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 during WWII. 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.