Monday, August 29, 2011

American girls.

Man. The next time I'm feeling sorry for myself, I'll reread Gail Collins' America's Women. At least I'm not out on the prairie with no neighbors, no running water, no electricity, no medical care, no dentists, no hair dye, and no Wet'n'Wild Mega Liner.

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.

 Remember her? Of course, this Rosie, with lipstick and red nail polish, looks a little different from Rockwell's real Rosie (left), who has forearms like a dock worker and is enjoying the hell out of her sandwich. When World War II hit, women were suddenly needed again. All those factories weren't gonna run themselves. We're probably all familiar with Rosie and the "Gee! I'd join the navy!" girl, but Collins shows that the pressure to step up and work outside the home (which for a lot of women, was a first) was huge, including advertisements showing a soldier getting killed because one uninspected bullet slid by a lax lineworker. Of course, needing women to go to work didn't extend so far as providing childcare, and presto - America's first latch-key kids!

Of course, once the war wrapped up, women were unceremoniously kicked back to the hearth. Collins included some real heartbreaking stories - not everyone had a square-jawed GI Joe returning victorious from Europe, and the women who had kept America humming for four long years of loss and privation weren't given so much as a thank-you.

Instead, they got the 50s, a return to an incredibly restrictive gender code that is enjoying a resurgence (at least stylistically), thanks to Mad Men. Collins points out that the idea of the "50s" that's ingrained in the collective American psyche is really mid 1940s to the early 1960s, a helluva long time to stay in the kitchen. Of course, the 1960s roared back, although Collins shows that challenging authority doesn't necessarily mean challenging gender codes - and even in the burgeoning civil rights movement, women - who did the majority of the organizing - were told to sit down and shut up. Even Rosa Parks didn't get to talk in the midst of the movement she sparked.

Collins wraps up with the 1960s. Of course, we're a long way past that - we've got Supreme Court Justices, a kick-ass Secretary of State, senators and Congresswomen, and a handful of CEOs, but it's disheartening to see the same issues get fought over with women both as proxy and battleground - the latest trend of flinging women's access to healthcare under the bus is just one example.


  1. During lots of this time we enjoyed the 'American Taliban' way of life. World War II women helped take the giant step, and their daughters fueled the 60's sexual revolution. We have come a long way, but for some reason the children of the 60's women and those same 60's women want to take us back to the Victorian era of separate parlors and virgins. Some deny they ever were part of that revolution, but in their quest for purity they become serial liars.

  2. There's a great article in this month's Elle about the new crop of 'conservative' women. Shades of Phyllis Schlafly, who spent her time traveling around castigating working women...whiel she left her six kids with a string of nannies and had a lucrative career of her own. Do as I say, and all that...

  3. You should also read 'Growing Up' by Russell Baker. His family lived locally, in Lovettsville, and the 'Christian Taliban' was at work with his mother. She had to immediately quit her teaching job when she got married, and her husband, Russell's father, never worked a day in his life. They lived in her mother-in-law's shed. And then it got worse. Coincidentally, I know a woman that was also given away to a family member when she was a toddler. Apparently this happened frequently during the 20s and especially the 30s. Haves and Have-nots.