Review

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

by Gail Collins

Forget Hillary Clinton, Madonna, Queen Latifah, and Diane Sawyer. Today's media magnets are nothing compared to the forthright ladies and rustic women who helped create the United States of America. The names we should know are Eleanor Dare, Temperance Flowerdew, the Brent sisters, Mary Johnson, Susan Blunt, Eliza Lucas, Phillis Wheatley, Deborah Sampson Gannett, Sarah Hale, Katy Ferguson, Maria Chapman, Mary Ann Bickerdyke, and Jane Addams, to name just a few of the thousand women Gail Collins has put on display in the seductive and sprawling historical romp AMERICA'S WOMEN. From the Victorian age to the Age of Aquarius, this ambitious volume brings to life the brave, selfless and patriotic ladies who stood in front of, on top of, in spite of and sometimes even behind the men America still stubbornly celebrates as the sole defenders of freedom.

So richly filled with newly uncovered historical fact and biographical detail, the book is a fantastic time machine, beginning in braless 1587 and ending in the bra-burning era of 1960-1970. Collins's effort is unique because it is not just another encyclopedic listing of famous women of the ages that choke our library shelves. With a diary quote opening each section, AMERICA'S WOMEN relies on the original sources to tell the tales, interspersed with spicy and informative editorialization from Collins. "One of the tricks to being a great historical figure is to leave behind as much information as possible," the author explains, revealing that primary source material was drawn from the New Englanders' "winning habit of keeping diaries." However, Collins, herself a noteworthy figure as the first female editorial page editor for the New York Times, digs deep to chronicle the lives of the women who "left behind almost nothing of their voices," like the Native Americans who met the first English settlers.

Collins introduces Eleanor Dare, purportedly the first female colonist; Margaret and Mary Brent, unmarried sisters who ran the colony of Maryland during wartime, Margaret being the first woman to demand the right to vote in the Assembly; and Temperance Flowerdew, the wife of two of the Virginia colony's governors. Mary Johnson arrived in Virginia in 1620 as the first African American woman. Susan Blunt was appointed at just 10 years old as housekeeper for twin girls and an elderly man. It's hard to imagine an elementary school girl today even attempting Blunt's duties, which began each day at 5 a.m., toting water from a well, making breakfast, caring for the old man, making dinner, cleaning and mending. "As her reward, she received enough money to buy a new apron," Collins reports. No Playstation, Eminem, air conditioning, hair dryers, cell phones, or Powerpuff Girls. While cleaning and mending might sound easy enough, Collins continually offers solid doses of colonial reality: "Washing clothes was an arduous process… The laundress scrubbed and pounded the clothes in the tubs, working up to her elbows in hot water, sometimes for hours on end." Then there was the farm work, the animals, the children, the weather, and the husband, who was off politicking or fighting and dying in a war.

Eliza Lucas ran her father's Charleston plantation and cared for her invalid mother and young sister; Phillis Wheatley, a 13-year-old slave, published her poetry in the New England newspapers, and Deborah Sampson Gannett pretended to be a man so she could fight alongside her husband in the Revolutionary War. Sarah Josepha Hale was a powerful magazine editor in the 1830s, slave Katy Ferguson established New York's first Sunday school, Maria Weston Chapman led abolitionists, Mary Ann Bickerdyke took control in Illinois to aid the soldiers, and Jane Addams was a famous journalist who exposed the social wrongs that crippled the nation.

Collins makes each page exciting in this powerfully moving, funny and emotionally charged tour of our past, making the perfect history book for the millennium. The brisk narrative suffers only by the author's lack of attention to early lesbianism, which is not even mentioned until page 256, and overly extensive coverage of the Salem Witch Trials, with no reference to the telling theory that the children's claims of witchcraft might have been caused by hallucinations brought on by eating LSD-laced rye bread. While Mormon renouncer and author Ann Eliza Webb Young, the wealthy beauty product mongering Seven Sutherland Sisters, and pioneer obstetrician Peggy Warne are unfortunately missing from AMERICA'S WOMEN, there are still plenty of heroines here who contemplated, labored, mothered, lobbied, wrote, spoke out, fought, and even gave their lives to make far more than just a village.

Reviewed by Brandon M. Stickney on January 20, 2011

America's Women: Four Hundred Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines
by Gail Collins

  • Publication Date: September 1, 2004
  • Paperback: 592 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial
  • ISBN-10: 0060959819
  • ISBN-13: 9780060959814