History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

16 January 2009

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

Sometimes I read a book that is just so good I want to tell everyone about it!

That's the case with Gail Collins' "America's Women: 400 Years of Doll, Drudges, Helpmates and Heroines." If you are a true history hoyden (and part feminist, too), go buy this book. For nonfiction, it's truely one riviting read. Stacy Schiff, who wrote a review of the book for The Times, called the book a "bravura accomplishment."

Here's what she said and I believe it sums it up completely: "American Women.... happens to make for a story more complex, and more inspiring, than anything Harriet (Tubman) or Susan B. (Anthony) could have imagined."

"The book begins in 1587 with the arrival of New World colonist Eleanor Dare, who would give birth to the first English child born in what has become the United States, and ends in 1970 with Betty Friedan leading a feminist march down New York's Fifth Avenue."

"In between Collins writes about the icons and the ordinary. This is the part I love, reading and learning about how the everyday woman survived the last 400 years. She also covers birth control (a historical topic we've all had to deal with in our novels), Kotex (and lack thereof--Collins could find no more information about what women did when they mensturated then most of us could--she speculates Pilgrams used grass and moss as the native American women taught them to), Playboy clubs, colonial diapering (yikes! They didn't wash them...they just scraped them off and set them by the fire to dry!), bra-burning, personal grooming and toilet facilities."
"Whenever there is a history moment, I want to know how they got to the bathroom," writes the author, Gail Collins says. (Weirdly, me too!)

"The central theme of women's history, Collins discovered, was the urge to create a home and the yearning to get out of it."

"The idea of a woman's place being in the home was "laced with hypocrisy," Collins says, given that most women had to work in the fields or factories. Meanwhile, when black women tried to become traditional housewives after the Civil War, whites in the North and South were horrified."

"Women were always excused from working only in the home whenever there was a national emergency such as a war or an economic downturn."

"And there were so many emergencies that you could cite the entire history of women in America just by the emergencies," Collins says. "Any time you needed literate, low paid workers--teachers, nurses, and secretaries--women always turned out to be the answer."

I have only praise for this author and her coverage of an amazing topic. The stories of the lesser known women in American history are captivating, and the stories behind many of the historical personalities of the day are a little disconcerting (Thomas Jefferson was a sexist to the bone, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others of their ilk often objected to black women participating in the sufferrage movments).

Gail Collins was the first female head of The New York Times editorial board. I have a feeling she has a lot of first hand experience with what she rights about. Check out America's Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates and Heroines.

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Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Kathrynn, thanks for calling my attention to this book. I love Gail Collins' columns for the New York Times, and I'll certainly put this book on my TBR list. And I, too, always have the same questions about how the women handled certain bodily issues during various eras. I had to deal with it in my time travel novel, BY A LADY; my heroine, who hailed from the 20th c. was clueless (having recently arrived in 1801 Bath) and had to find a way to admit to a scullery maid (without betraying her origins) that she didn't know what to use when that time of the month came around.

9:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know, Amanda, I read BY A LADY and that bit made me smile!

I like Gail's columns for the Times, too. I know she gets some politicians all riled up, but that makes me smile, too. ;-)

400 years from now, maybe she'll be in the next book!

2:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Most intriguing post, Kathrynn! Women's lives and issues in the medieval period were just as problematic... I'm reading a mystery by Ariana Franklin called "Mistress of the Art of Death,"
in which the main character is a woman doctor,
trained in Salerno, struggling in England to find a serial killer. People don't believe she's a doctor, don't want to tell her anything, won't let her inspect the bodies...

But at least she doesn't have to do housework.

3:22 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Kathryn, thanks for the compliment!

Carolyn, I read "Mistress of the Art of Death" when it was in galleys (my agent shared it with me) and I thought was excellently done.

8:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh man, I have to read "Misress of the Art of Death!

1:03 PM  

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