Monday, August 29, 2011
America's Women is a riveting, well-researched, snappily written book that is nonetheless pretty depressing, especially if you are, as I am, of the lady persuasion. Depressing in that while we've come a loooong way, baby, you read this book and go, oh. I thought we already had that fight?
In the Palin Age, when reproductive rights are steadily being eroded (see Virginia's recent decision regarding clinic regulations), there's the big, nasty, apparently zombie-like pay gap that refuses to die, the Wal-Mart discrimination case gave business the go-ahead to treat women like indentured servants, and there seems to be an overall maelstrom over how women are collectively (let me see if I get this straight): not working hard enough, working too hard, having too many kids, having too few, screwing up their kids by working, screwing up their kids by not working, stealing all the good spots at universities, being too sexy, not being sexy enough, and STILL aren't funny - thank you, Christopher Hitchens - I sometimes feel like pasting on a moustache. Hey, if you can't beat 'em, and all that.
But anyway. Collins is the editorial page editor of the New York Times, and her journalism creds are well-served in her sharp eye for historical detail and crisp, to-the-point construction. Collins takes us back to the colonies, when a good woman was worth her weight in gold. After all, it didn't matter how many pigs you could raise or corn you could grow, you weren't getting maize or bacon unless you had someone at home doing all the production. Survival and the overwhelmingly male demographics of the colonies meant that women, especially industrious women, enjoyed an enormous amount of freedom, and consequently, many women became powerful political players in the nascent settlements. In "Daily Life in the Colonies," Collins provides a fascinating glimpse into exactly how incredibly gross everything was.
Of course, that changed as the settlements grew, we won the revolution, demographics evened out, and the Southern Cult of True Womanhood and idea of separate spheres grew. Collins draws some very interesting connections between slavery and the American version of purdah, a theme that comes up again and again. In short, if you really, really need something - like a woman at home to make sure your pigs aren't going to waste and your children aren't falling into a fire or something - you think of it as more valuable than when they're strictly decorative. Of course, during the Civil War and the push to the West, women were all of a sudden needed again, as nurses, to keep farms running while the men were gone, and as partners in the arduous trek West.
Collins then takes us from westward expansion to the Gilded Age and the Roaring Twenties, when women were all of a sudden good-time pals who could hold their liquor and keep up with men. This dizzying freedom only lasted as long as the affluence did, of course, and the 1930s brought everyone crashing back to earth - until the 1940s and World War II.