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.