Summary and book reviews of America's Women by Gail Collins

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
    Sep 2004, 592 pages

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Book Summary

A landmark work of history telling the story of more than four centuries of history featuring a stunning array of personalities.

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.

Chapter One
The First Colonists:
Voluntary and Otherwise


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 ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

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.''

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Media Reviews

The Washington Post - Phyllis Rose

... lively and readable survey of women in America ... good-humored way of presenting them.

The New York Times - Stacy Schiff

If there is a villain in this tale she may just wear a skirt; as Collins sees it, we have repeatedly tripped ourselves up. The enemy is not so much the other half of the human race as the mixed messages ...

Booklist - Carol Haggas

... a thoroughly readable, often revelatory, and intimately refined account of the philosophical concepts and practical considerations that embody the past, enable the present, and empower the future of American women.

Kirkus Reviews - Alice Martell

Informative and entertaining, full of vivid stories that reveal not only what women were doing but how they felt about it.

Publishers Weekly - Alice Martell

... a fully accessible, and thoroughly enjoyable, primer of how American women have not only survived but thrived.

Reader Reviews

Timothy May

America's Women - What An Insight
This book by Gail Collins gives a wonderful insight into what life for American women has been like in American history. The Readers will likely be shocked, as I was, about the reality of what American women have been through to get to where they are...   Read More

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