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

America's Women

If I’m checking out a library book having anything to do with history, there’s a good chance it is for my husband. That’s his thing. He’s Mister Presidential Biography and certain time periods of interest and very little else.

Although I like to think of myself as a bit more diverse, literary-speaking, I admit my first section of choice isn’t always the history section. It feels too academic to me.

Which is why I was surprised at how much I enjoyed America’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines by Gail Collins. As the title promises, Collins truly does pack 400 years of American women’s history into what is a chunkster of a book. Make no mistake, though: this is no dry textbook. Collins presents a comprehensive and thorough view of American women’s history in a way that is incredibly informative, engaging, shocking, and entertaining. At some points, I couldn’t put this down.

Beginning with the very first settlers at Jamestown, Collins traces the history and the stories of strong, formidable women through an ever-changing America during the Revolutionary War, slavery, pre-and post-Civil War, the pioneer days, the Gilded Age, and the Depression. There are the names from one’s school history books: Harriet Beecher Stowe, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Elizabeth Blackwell, Carrie Nation, Annie Oakley, Margaret Sanger and countless others – but whose individual stories and accomplishments we may not have ever quite completely learned or fully remember. Collins brings all of them – the dolls, drudges, helpmates, and heroines all back to life on these pages for her reader. (The title comes from a Susan B. Anthony quote: “When I was young if a girl married poor, she became a housekeeper and a drudge. If she married wealthy, she became a pet and a doll.”)

What I found especially interesting were the stories of the women who went unmentioned in the history books – the women we’ve never heard of. Or, at least, the ones I hadn’t heard of (I’m not going to mention them by name because I don’t want to look stupid in front of 15,000+ Eleventh Stack readers, but I’m betting there are a few women in here who aren’t household names to you, either).

America’s Women also gives the reader an inside look into women’s lives throughout each of the centuries, almost as if one was there churning the butter or sitting in the sewing room. It’s fascinating to see how life changed through the Revolutionary War and into the pre-Civil War years and post-slavery. Through her extensive research, Collins covers and presents all aspects of women’s lives – the homefront and the daily chores, women’s health (these sections are not for the faint-of-heart, trust me), popular literature, culture, fashion, and customs. Again, we “know” these things from our history books or perhaps from movies or other books. America’s Women does the reader a great service by encapsulating in one volume the vast history of this time period.

In many cases, I wanted to know more about these women. That’s not a criticism of the book itself, because especially with the histories of the women from the 1600s, what we know from that time is somewhat limited.

Fortunately, what we do know is all here in America’s Women. This is highly recommended for … well, really anybody who cares about American history. I think every American should read this, and I’m looking forward to reading Gail Collins’ follow up book, When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present.

–Melissa F.

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July 14, 2014 · 5:00 am

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