America's Women: Four Hundred Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines

by Gail Collins

Hardcover, 2003




William Morrow (2003), Edition: 1st, 576 pages


America's Women tells the story of more than four centuries of history. It features a stunning array of personalities, from the women peering worriedly over the side of the Mayflower to feminists having a grand old time protesting beauty pageants and bridal fairs. Courageous, silly, funny, and heartbreaking, these women shaped the nation and our vision of what it means to be female in America. By culling the most fascinating characters -- the average as well as the celebrated -- Gail Collins, the editorial page editor at the New York Times, charts a journey that shows how women lived, what they cared about, and how they felt about marriage, sex, and work. She begins with the lost colony of Roanoke and the early southern "tobacco brides" who came looking for a husband and sometimes -- thanks to the stupendously high mortality rate -- wound up marrying their way through three or four. Spanning wars, the pioneering days, the fight for suffrage, the Depression, the era of Rosie the Riveter, the civil rights movement, and the feminist rebellion of the 1970s, America's Women describes the way women's lives were altered by dress fashions, medical advances, rules of hygiene, social theories about sex and courtship, and the ever-changing attitudes toward education, work, and politics. While keeping her eye on the big picture, Collins still notes that corsets and uncomfortable shoes mattered a lot, too. "The history of American women is about the fight for freedom," Collins writes in her introduction, "but it's less a war against oppressive men than a struggle to straighten out the perpetually mixed message about women's roles that was accepted by almost everybody of both genders." Told chronologically through the compelling stories of individual lives that, linked together, provide a complete picture of the American woman's experience, America's Women is both a great read and a landmark work of history.… (more)

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(168 ratings; 4.2)

User reviews

LibraryThing member kristinmm
This is a very easily read and hard to put down history. I could have wished for more detail but it is covering quite a bit of time so has to be more of an overview. It was great to have ordinary women's lives included in the book as well as more famous ones. I will definitely be researching some
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people and events that this book introduced to me more thoroughly in the future.
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LibraryThing member allthesedarnbooks
I loved this book! It's an excellent, readable overview of the history of women in the United States. Because of the breadth of the subject, sometimes there wasn't enough information about certain women or subjects to satisfy my curiosity, but overall, this is a great and comprehensive book. There
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are numerous inspiring stories of famous and not-so-famous women. I recommend this for history fans and women everywhere, and it's a great place to start if you're interested in women's studies. Four and a half stars.
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LibraryThing member kambrogi
I thoroughly enjoyed this well-researched and fascinating book. It is a history of America through the lives of women, ordinary citizens as well as leaders and innovators. Most history books deal primarily with war, expansion and politics – and the men who dominated those events. They tend to
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leave out the women who participated in those endeavors, as well as the home and community life to which many of them contributed heavily.

I loved reading about the clothing and food of the times, the ways in which women managed households and children, the laws that bound them, and the astonishing strength it took for them to do what was asked of them, or refuse to do it. Without a book such as this that presents the other side of the story, it would be difficult to understand just how much women contributed to the history of America.

Written in intelligent, well-documented prose, it is an easy, entertaining and occasionally humorous read. I read each page eagerly and even after 450 pages, was sorry to see it finished.
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LibraryThing member apartmentcarpet
Gail Collins flits through history, touching on interesting well known and obscure women. This is popular history at its best - light, easy reading that skims the surface and gives you a list of things to research in detail later.
LibraryThing member annbury
Interesting, but less so than I expected from Ms. Collins. I do look forward, however, to reading her new book on the past half century.
LibraryThing member lmnop2652
Every time I open these pages for a quick peek at some tidbit, I'm hooked and can't put it down. It's chockablock full of America's history through the centuries, all in lively prose. A true treasure chest.
LibraryThing member Tullius22
This is actually a very balanced book, which, oddly enough, is a pretty rare thing, and an almost strange accomplishment, especially for...people.

Or, to grasp the nettle, and put things a little more bluntly: at least she didn't feel the need to lie to get her point across, right? I mean,
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honesty isn't a one-way street; it's more like a six-lane super-highway.


But, to be honest, I had to take a point off for length. Usually I try to give the benefit of the doubt, and not take off, as long as the quality remains the same, (and sometimes it doesn't), but I've come to the point where lots of footnotes don't impress me the way they used to, and if the writing avoids being terrible, it's still...pretty average.

(Yeah, sometimes it doesn't, I's hard to say, to explain. Sometimes it doesn't, in general, I meant, but here, too, I guess. Although it is better than average *at times*, such as in the part about Salem....and, although part of me wanted a little more about John Proctor, ('John Proctor, you are conspired with *Antichrist*!'), and Giles Corey, ('More weight!'), I *try* not to whine as much as I might....even if *I* think it's kinda funny sometimes! But it's good that Rebecca Nurse got her due, because she deserves it, and so do Elizabeth Proctor and Martha Corey, and the others.)

And if social history, and women's history, and so on, has its own pretensions to importance, so does political history and military history, and every other kind of history, and so on.

(Even though not everybody always shares those assessments....not even, say, "the rock people", as Sheldon put it.)

Then again, I've started to think that it's just difficult to turn history into something worth reading, in general. It's fun to dig documents out of the archives, but less fun to read about it...and I've been on both sides of it now, more or less.


Anyway, it's basically just an average book, but that doesn't really matter...what I really learned (which I was sorta already learning), was that the less history I let myself read, the better off I'll (probably) be.

In other words, I'm not going to read any more Paul Johnson, nor any more of this....


Anyway....I normally try not to do this sort of thing, talking about the subject instead of the book, but since I do sometimes, and since it is what is....

The past is my ballast, and so is suspicion. I try to think about it all, I try to fix things, to do things better, to do it all right....but is anybody listening? It just seems like you want to get me out of the way....what's expected of me, I wonder....And I don't want anyone to get shunted aside into anything that nobody wants, why can't people just be who they are, and be appreciated....and so I try this and I try that, but I'm so alone....and suspicion makes everything nothing!


But I guess it's not the book's fault....

A book is just so much paper, after all. ^^

(So, no more hobby horses for me!)


And I will stand behind that--a book is just so much paper....and sometimes, it's not even that.

WE SHOULD ALL AGREE (that I'm good and you suck). *rolls eyes*

But, like I said, it could have been worse....and sometimes, I'm not even sure that it's the same sort of book that some of you are reading into it!


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LibraryThing member SleepyKitty
An easy to read history of the diverse roles women have played in American society. Recommended for history and non-history afficionados.
LibraryThing member Dorritt
How refreshing! I'm a major history buff, so probably know more than most "laymen" about American history, but this book made me realize just how much American history goes unexplored because our traditional approach to "history" is largely male-centric, focusing on wars, politics, and technology.
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This book explores the same material but views it through a different lens, focusing on home, family, and social issues/mores/trends. In the process, the book reveals an astonishing amount of rarely-addressed information, wholly as important and relevant to understanding our country as all those books about world wars.

The book moves chronologically through time, from Virginia Dare to 2000, and is comprised of many short (3-4pg) chapters, each focused on a particular life or issue. The text is heavy on primary source information - actual quotes from women's diaries and historical documents - which makes each vignette feel refreshingly authentic. Yes, "women's issues" like the sufferagette movement receive attention, but they comprise a small part of the vast sweep of this book, which explores the changing ways in which Americans of various genders and race, over the past 400 years, have approached family, health, gender roles, politics, and culture.

I read this while on vacation at the beach and on almost every page found some tidbit of information so interesting that I had to share it with the family. As a result, there's now a queue to borrow my copy of the book - a queue which includes more men than women, by the way.
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LibraryThing member marshapetry
Awesome book. I think I may have read this twice, and loved it twice. Frustratingly sparse on some of the women, but I'd much rather have her be as true as possible than try to make up stuff. Gail does a great job relaying the stories and they all kept my attention. Highly recommend.
LibraryThing member MelissaMcB
What a great book to read for Women's History month. I am keeping this book so my daughter can read how women's lives have changed and how hard women have fought for equality. Very inspiring and enlightening. I also recommend Collin's book When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American
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Women from 1960 to the Present which covers the time period after this one ends.
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LibraryThing member nancynova
Interesting and readable though. Starting with the first baby born in America - and a girl at that - the book looks at what countries the American women emigrated from, how the times changed for women through the centuries, marriage/family vs staying single, and all the influences of the times and
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culture on the American Woman.
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LibraryThing member Calavari
This should be required reading in history class. It does a great job of covering a lot of time, merging the experience of an average woman during a given era or location with focuses on notable women occasionally and then building upon it until we arrive at the modern American woman.

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sometimes like to refer to women and our role in the world as if it has always been stagnant, as if even being in the house has always meant the same thing. The choices and predicaments of each generation effect all of those that come after them and this book elaborates on just how the lives of women have changed since the first brave woman boarded a ship to come here. Part of what made the book great, was not taking sides between women. There are all sorts of us and the book tells our stories from more than one angle or perspective, equally mentioning the suffragettes and those women who didn't side with them.

Of course, the book cannot be comprehensive. It does a good job of covering as much ground as it can but it's constrained by pages and records. Still, Collins does a great job with what she has.
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LibraryThing member smallself
Good book. Conditions in the past were often trying at best, with fewer rights for vulnerable people, but at the same time many able people were able to make a way for themselves, as the real world is not always exactly the same as that dreamed up by the propagandists, or by the regressive period
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of 1946-1964.

It gives you perspective.
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LibraryThing member ValerieAndBooks
An interesting overview of women's roles in America and American history over the past 400 years. Not surprisingly, lots of roadblocks and frustrations along the way for women. Given that this covers a long timeline and is not an encyclopedia, individuals and issues are not all covered in depth.
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But still, this is a good brush-up on American women's history, along with being thought-provoking.
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LibraryThing member mom2acat
This well researched book tells the story of more than 400 years in history, and how women were changed by it, and helped to shape it. Starting with the first women to step off the Mayflower, it tells the stories of not only the most famous and well known women, but also those not so well known,
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including ordinary women who have been forgotten if not for the journals and diaries they left behind.

Women of all ages, races, and social standing are written about, in a very enjoyable and readable style, with stories that are alternately courageous, silly, funny, and heartbreaking. I really enjoyed reading this one, especially when the author talked about the details of everyday life for the average woman, but for me, the book really picked up and became more exciting when I got to the chapters about the pioneers settling in the west, and beyond. If you are interested in American history, I highly recommend this book.
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LibraryThing member Angelic55blonde
This is an interesting book about people not normally talked/analyzed about in other history books. This book discuses how women shaped America as well as what it means to be a female in this country. The book covers 400 years which is quite alot but it is still really interesting. Gail Collins
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focuses on how women's lives changed with various advances such as medical and social theory advances. I really enjoyed reading this book and if someone is interested in women's studies and the history of females in America, this book is for them.
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LibraryThing member tshrope
This is a good retrospective of women in America from the 1600's to 2000. It touches on all of the notable women of the past 400 years plus a couple of not so famous women. For those who read a lot of American historical fiction/non-fiction there is not a lot of new information to be learned.
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However, I think it does give one an overall perceptive of the rise of women's status throughout American history, and sometimes how women have had to fight years and years for equal rights and protection and how at other times because of economic changes, women's roles were changed almost overnight.

If nothing else it celebrates and gives credit to all of the American women who have contributed to the molding of our American culture and should be required reading for all high school students.
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Original language


Original publication date


Physical description

576 p.; 6.13 inches


0060185104 / 9780060185107
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