America’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines by Gail Collins is a historical nonfiction book that outlines the history of the United States from the perspective of women. America’s Women covers topics ranging from the effects of everyday conditions and major events on the lives of women to their stances on marriage, work, and equality.
I already knew the general trends of the roles that women played throughout American history, but America’s Women expanded my knowledge on the topic by offering detailed stories of individuals that all added up to create a comprehensive picture of the American woman’s experience.
Starting from the birth of Virginia Dare, the first English child to be born on American land, America’s Women takes readers through the story of our country from one woman to the next. The following lists just some of the interesting things I found in the book:
During the seventeenth century, women largely suffered from back problems due to the exclusive use of benches and the limited availability of backed chairs. They also experienced great discomfort during the winter while sewing next to the cold window for sufficient light, due to the high prices of candles.
Harriet Beecher Stowe had been hoping to buy a new dress after writing and selling Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but she ended up owning a mansion and an orange plantation, upsetting the less successful Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Lanah Sawyer, a seventeen-year-old female rape victim, faced an all-male jury that took only fifteen minutes to agree on the acquittal of the accused rapist.
Slave women were less likely to die in childbirth than their mistresses given that they did not wear corsets, got a lot of exercise from physical work, and were spared the harmful practices of nineteenth-century physicians.
During the abolition movement, women organized antislavery fairs and made scarves and doilies with antislavery messages, such as pen wipers that urged their users to “wipe out the blot of slavery,” or embroidered linens that read, “May the points of our needles prick the slaveholders’ consciences,”
During the rise of nativism in the late nineteenth century, Chinese immigrants were locked up until their interrogations as though they were in prison. They were then asked anywhere between several hundred to one thousand questions that were aimed at catching them in some minor lie or error that would disqualify them from entering the United States.
Margaret Sanger was the first to evaluate all the available forms of birth control and disclose explanations of what each did and how they worked. She eventually fled to Europe to avoid criminal obscenity charges for her work.
Tanned skin became fashionable for the first time in the twenties, and by 1927, half of American women wore rouge and 90 percent wore face powder. Everyone from teenagers to middle-aged women carried compacts around to powder their noses.
You may be wondering why such small details could be important or relevant. You may be asking yourself, “Why should I care about back pain? When will I ever have to know about Lanah Sawyer?”
The truth is, it’s impossible for anyone to know all of the details of someone else’s life. Even those who are closest to us, such as our families or our friends, cope with elements of their lives that may seem insignificant or invisible to us but deeply affect them behind the scenes. The things that they choose to tell us about or show do not necessarily accurately reflect their actual experiences and emotions, which can inhibit empathy or lead to misunderstandings. In the same way, paying attention only to the biggest historical figures and events prevents a more profound, more comprehensive understanding of history.
Ultimately, a tiny fraction of each generation ends up in future history books, and the United States from the start of the twenty-first century onwards is significantly different from past centuries in that the Internet has existed to serve as a record for the historical events, politics, language, popular trends, and other phenomena of the time period. Technology that allows for anyone to post memes on social media or for news websites to publicize global events didn’t exist before the past several decades. Because we don’t have nearly as much information about the lives of people from the past as we do about our own, the least we can do is read a little more about the lesser-known people, especially the half of the population that was consistently oppressed. History isn’t about memorizing the famous people that we need to know for the upcoming test; it’s about understanding the trends and sentiments of populations over time and how certain people, individually and holistically, have affected the course of events.
Although its size and length may seem intimidating, not to mention the title (400 years sounds like a long time), America’s Women is interesting and surprisingly enjoyable to read; Collins’ clean and analytical language is refreshing, and it’s fun to learn about more obscure people. Above all, America’s Women succeeded in giving voices to women who worked behind the scenes, and effectively demonstrates why learning about American “herstory” beyond just the Seneca Falls Convention or the Nineteenth Amendment is important: to understand on a deeper level the struggles that American women have endured, and how the meaning of injustice for women has changed over time.