Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Musings: America's Women

America's Women
America's Women by Gail Collins is one of the most fascinating books I've read all year.  It is really good, people.  I got it when there was all that positive talk about the author's new book, When Everything Changed, which is a sort of sequel to this book.  But I am one of those readers who likes to start at the beginning, so I read this one first, but now I can't wait to get my hands on When Everything Changed because I am sure it is just as fabulous as this one.

This book is about the history of women in the United States (mostly the history of white women, though there's more on African-Americans than she led me to expect in the introduction, and sadly very little on Native Americans due to lack of documentation).  That makes it sound either very dryly academic or feminazi-like, but it is neither, I promise you.  It's a collection of information on what it as like to be a woman at various points in time, and also a lot of short, tantalizing biographies of women who were awesome.  Seriously, I had no idea American history was chock full of amazing females, none of whom get the attention they deserve.  If this book did nothing else, it seriously piqued my interest in reading at least a dozen biographies of all sorts of women who stood up for their rights.  Instead of gushing about all of them and this book, I'll just share with you some thoughts I had in reading through this book:

  • Harriet Tubman.  WOW.  If there was an Official Coin of Bad*ss-ness, that coin would have Harriet Tubman's profile on it.  And she would be sleeping.  Did you know she suffered from narcolepsy?!  Randomly falling asleep at inappropriate times was apparently no biggie to this woman who helped so many slaves escape to freedom in the north.  She was cool as a cucumber in pretty much every situation that arose and a master of disguise, too.
  • Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony fought for equal rights alongside African-Americans until it appeared that African-American men would get the vote before white women.  At that point, Stanton pretty much turned on African-Americans and made a lot of appalling statements about uneducated men getting to vote before rich women.  This obviously created a huge breach, and women came out the losers as they didn't get to vote until 1920.
  • Jane Addams was amazing and good and kind.  It is difficult to imagine someone who had so much empathy and so much will to help people.  But she had it and she used it, and the world is a better place for her having been in it.
  • Eleanor Roosevelt.  I have heard so often that she was a hugely influential person, but I didn't realize how influential until reading this book.  I now fully appreciate her statue at the FDR memorial.  I think I've always had this vague idea of her as a "nice" person, but the woman was so strong-willed and amazing!  She did so much to advance civil rights.
  • Rosa Parks.  People act as though she did one act of defiance in her life, completely out of the blue, but that woman was READY for her moment.  She grew up in a household that was heavily into fighting for civil rights, and she was already involved in the movement when she refused to give up her seat on a bus and set the civil rights snowball rolling.  According to her lawyer, Martin Luther King, Jr. would have been virtually unknown if Rosa Parks hadn't put a face on civil rights.  And yet, when MLK and his supporters set up the march on DC to fight for equal rights, they didn't even consider asking Parks to speak and gave her almost no role in the proceedings at all.
  • Women started campaigning heavily for the right to vote soon after the Civil War.  They didn't get it until 1920.  (Insane, right?!)  This was partially due to the liquor lobby, which didn't want women to vote for prohibition.  Whereas now, liquor companies embrace women so completely that they consistently portray them as scantily-clad supermodels that will be attracted to literally any man drinking a certain brand of beer.  How far we've come.
  • Gail Collins is fascinated and frustrated by the complete lack of detail on how women historically dealt with their menstrual cycles.  There is literally no information on this.  Of course, now I want to know, too.
I mentioned some really famous women above, but what impressed me most about this book were the number of women mentioned who were not famous.  Or that were famous in their time but have sadly been lost to contemporary history because history in classes is full of Men, and never even hints at women's struggles for rights.  I loved learning more about people like the Grimke sisters, the early pioneer women (many of whom were disturbingly racist), the immigrant experience and the struggle America has had for so much of its history of wanting proper ladies on one hand but also desperately requiring as much labor as it could get.  Why America can be so forward-thinking in so many ways but so backwards sometimes, particularly in its treatment of women, is something that never ceases to amaze me.  I won't make this into a political post, but I just don't understand the movements and organizations that exist to take away a woman's right to determine her own life and path.

This post is getting WAY too long, I know, so I'll stop here.  But READ THIS BOOK.  It is so, so good and explains so much about women's struggles in the US.  I can't wait to find and enjoy the sequel; I'm sure it will be just as excellent.

    25 comments:

    1. You are right, this sounds fantastic. Great review, thanks for bringing the book to my attention!

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    2. So glad you liked this! Love your rundown of some of the more famous historical women. I gotta say, the way you called Harriet Tubman a "master of disguise" makes me think she should be the next historical figure to get a mashup book, a la Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter. Harriet Tubman Super Spy would be awesome. James Bonde-like set during the Civil War? With Steampunk gadgetry?

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    3. This does sound good. I would love to see a book like this used in schools!

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    4. You know, I have never thought about the topics that that this book raises, but have to admit that your review has fascinated me. I know that a lot of the women that you mentioned are famous for certain things, but I think I missed out on all the awesomeness of what they really did, and how they did it. I will be interested to hear what you make of the second book, and if you love it as much as this one. Once again, you have taken a book out of obscurity and made me want it now!

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    5. I do not read much outside of fiction but have a yearning to read more history related stuff: biographies, and what not. This book sounds like something that I would enjoy reading. I love learning stuff that is not widely known. Thanks for putting this one on my radar and onto my to read list.

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    6. Amy - I think you'd really like it, based on your non-fiction taste.

      Angela - Ooh, you're right! I'm surprised no one has picked up on it, but maybe someone will now... I could see it being really great if it was done well.

      Zibilee - I did the same, really. I knew people were famous for vaguely feminist reasons, but I didn't know why, really, or how strong they stood. It was great to learn more about them.

      rhapsody - YES. I would, too. And not just college women's history classes....

      ibeeeg - I am a heavy fiction reader, too, but sometimes non-fiction can be just as thrilling. I literally could not put this book down, and I am so interested in so many more people now. I'm very excited it comes with a list of recommended reading, and I already got the sequel from the library, so I'm set!

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    7. This does sound fascinating. Shame about there being hardly any documentation on Native American women. That would have been amazing to read.

      I'm with you about having a thing about starting at the beginning:)

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    8. I read When Everything Changed before I even knew there was a prequel! I loved that one so much...I wrote 3 or 4 posts on it to fully cover it! I've wanted to read this one, but I think it'd just make my reading list grow even more as I want to find out more specific details about certain people or events!

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    9. OK, you've convinced me! Though I ought to balance it out with a similar book on British women.

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    10. chasingbawa - I completely agree. It would be good to know how their varied cultures treated women.

      Kari - I remember those posts! I think it would make your reading list grow significantly, but fabulously, and that makes it ok ;-)

      Tracy - Actually, I want to read popular history of women's rights in other countries to see how the struggle compared with the one here (as British women were much more violent and more quickly successful). So if you find a good one, let me know!

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    11. Not gonna lie and say I would read it cos I would not..but sounds good..perhaps it was about women here

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    12. This has been on my wish list for a long time now! Clearly I need to move it up a bit.

      Stanton is such an interesting character (er..person); she's one of those truly complex people with some really admirable qualities and other really detestable ones.

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    13. Trisha, it's so good! And I really appreciated that Collins didn't white-wash everyone to make them seem perfect. She was more open about their faults, too, in as much as she spoke about people at all. I just wanted more detail, but now I'll have to dig deeper into some of these people- particularly Stanton!

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    14. This does sound fascinating. I know little about American history. The title alone is intriguing, but your enthusiasm has sold me. I'll look it up.

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    15. I think Gail Collins is a wonderful writer, and I'm so glad to see your review of this book. Sounds like a perfect graduation present for the young women in our lives! Thanks Aarti!

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    16. Monica - Even Americans know so little about women's history, so I think Collins did the world a great service, publishing this one.

      Col - I didn't even consider that. Fantastic idea!

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    17. It sounds so good! I really liked When Everything Changed, despite the almost overwhelming amount of info in the book. Thanks for reminding me about Collins.

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    18. I'm reading When Everything Changed now. I completely agree about the overwhelming amount of information, and as I just read America's Women so recently, the first part of When Everything Changed is somewhat repetitive from that book. But I'm very happy to be reading it!

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    19. I own both of these books but hadn't realized that they went together. I'm glad to see that you thought the first one is so good. I was worried that it might be dry reading.

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    20. I hadn't heard of this book until reading your thoughts, and it really does sound fascinating. I'm happy to hear that she presents both the good and the bad about these women. That makes for a better understanding of who they were. Thanks for the review!

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    21. Oh, I hate myself for not making my mother bring me this when she brought me all my books recently. It sounds wonderful! For one thing, I could not agree with you more about Harriet Tubman. My mother made my sister and me do a report on Harriet Tubman when we said something dismissive about Black History Month as little kids, and she has been my total hero ever since. I desperately want to kick Andrew Jackson off the twenty dollar bill and put my hero Harriet Tubman on it instead. I love her so much.

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    22. Alyce - Yes, I think she wrote the first one and then started wondering why things changed so quickly, so then she started writing the second one. I didn't find them dry at all!

      Anna - Any time! I agree that the balanced view is really important, which as far as I can tell, she continues with When Everything Changed, too.

      Jenny - YES, Harriet Tubman is amazing! I want to read so much more about her. A perfect hero figure, for sure :-)

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    23. Aarti, this sounds fantastic and perfect reading material for me. I hadn't heard of some of the women you mentioned and their stories have intrigued me...I shall be off the library tonight!

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    24. I recently purchased When Everything Changed and now you are making want to read THIS one first instead. :)

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    25. I totally remember the fact about Harriet Tubman's narcolepsy from when I read a middle-grade biography in sixth grade. Sounds like a great book! Agh, my to-read list is so long!

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