Thursday, October 11, 2012

Book Review: America's Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines, by Gail Collins

America's Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines
by Gail Collins
Harper Perennial
556 pages

This book has been sitting on my bookshelves forever. (Well, maybe two years. I think I bought it with a very generous gift certificate given to me as a goodbye present from a job I left in 2010.) So when I found myself in a discussion with The Husband about books that would be good patriotic reads, I made myself a resolution to read this sooner rather than later.

And, dare I say, I'm quite glad I did - and since today is International Day of the Girl (and since you know that women and girls' issues are something I care deeply about), today is a perfect day to share this one with you.

As the title promises, Collins truly does pack 400 years of American women's history into what is a chunkster of a book. Make no mistake, though: this is no dry textbook. Collins presents a comprehensive and thorough view of American women's history in a way that is incredibly informative, engaging, shocking, and entertaining. At some points, I couldn't put this down.

Beginning with the very first settlers at Jamestown, Collins traces the history and the stories of strong, formidable women through an ever-changing America during the Revolutionary War, slavery, pre-and post-Civil War, the pioneer days, the Gilded Age, the Depression. There are the names from the history books: Harriet Beecher Stowe, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Elizabeth Blackwell, Carrie Nation, Annie Oakley, Margaret Sanger and countless others - but whose individual stories and accomplishments we may not have ever quite completely learned or fully remember. Collins brings all of them - the dolls, drudges, helpmates, and heroines all back to life on these pages for her reader. (The title comes from a Susan B. Anthony quote: "When I was young if a girl married poor, she became a housekeeper and a drudge. If she married wealthy, she became a pet and a doll.")

What I found especially interesting were the stories of the women who went unmentioned in the history books - the women we've never heard of. (Or at least I hadn't.) As just one example, in Chapter 8 ("Women and Abolition: White and Black, North and South") we meet Angelina and Sarah Grimke, sisters and abolitionists from Charleston, South Carolina. 

I'm far from an expert in women's history, but I've never heard of these two - and I'm betting a lot of people haven't either. Yet, they were in many ways so much ahead of their time (but so necessary for theirs).

America's Women also gives the reader an inside look into women's lives throughout each of the centuries, almost as if one was there churning the butter or sitting in the sewing room. It's fascinating to see how life changed through the Revolutionary War and into the pre-Civil War years and post-slavery. Through her extensive research, Collins covers and presents all aspects of women's lives - the homefront and the daily chores, women's health (these sections are not for the faint-of-heart), popular literature, culture, fashion, and customs. Again, we "know" these things from our history books or perhaps from movies or other books. American Women does the reader a great service by encapsulating in one volume the vast history of this time period.

In many cases, I wanted to know more about these women. That's not a criticism of the book itself, because  especially with the histories of the women from the 1600s, what we know from that time is somewhat limited.  

Fortunately, what we do know is all here in America's Women. This is highly recommended for ... well, really anybody who cares about American history. I think every American should read this. Even if you have just a passing interest in women's studies, America's Women is incredibly worthwhile and a highly recommended read. 

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1 comment:

Peppermint Ph.D. said...

I'd love to have this...adding it to my WishList :)