Gail Collins' America's Women (400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines) reads like the women studies class I was never offered at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. It should be required reading for every US high school student today. Listen to some of this stuff:
The most famous runaway slave...was [Harriet Tubman]...In 1849, when she was about thirty years old, she heard rumors that she was about to be sold and escaped. Making her way to Philadelphia, she cleaned houses until she had enough saved to finance a return trip...she made as many as 19 trips over the border. In one, using a hired wagon, she retrieved her elderly parents. In another, she led eleven slaves to freedom...She was expert at disguises, appearing as an old woman or a vagabond, or a mental disturbed man. She carried paregoric to quiet crying babies, and if anyone showed signs of panicking, she ominously fingers the revolver she always carried. Maryland slaveholders offered a bounty of $40,000 for her capture.
The great story about Jeannette Rankin of Montana, the first woman elected to Congress, who four days later voted against the US going into WWI. Two years later the voters invited her home, but she wasn't done, not by a long shot. In 1940 she was re-elected, just in time to vote against the US going into WWII.
Not sure this was exactly what Anthony and Stanton had in mind at Seneca Falls.
One of the recurring themes that Collins delights in is the instruction women received from the media on their behavior and place in society. Some of the crap women's magazines were pitching in the 1950s could have been lifted whole right out of publications in the 1750s.
This is remedial womens' studies with a vengeance, told with wit and style and a gift for picking exactly the right anecdote to illustrate an entire historical event. All the usual suspects are present and accounted for, from Prudence Crandall to Abigail Adams to Margaret Sanger (Thanks for the pill, Margaret!) to Elizabeth Eckford to Eleanor Roosevelt (Thanks for marrying Eleanor, Franklin!). A must read.
I was too young and also incredibly lucky to have been raised by a mother who never said "You can't do that, honey, you're a girl" to be paying enough attention to the women's rights movement. So it's lucky Collins wrote this definitive history, so I can read about Lois Rabinowitz getting thrown out of a NYC courtroom in 1960 because she's wearing slacks, and about Tahita Jenkins, fired from her job as a New York City bus driver in 2007 because she wouldn't wear pants.
The greatest irony of the celebration of forty years of suffrage was that it seemed that once women had gotten the right to vote, they never got anything else.
writes Collins, and takes us into the lives of women like Lorena Weeks who after an interminable, impoverishing legal battle forced Southern Bell to stop being a company where the lowest-paid man made more than the highest-paid woman, and other women who were fired and laid off for working while female, or ignored because they were female and black. It was, of course, all about the money.
After the war [WWII], the economy didn't just improve. It exploded. Americans were producing half the world's goods in the mid-'50s, even though they made up only 6 percent of the world's population...In the 1960s, as the economy was constantly creating employment, two-thirds of those new jobs went to women...That year  President Johnson urged employers to consider hiring women (along with teenagers, the handicapped, and immigrants) to fill their openings. Large firms such as IBM and Texas Instruments targeted stay-at-home moms in recruiting campaigns...The fact that the percentage of married women in the workforce kept quietly going up was really the key to women's liberation.
The nation's ability to direct most of its college-trained women into the single career of teaching was the foundation upon which the national public school system was built and a major reason American tax rates were kept low.
I can say, wow, I didn't know that, and then I remember Laura Ingalls' first teaching job, which paid twenty dollars a month and board.
Young unmarried women did not have widespread access to the Pill until the early 1970s--which not coincidentally was the same time they began to apply to medical, law, dental, and business schools in large numbers.
And still are. The ability to have children in one's own time, or not to have them at all, is a hard-fought right of American women and one to be cherished and protected, and it's never more clearly explained than in this book.
One of the most eye-opening stories is that of Phyllis Schlafly, the anti-women's rights activist who nearly singlehandedly caused the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment. "I'd like to burn you at the stake," Betty Friedan told her to her face, I must say with some justification, because, Collins writes, quoting Robin Morgan, in private Schlafly
readily admitted that without the doors opened by the women's movement, she would never have been able to achieve so much. "But she would never repeat that in public," Morgan said.
Toward the end Collins illustrates where we are now with a matter-of-fact narrative of the 2008 election, using Hilary Clinton and Sarah Palin as her models, with the best defense of Palin's vice-presidential candidacy I've yet seen:
...the failure of her candidacy [Palin's] was not a failure for women. At the very minimum, it was a triumph that voters did not seem to regard her floundering as a commentary on anything but Palin herself. On a more positive note, she won over many voters who had tended in the past to be hostile to the whole concept of a woman in the White House. She had a special affinity with younger working-class men. They liked the way she talked about hunting and hockey, and introduced her husband as first dude...Younger men with no college education were the people who had always been most threatened by women in the workplace and often the ones most resistant to any idea of being bossed by a woman anywhere. In a somewhat roundabout way, Palin made many of them converts to a new way of thinking. "They bear us children, they risk their lives to give us birth, so maybe it's time we let a woman lead us," a former truck driver told a reporter during a Palin rally in North Carolina.
A book that should be required reading in every American high school history class, along with its prequel, Collins' America's Women. Both highly recommended.
As Texas goes, says Collins, so goes the nation, and there are some revelatory and I must admit pretty horrifying details about how the state of Texas has led the way in banking laws, education (especially sex education, or embargo of), textbooks, global warming, immigration and voters' rights, written with that lighthearted acerbity we enjoy so much in her NYT opinion column. In the prologue she writes
Texas banking laws set the stage for the savings and loan crisis in the 1980s. The 2008 economic meltdown was the product of a financial deregulation that was the work of/Texas senator Phil Gramm. Our energy policy is the way it is in large part because Texas politicians and Texas special interests like it that way...Schools from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine, have been remade, reorganized, and sometimes totally upended under a federal law based on Texas education reform. For several generations, our kids have been reading textbooks written with an eye to Texas sensibilities. Texas presidents have the led the country into every land war the United States has been involved in since Vietnam.
This wasn't really a book, it was a 200-page column with a bunch of appendices supporting her points. I wonder if she wasn't perhaps rushing to print before her premise became dated, because I found at least two gaping holes in her logic.
1. She doesn't talk near enough about the Hispanic population of Texas, which in number is rapidly overtaking the Anglo population of Texas. Anglo Texans are largely Republican. Hispanic Texans are largely Democrat. Texas is on the brink of going blue in a big way. I wish she'd spent more time with guys like San Antonio mayor Julian Castro. There is the future of Texas.
2. She also makes no reference to e-books, which is on its own cusp, that of revolutionizing textbooks. I speak from personal experience here: Changing the text of an ebook is so easy compared to changing the text of a print book. So what if Texas wants to axe the New Deal or evolution or global warming or separation of church and state out of its textbooks? Let 'em. In ebooks, the rest of the states can add all those subjects right back in with relatively few labor costs. And there is the future of textbooks.
This is a book worth reading, but it might have been more accurate to have called it "As Texas Went."
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