Excerpt from America's Women by Gail Collins, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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America's Women

Four Hundred Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines

by Gail Collins

America's Women
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2003, 556 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2004, 592 pages

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We don't know which tobacco brides won the golden ring and became a contented farm wife or a prosperous plantation mistress. Only a few of their disasters made it into history. Some of the women, including Cicely Bray, were killed in an Indian attack in 1622, when 347 settlers lost their lives. Examining the site of that massacre, modern archaeologists were puzzled to discover the skeleton of one woman with an iron band around her head that apparently had protected her from scalping. Women in England, they later deduced, used those bands to fasten a roll of cloth under their hair, to make their hairdo look fuller. Perhaps she was a tobacco bride, still trying to maintain her old standards of fashion.

Some British contractors, hired to provide the colonies with wives and female servants, simply went out and grabbed whatever warm bodies they could find, shoved them into a boat and set sail. In October 1618, a warrant was issued in England for one Owen Evans, who was kidnapping young women from their villages and sending them off to be sold in Bermuda and Virginia as indentured servants. "His undue proceedings breed such terror to the poor maidens as 40 of them fled out of one parish into such obscure and remote places as their parents and masters can yet have no news what is become of them," reported a correspondent to King James I. The danger of being dragged off to America against one 's will figured prominently in the popular literature of seventeenth-century England-playwrights found the shanghai artists, or "spirits," a handy deus ex machina for eliminating characters midplot. Parents sometimes pursued the spirits' vessels down the Thames, where they ransomed their kidnapped children before they disappeared forever. The law didn't seem to do much to dissuade the abductions. In 1680, a woman named Ann Servant confessed to attacking Alice Flax, a young maiden, putting her on board a ship and selling her in Virginia. Servant was fined a little over 13 shillings. In the coinage of the era, that was enough to buy a dozen lobsters or pints of ale, but hardly the value Alice Flax would have put on her liberty.

Besides wanting to populate the new colonies, the English government was also eager to get rid of its more undesirable citizens, who were overloading the urban jails. Some convicts were involuntarily deported; others were given the choice between a long jail term and life as an indentured servant across the ocean. Sarah Wilson, a former lady's maid in the court of Queen Charlotte, was found guilty of stealing a jewel in the royal palace. She was undoubtedly relieved when her death sentence was reduced to transportation to Maryland. There, she escaped from her masters and made her way to South Carolina where she introduced herself as Queen Charlotte's sister, Princess Susanna Carolina Matilda. Wilson happily sold royal preferments to the gullible colonists until she was undone by advertisements by her Maryland master, seeking the return of his runaway servant.

France sent a raft of convicts to its colony in Louisiana, some of them women who shared Sarah Wilson's spirit. "The wenches in crossing Paris sang as though without care, and hailed passers-by, inviting them to come along on a voyage to the Mississippi," wrote a French diarist who watched 300 female prisoners, each with a yellow bow in her hair, riding off to the port. The French female convicts were all expected to enthusiastically embrace careers as farmwives in the rough, steamy colony, a transmutation that was easier said than done. Even the women who arrived in New Orleans as the French equivalent of tobacco brides were unhappy and demanded to go home. (Good Parisians, they complained endlessly about the quality of the local food.) One of the commissioners of the colony in the 1720s, after listing the problems the women had caused him, hopefully suggested that they might be shipped off to marry into the hostile Indian tribes.

From America's Women by Gail Collins. Copyright © 2003 by Gail Collins. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without written permission from the publisher, HarperCollins Publishers.

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