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An American herstory

America's Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines; Gail Collins; William Morrow: 576 pp., $27.95

September 21, 2003|Bettyann Holtzmann Kevles | Bettyann Holtzmann Kevles' most recent book, "Almost Heaven: The Story of Women in Space," will be out in early October.

What a pageant! Gail Collins' "America's Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines" sweeps across four centuries of the history of women in America in one seamless take. Collins, a former columnist and now editor of the New York Times editorial page, has gathered material from scholars and writers in an ambitious, largely successful and highly readable volume.

From the Colonists' version of Jamestown (there being no Native American account), Collins reconstructs the story of Pocahontas -- dead at 20, leaving a small child -- as both enigma and tragedy, then moves north and 60 years ahead in time, stopping in Massachusetts to give us a front-row view, with close-ups, of the cast at the Salem witch trials. As she moves onward through time to the Revolution and then across the continent, there are captivating cameos of female leaders, victims, villains and a few who triumphed by simply surviving. Using their own words, spiced with her insights, she reveals what is uniquely American about their world.

Americans were rooted in a biblical tradition that accepted slavery and the subordination of women. Most Colonists were also locked into the English legal system, which allowed women almost no economic independence. Collins narrates the struggle of the women who successively defeated that system until, by the late 20th century, American women had won entry into almost every line of work and profession from which they had been excluded by law and custom.

Collins describes three American phenomena that shaped women's lives. The first and most searing was slavery. Though only about half owned slaves, most Southern white women defined their status in opposition to black women and thus became the "dolls" of the subtitle, disdaining the skills they sorely needed to manage a 19th century household. In contrast, slavery made activists of a brilliant if tiny minority of Northern women, who took up the abolitionist cause and, in acts of civil disobedience, helped slaves escape to Canada. Collins focuses on Harriet Beecher Stowe and her remarkable family, noting that an escaped slave was Stowe's model for Eliza in "Uncle Tom's Cabin." The outrages the slaves suffered in the South make painful reading. Their children, Collins tells us, were cared for as if they were livestock, fed from troughs like pigs or cattle. Inflamed at the injustice, a delegation of American women, including Lucretia Mott, went to the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840, where they were expelled to the gallery. Furious, Mott and her friend Elizabeth Cady Stanton -- there with her husband, Henry -- resolved to hold a convention in the United States to advocate women's rights. At that convention, in Seneca Falls, N.Y., in 1848, the delegates included 40 men; in deference to the way things were, the women asked Mott's husband to preside. It was not an auspicious beginning. But it was a beginning.

Abolition, however, took precedence, especially after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, which allowed slave hunters to track down escaped slaves in free states. Some Southern women joined the abolitionist cause, while women in the North worked to reform other social ills, attacking saloons in the cause of temperance and holding prayer vigils in front of bordellos. This public activism was itself a social revolution: Collins points out that in the Revolutionary era communities dispensed charity only to their neighbors; in mid-19th century America, she notes, "[h]elping strangers was a relatively new concept." Still, many American women were no different from men in their prejudices: For example, a shivering woman about to give birth was turned away from a New York lying-in hospital while the women in charge checked her references; the next morning she was found barely alive, her newborn daughter's corpse frozen to her clothing. On the Pacific coast, an Oregon woman remarked in a letter in 1852, referring to the smallpox that the settlers had brought with them, that Indians were "dying here as elsewhere.... I used to be sorry that there was so much prospect of their annihilation.... Now I do not think it is to be much regretted. If they all die, their place will be occupied by a superior race."

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