America’s Women – Gail Collins (2003)

America's Women book coverSubtitle: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines.

I made notes as I read this book as there was so much to think about… Thought I would just give you the notes in note-form and you could follow the reading process that way…

–          Extremely under-stated subtle sense of humor – quick wit and asides which could be easy to miss, and add sparkle to the book

–          Rather confused at the start as didn’t have a clear idea of the difference between the Civil War  (1861-1865 fighting against emancipation [I think]) and Revolutionary War (1775-1783 fighting for independence from the Brits). I started the book thinking that these were just different names for the same war, so got a bit lost at times…. (Aaah. Us foreigners….) Once got that bit sorted out, it was much easier to follow what was happening… 🙂

–          Reading about the history of women’s rights/lives in the US —  interesting to see that some things have changed and some things are still very much the same… 18th century – editor of large women’s magazine exhorting women to stay at home (but she is ok to be out and managing large business while saying this). Kept on saying that she was only working as a stop-gap to help her family income, but this “stop-gap” lasted for decades and message didn’t change.

–          Running large house is ok, but not running a whole business (except this magazine). Are these contradictions still around in the 21st century?

–          18th century novelist Grace Greenwoods wrote: “true feminine genius is ever timid, doubtful and clingingly dependent, a perpetual childhood…”  Aaargh.

–          Thos Jefferson, himself not such a big fan of female education, knowing that it was important wrt his daughter Martha, writing that “the chance that in marriage she will draw a blockhead I calculate at 14 to 1 and… the education of her family will probably rest on her own ideas and directions without assistance”…. (Link with Beechers’ book subtitle about the future of the republic in women’s hands etc.)

–          Found this bit interesting: U.S. society view of feminism in 1927: “Feminism has become a term of opprobrium to the modern young woman” (from Dorothy Dunbar Bromley (essayist)). Compare with Moran’s view of feminism being hairy man-haters etc.

–          National American Woman Suffrage Association led to League of Women Voters (estab. in 1920’s) who seem to take a much more backstage role in things now (at least in the city where I am)

–          1947 – one book called “Modern Woman: The Lost Sex” wrote that spinsters should be barred from teaching children on grounds of “emotional incompetence” – compare this with pendulum swing of opinion in earlier times when teaching was one of the few professions open to women, but if they got married they had to resign. (Seems to be rather “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t”…)

Among the many interesting facts that I learned from this read, one intriguing little nugget was that carving meat at the dinner table used to be one of the more important domestic skills for a woman to have during Colonial times, reflected in the following vocabulary for carving various birds:

  • “break” a goose
  • “thrust” a chicken
  • “spoil” a hen
  • “pierce” a goose

Nowadays, it seems to be more a traditionally male role (to carve the turkey at special dinners  a la Norman Rockwell etc.)  – when did that change occur?

Fascinating to see society’s opinion (read: men as they had the power of media and business etc.) – what is a suitable occupation for women during one age will not be suitable at another and depends (naturellement) on the needs of the nation (as determined by…?…. Hmm.)

So – a really interesting read. Very balanced in how it approached the historical aspect (and resisted the temptation to turn it into a anti-man screed:  there was tons of ammo to turn it into an unbalanced read but the author didn’t succumb) and with a super-great bibliography at the end. Wicked sense of humor slips in now and then (you’ll need to be quick to catch it) and packed with loads of info so was a slower read.

Link with other Gail Collins’ book (also on women’s issues and titled: When Everything Changed.)

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2 thoughts on “America’s Women – Gail Collins (2003)

  1. It was interesting to read your thoughts on this as you read — I didn’t know carving used to be a woman’s role… strange how that’s changed! I haven’t read a book by Gail Collins yet, but When Everything Changed in on my shelves, waiting.

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