in 1611 after two long winters of starvation, said he found the surviving colonists at "their daily and usuall workes, bowling in the streetes.")America's Women
In my house, I have a room in which one wall is entirely covered with books that I used while writing America's Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates and Heroines. When I look at them I like to remember that there was a time, not very long ago, when teachers who wanted to offer courses on women's history were told there wasn't enough information to cover an entire semester. Some of the books are amazing, full of fascinating stories and little details I love. In one of them, I found a recipe for a basic cake which told me all I needed to know about what it was like to be a housewife in the early 19th century: mix eight eggs and a pound of sugar and "beat it three quarters of an hour.''
Much as I love this little library, I know that many people -- well, virtually all people -- don't have the time to get acquainted with everything that's been written on the history of women in this country. My idea in writing America's Women was to go through as many books as possible myself, take out the most interesting bits and spin one story. It starts in England in 1587 with Eleanor Dare, who agreed, when she was pregnant with her first child, to get into a smallish boat and sail across the ocean to settle with her husband and a few other people on a continent where no woman of her kind had ever been before. She was obviously either very brave or very easily led. We don't know which, since she vanished from history, along with her baby daughter and all the other residents of the lost colony of Roanoke.
America's Women has all the great heroines in our past, but it's mainly about what it was like to be an average woman, who was supposed to blaze trails while struggling with corsets and cleanliness issues. (The nation acquired handguns and repeat rifles before anybody bothered to invent window screens.) At the end, you'll find a lot of notes that show you where I got my information. If some part of the story really intrigues you, you can follow the same trail back through the books and articles I read along the way.
If you happen to belong to a book club, you're following in the path of the great women's club movement that began right after the Civil War. It was sort of like a huge, informal junior college system, and some of the clubs were founded with great expectations. They vowed to read all the Greek philosophers, or to start with ancient history and make their way all the way to the modern era. Although these women were very big on keeping minutes, nobody has ever managed to come up with statistics on how many of them really did get all the way through Socrates, or Shakespeare, as promised.
In the spirit of those great-intentioned pioneers, let me offer some suggestions to groups that prefer to give members their reading assignments in chunks of a hundred or so pages. This is a story that divides itself into parts pretty easily:
Chapters 1-4 bring you through the Revolutionary War and up to 1800. I'm particularly fond of the stories of the early South, when women were in such short supply they could do just about anything they wanted and still latch onto a respectable husband. (Or two, or four, or five. Any woman whose constitution managed to develop immunity to malaria could find herself widowed over and over again, her estate escalating with every bereavement.) This is also where you want to go if you're one of the many Salem Witch Trial fans.
Chapters 5 and 6 are two of my particular favorites, covering what it was like to be a woman in the very peculiar period before the Civil War, when families moved to the city and middle class women tended to stick to their homes. Husbands even took over the shopping chores. Part of this had to do with the extremely conservative ideology about sexual roles, but I'm absolutely sure part of it also had to do with the fact that this was an era in which virtually every American male chewed tobacco and spit all over every public space in the nation.
Chapters 7, 8, and 9 are about African American women, the abolition movement and the Civil War. This may be the most dramatic part of the story. Black women were staging spontaneous sit-down strikes on segregated streetcars and trains 100 years before Rosa Parks. You have female spies -- one made an early impression when, as a teenager, she protested being excluded from an adults-only party by riding her horse into the living room. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote "Uncle Tom's Cabin," which changes the way half a nation viewed the institution of slavery. But when she went on her book tour to England, she decorously sat in the balcony of a theater while her husband read her speech from the stage.
Chapters 9, 10 and 11 get us through the rest of the 19th century. How could you not love an era when women were being praised for the beauty of their "huge thighs" and young girls bragged about the amount of weight they gained on summer vacation? This was also the era of the great westward expansion, where girls in their teens fought Indians and drove wagon trains. Meanwhile back East, immigrants were pouring into the country. The life the women found here, at least for the first generation, depended both on luck and the nation they came from.
Chapters 13, 14, and 15 will take you through World War I. Women finally get the vote, after a nail-biting last minute confrontation in the Tennessee legislature in which women's chances in the 1920 presidential election hang on one vote ... (This is one of my all-time favorite stories in the book. You'll have to read it for yourself.)
And finally, chapters 16-19 get us to the present. The Depression, World War II, the Civil Rights movement and Women's Liberation are all in there, along with the critical roles played by radio soap operas and the invention of the Twist.
Questions for Discussion
There will be plenty to talk about if everybody comes together to tell their own piece of the story. But for more ambitious groups who want to read everything in advance, here are some of my favorite questions for discussion:
About the Author
Gail Collins is the editorial page editor of the New York Times -- the first woman ever to hold that post. She has been a columnist for the Times, as well as New York Newsday and the New York Daily News. America's Women is her third book. She is also the author of Scorpion Tongues: Gossip, Celebrity and American Politics and The Millennium Book, which she co-authored with her husband, Dan Collins. They live in New York City.
Posted September 5, 2009
It was given to me by my husbands grandma. I'm a military historian and a maritime historian, NOT a women's studies historian and so at first I balked. Why would she give me this?
I was enthralled the moment that I opened the book.
It opened a whole new world of history to me. Since reading this book, I've read many other books on women's history. Do not let the name scare you, men would find this book fascinating to. Its just an amazing look at America's history. As always I wish that the 60's to now had been dealt with a bit more, but when you are encompassing over two hundred years of history its hard to fit in everything.
I also applaud Collins for attemtping to cover every color and every walk of life. Its hard to dig deeper into the slave and wage earned subconscious when there are numerous primary sources readily available for women that had plenty. She does it though, as well as investigate the relationships these women had with each other.
All in all, this book is an absolute must read for everyone!
1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 22, 2013
Posted August 13, 2012
Posted March 24, 2012
Collins brings the stories of so many women to life. Too many of these names have never found their way into textbooks. Some were courageous, some were simply trying to make their way in a world that presented them with challenges unimaginable today, some struggled with choices, all were a part of the path that led to the place of women in today's America.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 8, 2010
Posted November 3, 2008
At least they all show up in THIS book. I was never able to schedule a Women's Studies class in college. Frankly, I started reading this book waiting to get bogged down. Ms. Collins fortunately NEVER gets bogged down. Like a film director, she knows when to change settings, characters and themes. Like a novelist, she knows when to bring key figures back into the narrative. And, like a good sociologist, she spots trends and patterns unique to the story of American women.<BR/>The book is packed with stories like that of Margaret Fuller, associate of icons as diverse as Poe and Thoreau. You learn the moving story of the Women's Air Corps; female pilots shot down towing targets for gunners to practice on. Through journals and diaries, she pieces together the stories of Civil War widows who escaped their emotional pain by becoming a very quiet epidemic of alcohol and drug abusers.<BR/>I challenge anyone to come away from this engrossing book without a deep compassion for these women, and a deeper knowledge of what being American truly means.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 7, 2006
This book was absolutely amazing! Not only was it very well written but it was witty and full of information....information that we as modern women wonder how our early sisters coped. Gail Collins is a fabulous writer who does not find it neccesary to plague one with over used words that come straight from the thesauraus. This book is original and I highly recommend it as a read for all women.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 1, 2005
A must read for all women! Fascinating reading with anecdotal stories to humanize women thru the ages. Was on my daughter's high school reading list. Hope more young women pick this one up.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 21, 2005
full of humor and wit! very informative and intresting, i was captivated and absoulutley could not put it down! I higly reccomend this book to anyone , an intersting glimpse and perspective into the history of women.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 13, 2005
A general view of women in America. The style of writing is quirky and intresting, adding life to what can appear as a dull subject. Good source for those who think women's history is boring or does not matter. Basic and general in level, but a fun read.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 12, 2004
Posted March 16, 2004
i picked up this book at the college bookstore in Colonial Williamsburg,while on vacation. what a rich history of american women in a very readable style.well worth the investment.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 8, 2004
I had to read this book for my Women, Wages & Work class. I dreaded starting it, but once I did, I found it was a great read! I learned tons of things I had never known about women and the way they lived. I would recommend this book to anyone, not just women! Collins is a very entertaining writer -- I plan to look for and read any other books she's written! Get this one and enjoy!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 27, 2004
What a wonderful book! I couldn't put it down. So much information, I have learned so much from reading this book. It was so descriptive that I hardly put it down. I wish it was a textbook in my class when I was a history major!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 15, 2004
The book was OK. Yes, I would recommend this book to people. I am a history-like person, considering that I am old and ancient.HAHA! Well, like I said this book is OK. Have a tremendous time reading it!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 22, 2004
Take a trip through time and meet America's women from the celebrated suffragist to the unknown Indian. Long after you finish the book, these brave women will linger in your heart & mind. Kudos to Collins who skillfully collapses 400 years into 400 pages. Very readable and engaging.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 26, 2003
This book was great. It is enjoyable and keeps you wanting to learn more. There is a lot the author has to offer her readers and she does it without you feeling like you are in a history class. Highly recommended.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 26, 2003
This book is filled with tons surpises so far and can't wait to finish it. I can't wait to see what pictures where in there. I personally think men should read this as well. Its like American Girls books and Penny Colman's Girls. I really like Miss Collins writing, I reach I could read her collums in the NY Times, my family gets it everyday. Thank you.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 25, 2013
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Posted June 19, 2011
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