Pocahantas and Rosa Parks, Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Madam C. J. Walker and Eleanor Roosevelt, Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton, Wilma Mankiller and Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan and Phyllis Schlafly, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Michelle Obama
These are a few of the well-known women in Gail Collins’ America’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines and its sequel, When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, Featuring the famous and the ordinary, the books span the centuries from the Vikings to the sixteenth century Eleanor Dare of the lost Roanoke colony to Betty Friedan’s march down Fifth Avenue in 1970 to the Hillary Clinton campaign for President in 2008.
In these extraordinary narratives, Collins has written both a political and a social history of America’s women. She traces the epic journey of women through America’s history as they sought that “inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” promised by the Declaration of Independence but so often denied them.
This story of women in America is a fight for freedom from an intrusive society that tried to tell them what they could and could not do or be. Society was so resistant to women’s pursuit of happiness that, as late as 1947, Modern Women: The Lost Sex was a bestseller. Its authors advocated that women were psychologically disordered. It argued “that higher education got in the way of women adjusting to their natural role as wives and mothers.”
Collins begins with the Viking women, Gudrid and Freydis. They were two of the first Europeans to step foot on the North American continent over a thousand years ago. These two women illustrate one of the themes in her book: How society’s portrayal of women has always been false. The image that women are either “virtuous wives on the one hand, or on the other, the women who stepped outside their appointed roles, causing disaster.” In many cases, a woman was both virtuous wife and one who stepped outside their appointed roles, yet not causing disaster as illustrated by the life of Annie Oakley.
Throughout the book, women managed businesses, ran farms, and became preachers, civic leaders, merchants, artists and store managers. And they did it despite all the legal restrictions society threw at them. In the seventeenth century, one, Margaret Brent, even ran the state of Maryland during a crisis.
Again and again, Collins calls attention to the resourcefulness of American woman. Crossing the prairies in wagon trains, women often did their domestic chores while on the move, such as rolling piecrust from a wagon seat while driving a team of oxen. Just one example of this resourcefulness was Luenza Wilson. She followed her miner husband to the gold mining camps and made a fortune. It seems her talent as a cook was “much more valuable than her husbands was as a gold miner.”
And when the country went to war, women took on roles that often belonged to men, so the men could go off and fight. In World War II, 1,000 women pilots flew 60 million miles–mostly in experimental jets and planes grounded for safety reasons. They often towed targets past lines of inexperienced gunners. One anecdote of these female pilots: Several were arrested for leaving base wearing slacks after dark.
Collins includes the women’s battles with the corset. Even when everybody talked about fashion reform in the early half of the nineteenth century, there was way too much resistance to loosen it, much less dump it. Due to health standards previous to the twentieth century, pregnancy could be a death sentence for a woman or cripple them for life. As far as food and diets are concerned, Collins points out that the Gilded Age was “perhaps the only era in the nation’s history that favored large women.”
In the sequel, Collins continues on one of the greatest epic stories in human history. It takes us through the late twentieth and into the twenty-first century as women overcame the restrictions of the past and triumphed beyond their wildest dreams. The twenty years between 1960 to 1980 saw women able to pursue careers and be accepted in a variety of occupations they were never allowed in the past. It seemed that the sky was the limit. But this led to new challenges never faced before, such as the balance between work and home. And this history is told through the lives of hundreds of individual women’s stories.
Gail Collins has used letters, diaries, historical documents and numerous secondary sources as well as interviews to provide a history of American women that is both enjoyable and informative. These are books that will make women, and men, proud of the heritage from their mother’s side of history. These gems shine a light on history that has been ignored for a very long time.