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

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

by Gail Collins

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America's Women tells the story of more than four centuries of history. It features a stunning array of personalities, from the women peering worriedly over the side of the Mayflower to feminists having a grand old time protesting beauty pageants and bridal fairs. Courageous, silly, funny, and heartbreaking, these women shaped the nation and our vision of what it means to be female in America.

By culling the most fascinating characters -- the average as well as the celebrated -- Gail Collins, the editorial page editor at the New York Times, charts a journey that shows how women lived, what they cared about, and how they felt about marriage, sex, and work. She begins with the lost colony of Roanoke and the early southern "tobacco brides" who came looking for a husband and sometimes -- thanks to the stupendously high mortality rate -- wound up marrying their way through three or four. Spanning wars, the pioneering days, the fight for suffrage, the Depression, the era of Rosie the Riveter, the civil rights movement, and the feminist rebellion of the 1970s, America's Women describes the way women's lives were altered by dress fashions, medical advances, rules of hygiene, social theories about sex and courtship, and the ever-changing attitudes toward education, work, and politics. While keeping her eye on the big picture, Collins still notes that corsets and uncomfortable shoes mattered a lot, too.

"The history of American women is about the fight for freedom," Collins writes in her introduction, "but it's less a war against oppressive men than a struggle to straighten out the perpetually mixed message about women's roles that was accepted by almost everybody of both genders."

Told chronologically through the compelling stories of individual lives that, linked together, provide a complete picture of the American woman's experience, America's Women is both a great read and a landmark work of history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061739224
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 10/13/2009
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 608
Sales rank: 52,562
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Gail Collins, a columnist for the New York Times, was the the first woman ever to serve as editorial page editor for the paper. Previously, she was a member of the Times editorial board, and a columnist for the New York Daily News and New York Newsday.

Read an Excerpt

America's Women
Four Hundred Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines

Chapter One

The First Colonists:
Voluntary and Otherwise

The Extremely Brief Story of Virginia Dare

Eleanor Dare must have been either extraordinarily adventurous or easily led. In 1587, when she was pregnant with her first child, she set sail across the Atlantic, headed for a continent where no woman of her kind had ever lived, let alone given birth. The only English-speaking residents of the New World at the time were a handful of men who had been left behind during an earlier, unsuccessful attempt at settlement on Roanoke Island, in what is now Virginia. Eleanor's father, John White, was to become governor of the new colony. Her husband, Ananias, a bricklayer, was one of his assistants.

Under the best of circumstances, a boat took about two months to get from England to the New World, and there were plenty of reasons to avoid the trip. Passengers generally slept on the floor, on damp straw, living off salted pork and beef, dried peas and beans. They suffered from seasickness, dysentery, typhoid, and cholera. Their ship could sink, or be taken by privateers, or run aground at the wrong place. Even if it stayed afloat, it might be buffeted around for so long that the provisions would run out before the travelers reached land. Later would-be colonists sometimes starved to death en route. (The inaptly named Love took a year to make the trip, and at the end of the voyage rats and mice were being sold as food.) Some women considered the odds and decided to stay on dry land. The wife of John Dunton, a colonial minister, wrote to him that she would rather be "a living wife in England than a dead one at sea."

But if Eleanor Dare had any objections, they were never recorded. She and sixteen other women settlers, along with ninety-one men and nine children, encountered no serious problems until they stopped to pick up the men who had been left at Roanoke. When they went ashore to look for them, all they found were the bones of a single Englishman. The uncooperative ship's captain refused to take them farther, and they were forced to settle on the same unlucky site.

Try to imagine what Eleanor Dare must have thought when she walked, heavy with child, through the houses of the earlier settlers, now standing empty, "overgrown with Melons of divers sortes, and Deere within them, feeding," as her father later recorded. Eleanor was a member of the English gentry, hardly bred for tilling fields and fighting Indians. Was she confident that her husband the bricklayer and her father the bureaucrat could keep her and her baby alive, or was she beginning to blame them for getting her into this extremely unpromising situation? All we know is that on August 18, the first English child was born in America and christened Virginia Dare -- named, like the colony, in honor of the Virgin Queen who ruled back home. A few days later her grandfather boarded the boat with its cranky captain and sailed back to England for more supplies, leaving Eleanor and the other settlers to make homes out of the ghost village. It was nearly three years before White could get passage back to Roanoke, and when he arrived he discovered the village once again abandoned, with no trace of any human being, living or dead. No one knows what happened to Eleanor and the other lost colonists. They might have been killed by Indians or gone to live with the local Croatoan tribe when they ran out of food. They were swallowed up by the land, and by history.

The Dares and other English colonists who we call the first settlers were, of course, nothing of the sort. People had lived in North America for perhaps twenty millennia, and the early colonists who did survive lasted only because friendly natives were willing to give them enough food to prevent starvation. In most cases, that food was produced by native women. Among the eastern tribes, men were generally responsible for hunting and making war while the women did the farming. In some areas they had as many as 2,000 acres under cultivation. Former Indian captives reported that the women seemed to enjoy their work, tilling the fields in groups that set their own pace, looking after one another's youngsters. Control of the food brought power, and the tribes whose women played a dominant role in growing and harvesting food were the ones in which women had the highest status and greatest authority. Perhaps that's why the later colonists kept trying to foist spinning wheels off on the Indians, to encourage what they regarded as a more wholesome division of labor. At any rate, it's nice to think that Eleanor Dare might have made a new life for herself with the Croatoans and spent the rest of her life working companionably with other women in the fields, keeping an eye out for her daughter and gossiping about the unreliable men.


Jamestown was founded in 1607 by English investors hoping to make a profit on the fur and timber and precious ore they thought they were going to find. Its first residents were an ill-equipped crew of young men, many of them the youngest sons of good families, with no money but a vast sense of entitlement. The early colonists included a large number of gentlemen's valets, but almost no farmers. They regarded food as something that arrived in the supply ship, and nobody seemed to have any interest in learning how to grow his own. (Sir Thomas Dale, who arrived in 1611 after two long winters of starvation, said he found the surviving colonists at "their daily and usuall workes, bowling in the streetes.")

America's Women
Four Hundred Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines
. Copyright © by Gail Collins. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Table of Contents

1.The First Colonists: Voluntary and Otherwise1
2.The Women of New England: Goodwives, Heretics, Indian Captives, and Witches23
3.Daily Life in the Colonies: Housekeeping, Children, and Sex47
4.Toward the Revolutionary War67
5.1800-1860: True Women, Separate Spheres, and Many Emergencies85
6.Life Before the Civil War: Cleanliness and Corsetry115
7.African American Women: Life in Bondage140
8.Women and Abolition: White and Black, North and South161
9.The Civil War: Nurses, Wives, Spies, and Secret Soldiers188
10.Women Go West: Pioneers, Homesteaders, and the Fair but Frail208
11.The Gilded Age: Stunts, Shorthand, and Study Clubs238
12.Immigrants: Discovering the "Woman's Country"258
13.Turn of the Century: The Arrival of the New Woman279
14.Reforming the World: Suffrage, Temperance, and Other Causes304
15.The Twenties: All the Liberty You Can Use in the Backseat of a Packard327
16.The Depression: Ma Perkins and Eleanor Roosevelt350
17.World War II: "She's Making History, Working for Victory"371
18.The Fifties: Life at the Far End of the Pendulum397
19.The Sixties: The Pendulum Swings Back with a Vengeance421

Reading Group Guide


In my house, I have a room in which one wall is entirely covered with books that I used while writing America's Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates and Heroines. When I look at them I like to remember that there was a time, not very long ago, when teachers who wanted to offer courses on women's history were told there wasn't enough information to cover an entire semester. Some of the books are amazing, full of fascinating stories and little details I love. In one of them, I found a recipe for a basic cake which told me all I needed to know about what it was like to be a housewife in the early 19th century: mix eight eggs and a pound of sugar and "beat it three quarters of an hour.''

Much as I love this little library, I know that many people -- well, virtually all people -- don't have the time to get acquainted with everything that's been written on the history of women in this country. My idea in writing America's Women was to go through as many books as possible myself, take out the most interesting bits and spin one story. It starts in England in 1587 with Eleanor Dare, who agreed, when she was pregnant with her first child, to get into a smallish boat and sail across the ocean to settle with her husband and a few other people on a continent where no woman of her kind had ever been before. She was obviously either very brave or very easily led. We don't know which, since she vanished from history, along with her baby daughter and all the other residents of the lost colony of Roanoke.

America's Women has all the great heroines in our past, but it's mainly about what it was like to be an average woman, who was supposed to blaze trails while struggling with corsets and cleanliness issues. (The nation acquired handguns and repeat rifles before anybody bothered to invent window screens.) At the end, you'll find a lot of notes that show you where I got my information. If some part of the story really intrigues you, you can follow the same trail back through the books and articles I read along the way.

If you happen to belong to a book club, you're following in the path of the great women's club movement that began right after the Civil War. It was sort of like a huge, informal junior college system, and some of the clubs were founded with great expectations. They vowed to read all the Greek philosophers, or to start with ancient history and make their way all the way to the modern era. Although these women were very big on keeping minutes, nobody has ever managed to come up with statistics on how many of them really did get all the way through Socrates, or Shakespeare, as promised.

In the spirit of those great-intentioned pioneers, let me offer some suggestions to groups that prefer to give members their reading assignments in chunks of a hundred or so pages. This is a story that divides itself into parts pretty easily:

Chapters 1-4 bring you through the Revolutionary War and up to 1800. I'm particularly fond of the stories of the early South, when women were in such short supply they could do just about anything they wanted and still latch onto a respectable husband. (Or two, or four, or five. Any woman whose constitution managed to develop immunity to malaria could find herself widowed over and over again, her estate escalating with every bereavement.) This is also where you want to go if you're one of the many Salem Witch Trial fans.

Chapters 5 and 6 are two of my particular favorites, covering what it was like to be a woman in the very peculiar period before the Civil War, when families moved to the city and middle class women tended to stick to their homes. Husbands even took over the shopping chores. Part of this had to do with the extremely conservative ideology about sexual roles, but I'm absolutely sure part of it also had to do with the fact that this was an era in which virtually every American male chewed tobacco and spit all over every public space in the nation.

Chapters 7, 8, and 9 are about African American women, the abolition movement and the Civil War. This may be the most dramatic part of the story. Black women were staging spontaneous sit-down strikes on segregated streetcars and trains 100 years before Rosa Parks. You have female spies -- one made an early impression when, as a teenager, she protested being excluded from an adults-only party by riding her horse into the living room. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote "Uncle Tom's Cabin," which changes the way half a nation viewed the institution of slavery. But when she went on her book tour to England, she decorously sat in the balcony of a theater while her husband read her speech from the stage.

Chapters 9, 10 and 11 get us through the rest of the 19th century. How could you not love an era when women were being praised for the beauty of their "huge thighs" and young girls bragged about the amount of weight they gained on summer vacation? This was also the era of the great westward expansion, where girls in their teens fought Indians and drove wagon trains. Meanwhile back East, immigrants were pouring into the country. The life the women found here, at least for the first generation, depended both on luck and the nation they came from.

Chapters 13, 14, and 15 will take you through World War I. Women finally get the vote, after a nail-biting last minute confrontation in the Tennessee legislature in which women's chances in the 1920 presidential election hang on one vote ... (This is one of my all-time favorite stories in the book. You'll have to read it for yourself.)

And finally, chapters 16-19 get us to the present. The Depression, World War II, the Civil Rights movement and Women's Liberation are all in there, along with the critical roles played by radio soap operas and the invention of the Twist.

Questions for Discussion

There will be plenty to talk about if everybody comes together to tell their own piece of the story. But for more ambitious groups who want to read everything in advance, here are some of my favorite questions for discussion:

  1. The book says that for American women "the center of our story is the tension between the yearning to create a home and the urge to get out of it." Do you agree?

  2. Were the early colonial women very brave or easily led? If you had lived in 17th century England, would you have opted to stay home or brave the journey? Where would you have wanted to end up -- in New England or Virginia?

  3. "America's Women" seems to attribute the witch craze in Salem to "teenage girls in crisis who stumbled on a very bad but very effective way of trying to take control of their unhappy environment." Do you agree? The story can be told from any number of perspectives: economic, religious, social, psychological. Is any one, or combination, satisfactory?

  4. When families moved from farms to the city after the Revolutionary War, women's role changed and their status fell. The whole concept of the True Woman who radiated goodness was an effort to raise their stature again. Was it a satisfactory strategy? Can you come up with alternatives?

  5. There are two role models for women who wanted to have public lives in the early 19th century -- Sarah Josepha Hale and Elizabeth Blackwell. How did they differ? If you had been alive then, which would you have been like?

  6. Women were the best clients for the growing medical profession in the period before the Civil War. Why do you think that was? How did it work out for them?

  7. Some white Southern women had different views of slavery than their husbands. Why was that?

  8. The book says the "emotional burden on middle-class black women in the 19th century was stupendous." Has this burden been duplicated in the 21st century?

  9. The rise of department stores at the turn of the century meant a huge change for women -- both as consumers and as workers. Why was that?

  10. If you had been an immigrant around the turn of the century, what country would you have wanted to come from? Why?

  11. Jeannette Rankin was the first woman to serve in Congress, and she wound up voting against not one, but both world wars. Do you approve or disapprove?

  12. In the Twenties, women won freedom in areas like dress, dating and drinking but many lost interest in politics and "feminism" fell totally out of fashion. All in all, would you regard the decade as a step forward or back?

  13. When women got the vote, the first president they helped elect was one of the worst -- Warren Harding. How, if at all, does this reflect on suffrage?

  14. Do you agree that Eleanor Roosevelt was the most important woman in American history? If not, who would you nominate?

  15. Speaking about the American civilians during World War II, John Kenneth Galbraith said "Never in the long history of human combat have so many talked so much about sacrifice with so little deprivation." Do you agree?

  16. In the 1950s, less than 10 percent of the population felt a person could live a happy life without being married. The status of single women seems to have gone up and down several times in our history. Why is that? Where do you think it is now?

  17. Things changed so fast for women in the late 1960s. Why do you think that was? Will we ever go back to the way things were in the 1950s, when the full-time housewife was the universal American ideal?

About the Author

Gail Collins is the editorial page editor of the New York Times -- the first woman ever to hold that post. She has been a columnist for the Times, as well as New York Newsday and the New York Daily News. America's Women is her third book. She is also the author of Scorpion Tongues: Gossip, Celebrity and American Politics and The Millennium Book, which she co-authored with her husband, Dan Collins. They live in New York City.

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America's Women 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 36 reviews.
PiggityPig More than 1 year ago
It was given to me by my husbands grandma. I'm a military historian and a maritime historian, NOT a women's studies historian and so at first I balked. Why would she give me this? I was enthralled the moment that I opened the book. It opened a whole new world of history to me. Since reading this book, I've read many other books on women's history. Do not let the name scare you, men would find this book fascinating to. Its just an amazing look at America's history. As always I wish that the 60's to now had been dealt with a bit more, but when you are encompassing over two hundred years of history its hard to fit in everything. I also applaud Collins for attemtping to cover every color and every walk of life. Its hard to dig deeper into the slave and wage earned subconscious when there are numerous primary sources readily available for women that had plenty. She does it though, as well as investigate the relationships these women had with each other. All in all, this book is an absolute must read for everyone!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great book to learn about women suffragists
LinNC More than 1 year ago
Collins brings the stories of so many women to life. Too many of these names have never found their way into textbooks. Some were courageous, some were simply trying to make their way in a world that presented them with challenges unimaginable today, some struggled with choices, all were a part of the path that led to the place of women in today's America.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Take a trip through time and meet America's women from the celebrated suffragist to the unknown Indian. Long after you finish the book, these brave women will linger in your heart & mind. Kudos to Collins who skillfully collapses 400 years into 400 pages. Very readable and engaging.
allthesedarnbooks on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I loved this book! It's an excellent, readable overview of the history of women in the United States. Because of the breadth of the subject, sometimes there wasn't enough information about certain women or subjects to satisfy my curiosity, but overall, this is a great and comprehensive book. There are numerous inspiring stories of famous and not-so-famous women. I recommend this for history fans and women everywhere, and it's a great place to start if you're interested in women's studies. Four and a half stars.
lmnop2652 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Every time I open these pages for a quick peek at some tidbit, I'm hooked and can't put it down. It's chockablock full of America's history through the centuries, all in lively prose. A true treasure chest.
apartmentcarpet on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Gail Collins flits through history, touching on interesting well known and obscure women. This is popular history at its best - light, easy reading that skims the surface and gives you a list of things to research in detail later.
kambrogi on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I thoroughly enjoyed this well-researched and fascinating book. It is a history of America through the lives of women, ordinary citizens as well as leaders and innovators. Most history books deal primarily with war, expansion and politics ¿ and the men who dominated those events. They tend to leave out the women who participated in those endeavors, as well as the home and community life to which many of them contributed heavily. I loved reading about the clothing and food of the times, the ways in which women managed households and children, the laws that bound them, and the astonishing strength it took for them to do what was asked of them, or refuse to do it. Without a book such as this that presents the other side of the story, it would be difficult to understand just how much women contributed to the history of America.Written in intelligent, well-documented prose, it is an easy, entertaining and occasionally humorous read. I read each page eagerly and even after 450 pages, was sorry to see it finished.
annbury on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Interesting, but less so than I expected from Ms. Collins. I do look forward, however, to reading her new book on the past half century.
kristinmm on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a very easily read and hard to put down history. I could have wished for more detail but it is covering quite a bit of time so has to be more of an overview. It was great to have ordinary women's lives included in the book as well as more famous ones. I will definitely be researching some people and events that this book introduced to me more thoroughly in the future.
SleepyKitty on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An easy to read history of the diverse roles women have played in American society. Recommended for history and non-history afficionados.
Angelic55blonde on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is an interesting book about people not normally talked/analyzed about in other history books. This book discuses how women shaped America as well as what it means to be a female in this country. The book covers 400 years which is quite alot but it is still really interesting. Gail Collins focuses on how women's lives changed with various advances such as medical and social theory advances. I really enjoyed reading this book and if someone is interested in women's studies and the history of females in America, this book is for them.
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This book makes me happy to be a woman! Strong writing, extremely interesting. A great read.
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ProseSax More than 1 year ago
At least they all show up in THIS book. I was never able to schedule a Women's Studies class in college. Frankly, I started reading this book waiting to get bogged down. Ms. Collins fortunately NEVER gets bogged down. Like a film director, she knows when to change settings, characters and themes. Like a novelist, she knows when to bring key figures back into the narrative. And, like a good sociologist, she spots trends and patterns unique to the story of American women.
The book is packed with stories like that of Margaret Fuller, associate of icons as diverse as Poe and Thoreau. You learn the moving story of the Women's Air Corps; female pilots shot down towing targets for gunners to practice on. Through journals and diaries, she pieces together the stories of Civil War widows who escaped their emotional pain by becoming a very quiet epidemic of alcohol and drug abusers.
I challenge anyone to come away from this engrossing book without a deep compassion for these women, and a deeper knowledge of what being American truly means.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago