When I was a child, I thought that one read fiction for pleasure and nonfiction for information, but who’s to say that a book can’t be read for pleasure and information? America’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines by Gail Collins certainly can! Beginning in the late 16th century and spanning through the late 20th century, Collins’s highly readable 450-page history of women in America is as enjoyable as any fast-paced novel.
Collins’s carefully researched book covers everything from politics to homemaking, work to fashion, marriage to medical care, and everything in between. Her work is full of interesting anecdotes, and she uses numbers to their best advantage, including enough statistics to make her point, without bogging down the reader with an endless and seemingly pointless array of numbers and graphs. Collins manages to strike a careful balance between describing the lives of famous women, such as Harriet Tubman and Susan B. Anthony, whose lives most often did not reflect the lives of ordinary women (if they had lived ordinary lives they wouldn’t have been famous), with women whose run-of-the-mill lives more accurately reflected the typical norms of the day, often quoting directly from their personal diaries and letters. In addition, Collins is quick to note the differences in women’s experiences based on variables such as race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, age, marital status, and region. (One glaring omission is the lives of Native American women, which are seldom mentioned.)
Two final gems in this volume are the 56 pages of notes and 29 page bibliography, a gold mine for anyone who wants to do further reader on a topic they found particularly interesting.
To whet your appetite, here are a few interesting tidbits of information I learned while reading America’s Women:
- In colonial times, children were given what we would consider extraordinary responsibility for their age. Boys as young as 10 and 11 enrolled at Harvard, and children as young as two and three were indentured as servants.
- During the 17th and 18th centuries, laundry was backbreaking and time-consuming work that included carrying water from a well, heating it over a fire, scrubbing it by hand, and laying it out to dry on bushes. As a result, many women did not wash their babies’ diapers with each use, but simply spread them out to dry before reusing them.
- As public schools began to open in the 19th century, a teacher shortage emerged that opened the door to women being allowed to teach school. Politicians, from state governors to local school board members, soon realized the advantage of hiring women, as they could get away with paying them significantly less. In Connecticut in 1838 male schoolteachers were paid $14.50 per month while female schoolteachers were paid $5.75 per month.
- During the Civil War, an estimated 400 women disguised themselves as men to fight in the U.S. and Confederate armies.
- Wyoming was the first state to grant women the right to vote in 1869. In part, the Wyoming legislature passed this bill in order to attract young, single women to the state, as men greatly outnumbered women in Wyoming, making it difficult for young men to find wives.