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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

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


Last year I read Gail Collin's follow-up book to this one: When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present. It was fabulous. So I knew I had to read the book covering the early years, especially as I had a friend who'd been raving about it for many years now (thanks Emily.) Feminism is heating up a little bit currently, thanks to books like Lean In and studies regarding the persistent lack of women CEOs and the lack of women in STEM jobs. But it's hard to understand the present unless we understand the past.

Ms. Collins goes back to the very beginning, to Virginia Dare and her mother. Who would be crazy or miserable enough to go on a months-long unpleasant sea voyage when she was pregnant? Ms. Collins doesn't just talk about the pioneers and firebrands, the Susan B. Anthonys and Eleanor Roosevelts (although they certainly are discussed) but also the everyday women who worked and sweated alongside husbands, who often didn't have much say in how their lives were turning out, and who fought so that we women today do have that privilege.

One of the coolest things about this book for me was that my ancestor, Hannah Dustan, was in it! She was a colonist captured by Indians in a raid immediately after giving birth, and after her infant was killed she was force-marched across several colonies to Canada. She escaped, scalped several of her captors, and walked all the way back home to Haverhill, Massachusetts. I love that I have such a badass as an ascendant. She has TWO statues to her, one in Haverhill and one in New Hampshire.

And then I have to share this bit of hilarity: "In 1891, the Library Journal published the first general discussion of women's place in library work. The author, Caroline Hewlins, estimated that women who worked as library assistants should expect to make $300 to $900 a year--about half what men made--and be able to write steadily for six or seven hours a day. They should know half a dozen languages, Hewlins said, "understand the relation of all arts and sciences to each other and must have... a minute acquaintance with geography, history, art and literature." Women who aspired to be head librarian should expect to work ten hours a day, she continued, but "those who are paid the highest salaries give up all their evenings" as well. She added, perhaps unnecessarily, that librarians and their assistants, "sometimes break down from overwork."" p. 244

This brilliant history was fun and fascinating as well as being informative and making me feel so much smarter. It's very accessible with great stories of interesting and passionate women we can admire and look up to (and some we can be grateful we don't have to deal with, like Carrie Nation.) It's an essential read for all women. After all, if we don't know our own history, how can we know how far we've come, and how far we have left to go?

I checked this book out of the library.

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