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America's Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines

America's Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines

4.6 29
by Gail Collins

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America's Women tells the story of more than four centuries of history. It features a stunning array of personalities, from the women peering worriedly over the side of the Mayflower to feminists having a grand old time protesting beauty pageants and bridal fairs. Courageous, silly, funny, and heartbreaking, these women shaped the nation and our vision of


America's Women tells the story of more than four centuries of history. It features a stunning array of personalities, from the women peering worriedly over the side of the Mayflower to feminists having a grand old time protesting beauty pageants and bridal fairs. Courageous, silly, funny, and heartbreaking, these women shaped the nation and our vision of what it means to be female in America.

By culling the most fascinating characters -- the average as well as the celebrated -- Gail Collins, the editorial page editor at the New York Times, charts a journey that shows how women lived, what they cared about, and how they felt about marriage, sex, and work. She begins with the lost colony of Roanoke and the early southern "tobacco brides" who came looking for a husband and sometimes -- thanks to the stupendously high mortality rate -- wound up marrying their way through three or four. Spanning wars, the pioneering days, the fight for suffrage, the Depression, the era of Rosie the Riveter, the civil rights movement, and the feminist rebellion of the 1970s, America's Women describes the way women's lives were altered by dress fashions, medical advances, rules of hygiene, social theories about sex and courtship, and the ever-changing attitudes toward education, work, and politics. While keeping her eye on the big picture, Collins still notes that corsets and uncomfortable shoes mattered a lot, too.

"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.

Editorial Reviews

Although it's a cultural history of women in America since the first European settlers, America's Women possesses none of the stodginess or predictability of such chronicles. Former New York Times editorial writer Collins has a keen sense of her subject's richness. The author of Scorpion Tongues moves from everyday details to social generalization without sacrificing the thrust of her narrative or her central theme: "the tension between the yearning to create a home and the urge to get out of it."
The New York Times
It is in grappling with that contortionism that Collins, the editorial page editor of The New York Times, reveals her evenhandedness. The 19th-century obstetrician bungled as much because of women's modesty as because of the constraints of his profession. If there is a villain in this tale she may just wear a skirt; as Collins sees it, we have repeatedly tripped ourselves up. The enemy is not so much the other half of the human race as the mixed messages, our love-hate relationship with hearth and home. — Stacy Schiff
The Washington Post
In her lively and readable survey of women in America, Gail Collins shows how ideology about gender roles always gives way to economic necessity. Women who are considered constitutionally unable to do men's work do men's work as soon as war comes and men are needed to fight it...Collins has an eye for such ironies and a good-humored way of presenting them.—Phyllis Rose
Publishers Weekly
The basis of the struggle of American women, postulates Collins (Scorpion Tongues), "is the tension between the yearning to create a home and the urge to get out of it." Today's issues-should women be in the fields, on the factory lines and in offices, or should they be at home, tending to hearth and family?-are centuries old, and Collins, editor of the New York Times's editorial page, not only expertly chronicles what women have done since arriving in the New World, but how they did it and why. Creating a compelling social history, Collins discovers "it's less a war against oppressive men than a struggle to straighten out the perpetually mixed message about women's role that was accepted by almost everybody of both genders." These confusing messages are repeated over 400 years and are typified in the 1847 lecture of one doctor who stated that women's heads are "almost too small for intellect and just big enough for love" (ironically, around this time Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to graduate from an American medical school). The narratives are rich with direct quotes from both celebrated and common women, creating a clear picture of life in the 16th through 20th centuries, covering everyday (menstruation, birth control, cooking, cleanliness) and extraordinary (life during war, the abolition movement, fighting for the right to vote) topics. Beginning with Eleanor Dare and her 1587 sail to the colonies and ending with the 1970s, Collins's work is a fully accessible, and thoroughly enjoyable, primer of how American women have not only survived but thrived. Photos not seen by PW. Agent, Alice Martell. (On sale Sept. 23) Forecast: National print ads, appearances on the Today show and the CBS Early Show, a 25-city radio satellite tour and lecture tie-in appearances will help Collins reach the masses. Her book deserves a wide readership and is smooth enough to engage almost any kind of reader, academic or not. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
From the first woman to serve as editorial page editor at the New York Times. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Illuminating cultural history of American women from the first colonists to the present day. New York Times editorial page editor Collins (Scorpion Tongues, 1998) has turned a veritable mountain of research into an exceptionally readable, lively account of the contradictions and conflicts that have shaped women’s roles in the US. Her central theme is "the tension between the yearning to create a home and the urge to get out of it." Both sexes, she states, have accepted mixed messages about women’s proper role, and our history is full of about-faces on the subject. In an anecdote-laden text often relying on diaries and other contemporary records, she recounts how colonial women were not just housewives, midwives, and innkeepers, but religious dissidents (Anne Hutchinson) and Indian fighters (Hannah Dustin). During the Revolution, some donned men’s clothing and joined the army, but more traveled with their soldier husbands, doing the cooking and washing, or stayed home and ran the family farm. Juliette Brier, who walked 100 miles through Death Valley carrying one child on her back and another in her arms while leading a third, epitomizes the endurance and spirit of pioneer women. But it’s not all heroics and hardship. Collins fills her pages with fascinating details of everyday life over four centuries, including how women dressed, managed personal hygiene, and raised children. The roles they played in the temperance, abolition, and suffrage movements, the effects of the Civil War on southern women, white and black, the lives of 19th-century immigrant women are all explored. Collins shows how women, kept out of the workplace during the Depression, were brought into it by necessity duringWWII. Their retreat to the home in the ’50s, the subsequent sexual revolution, and the rise of feminism may be more familiar dramas than the earlier history, but the details are no less absorbing. Informative and entertaining, full of vivid stories that reveal not only what women were doing but how they felt about it. Agent: Alice Martell

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America's Women
Four Hundred Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines

Chapter One

The First Colonists:
Voluntary and Otherwise

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
Four Hundred Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines
. Copyright © by Gail Collins. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Gail Collins, a columnist for the New York Times, was the the first woman ever to serve as editorial page editor for the paper. Previously, she was a member of the Times editorial board, and a columnist for the New York Daily News and New York Newsday.

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America's Women 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 28 reviews.
PiggityPig More than 1 year ago
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!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great book to learn about women suffragists
LinNC More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
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This book makes me happy to be a woman! Strong writing, extremely interesting. A great read.
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ProseSax More than 1 year ago
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.
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.
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.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a fun book to read. Almost everyone will find something to love and hate in here. Read it!
Guest More than 1 year ago
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!
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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!