Collins has culled her information from a mountain of research material, and in her fascination for the details, does not forget the big picture. She explains why women were forbidden to enter certain professional areas by men, and then later encouraged in those same areas. In times of crisis, the demand for women increases, as in World War II, when women took over men's jobs while men went fighting overseas. But, they had to relinquish these jobs when the men returned. The demand and rejection have occurred over and over again in cycles, mostly during wars.
In the early southern colonies, women labored in the fields, shot game (and Indians), drained swamps, tended cattle, cultivated tobacco and generally managed things while their husbands were away on extended business trips. They were trusted to do things that their granddaughters couldn't even dream of.
Collins recounts the stories of familiar names like Anne Bradstreet or Phyllis Wheatley, but there are many women who achieved great things whose names are lost in the mists of time: Margaret Brent, who ran Maryland during a period of crisis; or Sarah Offley, who married several times, acquiring more and more property with each successive husband, striking the word "obey" from the wedding ceremony.
Their lives were hard -- living conditions were worse than primitive -- and Collins explores the details of daily life, including the almost never mentioned problem of menstruation. Collins notes that they were a "stoic lot," with the exception of Mary Collins, who constantly complained, writing in her diary, "O I am tired almost to death."
That's not surprising considering the amount of work and the lack of amenities: those women had to draw water, chop wood, make their own soap, cook, clean, weave, sew, and the list goes on and on.
Collins follows women's progress in education from the first one-room schoolrooms to the first woman to graduate from an American medical school. She notes their progress --and regression -- in the workplace, including several instances of contradiction, such as the editor of a woman's magazine "continually reminding her readers how lucky they were to be presiding over the hearth rather than engaging in 'the silly struggle for honor and preferment.'"
This constant pull between a career and staying at home to raise the children is as hotly debated today as ever. Unfortunately, when Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem started the women's liberation movement, no one thought to point out that women could have it all -- just not necessarily at the same time. For years, women have been trying to juggle a career with unreasonable demands on their time and commitment from their male bosses, while at the same time, raising a family and running a household, with often limited help from a spouse.
Today, according to a recent article in The New York Times Magazine, many successful career women are opting out to stay at home with their children.
The struggle for women's rights often coincided and clashed with the abolition movement and the civil rights movement, causing Sojourner Truth, the famous black advocate for women's rights, to say, "If colored men get their rights and not colored women theirs, you see the colored men will be masters over the women, and it will be just as bad as it was before."
Some of the struggles of the 19th and early 20th centuries are still going on today, the most notable being the right of a woman over her own body. Margaret Sanger founded Planned Parenthood, and urged her friend Gregory Pincus to devise a contraceptive pill. The rest is history, with Planned Parenthood still at the forefront of the struggle for sex education, contraception and the right to choose.
Marriage went through cycles as well, from being considered as the only ambition for young women to an evil to avoid at all costs. In the 1840s, a popular aphorism was, "Better single than miserably married," and Massachusetts had the highest rate of spinsters in the land. Going through life without a man or without children was a recurring subject of debate, with Vassar offering courses in "Motherhood" and "Husband and Wife" in the 1920s, and women in the '80s worrying about their biological clocks and how they could manage "to have it all."
It seems a shame that a country that is able to produce so many educated, strong and capable women prefers to see them limited to the kitchen. Eleanor Roosevelt, an active and independent woman, still felt constrained to refer to herself as a wife and mother, even while visiting coal mines and American troops in the Pacific, and we all remember the controversy over Hillary Clinton's role in the White House.
Collins has written an outstanding chronicle with insight and wit, empathy and intelligence. She is a pioneer in her own right, the first woman editorial page editor at The New York Times.
("America's Women" by Gail Collins, William Morrow, $27.95. 450 pages.)