Wednesday, May 12, 2010

America's Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines by Gail Collins

Yes, this is the Gail Collins who is a columnist for the New York Times. If you enjoy her columns and appreciate her gentle but sneakily biting wit, you will enjoy reading this book, America's Women. The wit is more diffuse here than in her columns but she is not able to suppress it entirely. The history she covers extends from pilgrim days through the 1960s. The epilogue quickly brings the reader up to the millennium, but the details she has saved for a follow-up book that has been published (When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, 2009). I have not read it yet but I intend to.

If one sets out to write a history of women in America one is faced with a variety of choices. A mile high picture would provide the details of women’s ever so slow and gradual evolution towards equal rights. On a minute scale one could track the trials, tribulations and occasional joys of being a woman, wife, and mother over this span of 400 years. These would be two quite different books. Collins has chosen to cover both in one volume and she pretty much pulls it off. The advantage of her approach is to make sure all the big picture events are placed in an appropriate context. It allows one to see clearly how truly exceptional the exceptional women of a given time period had to be. The other positive from this approach is that the author can pepper the reader with an endless stream of little tidbits about everyday life that will alternately frighten you, make you laugh or scratch your head in bewilderment. The disadvantage is that the book tends to be a bit on the long side. The chosen organization is to march linearly forward in time and at each epoch to scan laterally to look the details related to different classes of women or different social thrusts. For example, for the pre-Civil War period she has to deal with Northern women, Southern women, slave women and immigrant women. Their stories have to be blended with descriptions of the abolitionist movement, and numerous social issues.

My limited experience indicates that the author’s insistence on completeness will lose a couple of male readers, but the women won’t mind at all. Guys—if you expect to learn something good about your gender, you have come to the wrong place. The image of men that emerges from this work suggests they only had a few things on their minds: war, liquor, prostitutes, and tormenting women. My first thought was that this was a bit unfair. But, then again, I wasn’t there. I can only imagine us as the enlightened, progressive chaps we have become. Perhaps we have come a long way too.

I personally found the book fascinating but easy to put down. I ended up reading it in a large number of short sessions. And that was just fine.

Collins suggests in the Introduction a very useful approach to incorporating the history to follow into a single theme.

"The history of American women is all about leaving home—crossing oceans and continents, or getting jobs and living on their own. Some of our national heroines were defined by the fact that they never nested—they were peripatetic crusaders like Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, Sojourner Truth, Dorothea Dix. The center of our story is the tension between the yearning to create a home and the urge to get out of it."
Overlayed on this internal conflict were the external influences of a male-dominated culture, the overwhelming effort required to run a household over most of our history, and cultural biases that manifested themselves to women’s economic disadvantage. For most of our history economic considerations held women back. In the end, however, it was economics that set them free (approximately).

All the Semitic religions are male dominated. The early settlers in America were intensely religious and their religion told them that women should be seen but not heard— at least not outside of the home. One can encapsulate much of women’s history as a struggle to overcome this bias.

Some fraction of women was never quite satisfied with the role of wife and mother. Those slowly began to try to exert influence in other directions. While women were officially expected to remain silent on church issues, they discovered that the men were either busy on other matters or were just not very interested. Consequently, women began to play an ever larger role in religious matters. One of the first attempts to break out of their assigned roles was to gain entry into schools of divinity. This religious focus led naturally to activism on social issues such as care for indigents, abolition, and temperance. This process of breaking out was not a smooth one. There were many advances followed by partial retreats along the way.
As Collins so aptly put it:

"Whenever there was a sudden demand for literate workers at low pay, women were usually the answer." One of the first, long-lasting breakthroughs was in the field of teaching.

"But as always happened in American history, the dogma of appropriate gender roles gave way to necessity. There simply weren’t enough men available to staff the public schools while the pool of available educated women was huge. And the price was right. In 1838, Connecticut paid $14.50 a month to male teachers and $5.75 to women.....By 1870, of the 200,000 primary and secondary school teachers in America, more than half were women....Although the percentile of women working as teachers at any given time was tiny, a much larger number had the experience at some point in their lives. A quarter of the native-born women in pre-Civil War Massachusetts were current or former school teachers. Thanks to teaching, a large minority of American women knew what it was like to have earned their own bread....The teachers were all single—well into the twentieth century, school systems required women to resign when the got married."The women who found an outlet working as teachers were the lucky ones. There were other opportunities to utilize women as reliable workers at low pay.

"American employers were worried about creating a permanent class of rough, hard-to-handle industrial workers, like the ones who were causing so much trouble in England. Girls did not usually stay long enough to become troublemakers—after a few years, most left to get married. In the meantime they were cheaper than male workers, and easier to control. By the 1820s, New England was full of textile factories where virtually all the workers were women, each making $2 or $3 per week. (The supervisors, who were men, got $12.)"The movement to abolish slavery provided an opportunity for women to exert their influence in the politic arena in a manner and on a scale never seen before. It was an issue that resonated strongly with women, and there were plenty of well-educated and strong-willed women who seemed to be itching for a cause to which they could dedicate themselves. This was one of those periods where historic change was occurring and women’s perceived roles as well as their own view of their place in society would never be the same. As the author points out:

"The antislavery movement did a lot to liberate its female members as well as the slaves."The Civil War, and the political conflict leading up to it, would be a turning point for women. Wars unleash change—change in society, change in politics and change in technology. Of necessity, the war opened up the field of nursing to women.

"Until midcentury, nursing had been a job for men and lower-class women. Florence Nightingale made it respectable for ladies. She was a well-born Englishwoman who became an international heroine in 1855 when she reorganized the nursing care in the Crimean War, reducing the death rate in British field hospitals from 45 to 2 percent. When the Civil War began, one observer noted, ‘there was a perfect mania to act Florence Nightingale’......volunteers who took care of the wounded during the early parts of the Civil War were basically on their own. They determined where the fighting was, wheedled their way through to the front, and did what they could to help....In the first terrible years of the war, wounded men died on the battlefield after lying there for days, untended, in the hot sun. There was no organized system of getting them to a field hospital. It took an enormous leap for well-bred women to enter the gory army hospitals to tend the wounded men, and it’s hard to imagine the kind of daring they must have needed to get to the battlefield unescorted. Yet a number of them managed to do it on their own....After the war, [Clara] Barton became famous as the organizer of the American Red Cross, but her finest hours came in those hectic, disorganized trauma centers of the Civil War’s early years. Her face turned blue from the gunpowder, and her skirts were so heavy with blood that she had to wring them out before she could walk under their weight."Women again demonstrated that they were much more effective than men in caring for the wounded and another career path for women was carved out.

The period between the end of the Civil War and the start of World War I was a period of great economic change which provided new opportunities for women to work outside the home and support themselves if they so chose. The arrival of the department store changed women’s lives forever. Besides the obvious pleasures and advantages of browsing and shopping, many new jobs were created—jobs perfect for women. As usual, they were paid much less than men, but it was still much better than working in a factory. The growth in government bureaucracy and economic expansion created a large number of clerical jobs. This converged with the invention of the typewriter to lock in this kind of work for women. The coming of the telephone provided numerous openings for switchboard operators. These positions soon entered women’s portfolio when it was discovered that men had a hard time remaining polite with customers. The general expansion of educational availability increased the demand for literate people to work as librarians, another position ideally suited for the mass of educated but unemployed women.

We see here a pattern that persisted essentially to the mid 1970s. Women were a well-educated resource that had demonstrated a capability to do much more than they were given the opportunity to do. As society or technology or historic events created opportunities, women moved out of the home to take advantage of them only to be forced to retreat if it was determined that they were competing with men for jobs. But the retreats were only partial and the size of the female work force grew over time and continued to expand into new directions as forceful women broke down barriers in the professions. During this period society’s expectations of women varied considerably from period to period. These expectations seem to be determined by men. This male dominance would not begin to be broken down until economic forces intervened to make change inevitable.

The author stops her narrative at the end of the 1960s, but she covers the remainder of the century in a brief epilogue. The 1970s began a period of great societal upheaval. The idea of equal rights for women began to be taken seriously. High divorce rates and longer life spans left women wondering what they would do when their husband or children left home. However, the biggest change occurred due to economic developments.

"Much of this would never have happened—or would not have happened nearly as fast—if the economy had not required it. Just as society suddenly embraced women as the ideal teachers and typists when there was nobody else to do the job, the idea of women working through their lives caught on when the information era succeeded the industrial age. The vast number of educated women was too valuable a resource to let go once they began to have children. Meanwhile the consumer economy developed more and more things that families felt they needed, which they could no longer acquire on the salary of a single breadwinner."The trials, tribulations and triumphs of women entering this new era presumably are the subjects of the author’s subsequent volume.

I have chosen to focus on economic drivers in the evolution of women’s lives. One could have just as easily focused on the struggle for equal rights, or focused on the evolution of conditions for homemakers over the years. Collins presents all that so the readers may enjoy what most interests them.

I have to admit that what I found most pleasing were the little revelations and factoids that the author provided throughout the narrative—and her gentle wit. Here are some examples I found particularly interesting.

Have you ever wondered how colonial women handled the issues related to infants in diapers? Collins wonders too. It seems they tried to toilet train their infants by the age of one month. If you have trouble comprehending how that could be possible, for your enlightenment, the author suggests that a dog and a feather were useful in this task. You will have to read the book if you wish to learn more.

Do you have any friends who are or were librarians? The author extracts this from a journal dated 1891.

"...women who worked as library assistants should expect to make....about half what men made—and be able to write steadily for six or seven hours a day. They should know half a dozen languages.....understand the relation of all arts and sciences to each other and must have....a minute acquaintance with geography, history, art and literature. Women who aspired to be head librarians should expect to work 10 hours a day...but those who are paid the highest salaries give up all their evenings as well."I am sure that by now the average librarian must be up to a full dozen languages.

Women’s suffrage was one of the most significant social changes in our nation in the past century. Many women spent a lifetime pursuing this goal. The author contends that most of the women in the movement were more interested in temperance than in suffrage itself. They viewed acquiring the vote mainly as a means of voting in prohibition. Their hope was that passage would finally prevent men from spending so much of their income on liquor. What the women discovered was that their daughters didn’t want to prevent men from drinking; they just wanted to make sure they got to drink also. Their reward was to see their daughters spend their evenings in speakeasies.

Collins devotes a healthy portion of her history to coverage of slave women and their offspring. As property, slaves could be bought and sold at will. It was often the case that families would be broken up with the father shipped off to a new owner and never seen again. There is also the issue of what kind of role model could a slave father be to a slave son. What could he teach him? Subservience? I know this is a history of women, but I am left wishing to pursue the sociological effects of two hundred years of slavery and another hundred years of discrimination on African-American men.

The abuse women had to endure became more exotic and more extreme once male doctors became prevalent and began prowling for clients. In the early nineteenth century they pushed midwives out of business.

"For the mothers-to-be the change was not necessarily an improvement. The vast majority of births were not problematic, and a skilled midwife believed in letting nature take its course. That was better by far for both mother and child, since the medical profession had yet to embrace the concept of sterility. Anytime a hand or instrument was inserted into a woman’s body, she was in danger of becoming infected, with fatal results. Childbed, or puerperal, fever became epidemic at times in the nineteenth century, particularly in hospitals, where a single doctor could carry infection from one patient to the 1840 at Bellevue in New York, almost half the women giving birth during the first six months of the year contracted the fever. Eighty percent of them died."Collins points out that the sensibilities of the time often precluded allowing the doctor delivering the baby to look between the women’s legs. She points out that one of the most highly regarded obstetricians was actually blind. Medical students were not allowed to observe live births. They had to learn from textbooks or dummies. This apparently did not stop them from taking aggressive measures.

"They sometimes used forceps to speed deliveries, risking both tearing the mother and hurting the baby. A physician might also make use of one of the ‘heroic’ remedies of the day, like bloodletting. William Dewees, who taught at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote proudly that in one protracted labor he took ‘upwards of two quarts’ of blood from a woman while she was standing up. The woman, unsurprisingly, fainted, and after that, the doctor said, ‘everything appeared better.’ Bleeding women until they swooned stopped them from crying out, which must have been a relief for the doctor and family members waiting nearby."It was not long before "practicing" doctors were addressing other conditions with the same skill. The closest things they had to anesthetics were alcohol and opium. They soon discovered that their patients were more pleased with their service if they shot them up with opium before they left. Some of the "treatments seem utterly bizarre today.

"To cure nervous complaints, doctors injected water, milk and linseed into the uterus. For infections, they cauterized it with silver nitrate, or even a hot iron. They put leeches on the vagina, and even on the rectum. (A famous English gynecologist, whose work was studied by American doctors, advocated placing leeches right on the neck of the uterus, but he cautioned his readers not to let the leeches wander off into the organ itself. ‘I think I have scarcely ever seen more acute pain than that experienced by several of my patients under these circumstances,’ he wrote.) Leeches were actually a moderate approach compared with doctors who tried to bring down a patient’s temperature by opening a vein and drawing blood. Salmon B. Chase, Lincoln’s secretary of the treasury, watched doctors take 50 ounces of blood from his fever-stricken wife before she died."And then there were the surgeons. I have to recount this one tale that the author included because when I read it I had a hard time believing it.

"Other invalids suffered from an awful malady called vesico-vaginal fistula. During childbirth, the wall between their vagina and the bladder or rectum ripped, leaving them unable to control the leakage of urine or feces through the vagina. The condition had been recognized for centuries, but some historians believe that it increased when doctors began delivering babies and inserting their instruments into the womb."

"J. Marion Sims, an Alabama physician, devised an operation that successfully closed the fistulas and let these tormented women resume their lives. But the discovery came at a horrifying cost...He experimented with surgical techniques while the [slave] women balanced on their knees and elbows, in order to give them a better view of what he was doing....Four years later he finally succeeded in repairing the fistula of a slave named Anarcha....It was Anarcha’s thirtieth operation, all of them performed without anesthetics.....Sims claimed that the women had begged him to keep trying his experiments and it’s possible that was true....But they were still slaves with no real option to say no, and Sims chose to work on them in part because he believed white women could not endure the kind of pain he was inflicting."
The next time you think you’ve received some rough treatment from your doctor, just remember how it used to be.

Let us finish on a lighter note.

Collins takes great delight in skewering Thomas Jefferson. This take on Jefferson’s advice to his daughter is a good example of the author’s wit.

"Remember...not to go out without your bonnet because it will make you very ugly and then we should not love you so much" wrote Thomas Jefferson, demonstrating once again that he could always find just the wrong thing to say to a devoted daughter....(Admirers of Jefferson might best be advised to skip everything he ever wrote about women and restrict their attention to the Declaration of Independence.)"If you think modern problems are new problems, consider this description from the pre-Civil War era and think again.

"Worst of all was the corset, which was worn everywhere from the breakfast table to the ballroom in the perpetual and generally hopeless pursuit of the ideal 20-inch waist. Preadolescent girls wore corsets and old women wore corsets, and mothers-to-be wore corsets even in the advanced stages of pregnancy....One commentator claimed that it was not unusual to see ‘a mother lay her daughter down upon the carpet, and placing her foot on her back, break half a dozen laces in tightening her stays.’ Comparisons to Chinese foot binding were rife and stories were passed around about deformed babies born with corset lines imprinted in their flesh....While virtually everything women read told them that corsets were bad, everything they saw stressed how essential they were. Magazines pictured women with tiny waists and dresses that sported long, tight sleeves......"Or, how about this concern from the beginning of the twentieth century:

"The white middle class was worried about ‘race suicide.’ The best-educated native-born women were failing to reproduce while immigrant families had tons of healthy babies. President Theodore Roosevelt was a particular fretter: ‘If Americans of the old stock lead lives of celibate selfishness.....or if the married are afflicted by that base fear of living which....forbids them to have more than one or two children, disaster awaits the nation."Recall that the immigrants of that era were Irish, Italian, Jewish, German and Scandinavian. How many of their descendents remember that they were once considered undesirable rabble? How many of their descendents are today worrying that too many Hispanics having too many babies are ruining their nation?

I have presented a few of the insights and revelations contained in this volume. There are many more. Read it and decide which have the most meaning for you.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Lets Talk Books And Politics - Blogged