As promised, over the past few months I also read two books on American women. The first was "America's women: 400 years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines" by Gail Collins, a liberal opinion columnist at the New York Times. The second one was "Leading Ladies: America's Trailblazers" by Kay Bailey Hutchinson, a conservative senator from Texas. As you might imagine, the books differed widely in focus and writing style. Let me say this clearly: Hutchinson's writing is terrible. At times her sentences were painful to read. If she didn't get someone to ghostwrite this for her, she should have, and if she did get someone to ghostwrite it for her, she shouldn't have paid them.
Collins' book has a narrative arc which focuses on the journey of women throughout America's history. She theorizes that American women were actually more valued when they were viewed as a productive part of the household - in the early days they were responsible for making candles and soap, spinning thread and making cloth, and other vital household duties. Once people could buy household necessities in stores, women were devalued and, Collins argues, idealized. Men began to focus on how women were delicate and needed protection - they were soft and unable to hand the hard stuff (an argument that would have been pretty foreign to the settler women of frontier America - they endured much hardship and worked alongside their husbands). Collins argues that this was when men began to emphasize women's role as mothers and placing them on a unattainable pedestal.
Many of the anecdotes Collins relates are charming and she really does tell a fascinating story of the courage of women throughout American history. On the other hand, she seems to delight in pointing out the flaws of those she chronicles - she focuses on these flaws a little too much, in my opinion. For example, one of the main point she makes about Dorthea Dix, who was a mental health advocate and Superintendent of Nurses during the civil war, is that Dix was anti-Catholic. While this seems to be true, it ignores the great good accomplished by Dix both during the civil war and as a mental health advocate. But I did enjoy that she didn't over-idealize the women she portrayed. She knows these women are heroines, but they are flawed beings just like us.
Hutchinson, on the other hand, seems loath to make any negative remarks about anyone. She gives every one of her "Ladies" a patina of goodness that leads you to think all the women she talks about are saints worthy of a halo. She never mentions anything controversial - I assume this is in order to appeal to the broadest audience and sell more books, but it gets old after a while and makes me long for the controversy Collins focuses on.
Hutchinson also organizes her book differently than Collins' - she has chapters based on topic, focusing on famous women scientists, Nobel laureates, First Ladies, writers, and other groups. Hutchinson's book did make me want to read (better-written) stories about the women she portrays - I still need to read Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," for example. I was also glad to learn about the women Nobel prize winners and their struggle for acceptance.
Here, in no particular order, where some of my favorite quotes/stories:
- Speaking about a trailblazing writer, Edgar Allen Poe stated: "Humanity is divided into three classes: Men, women, and Margaret Fuller." (Collins, page 101)
- Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring, spoke at a national book award ceremony and said "Wonder and humility are wholesome emotions, they do not exist side by side with a lust for destruction." (Hutchinson, page 248-249)
- When a line of immigrants was waiting for food at Ellis Island, the guards insisted "Ladies First." When this was translated for the women, who came from male-dominated societies, an old Slovenian woman cried out, "Long live America, where women are first!" (Collins, page 259)
- "Take your stand and hold it; then let come what will, and receive the blows like a good soldier" - Susan B. Anthony (Hutchinson, page 176)
- The famous former slave orator, Sojourner Truth, entered Indiana and rebel sympathizers threatened to burn down the hall she was scheduled to speak. She responded: "Then I will speak upon the ashes." (Collins, page 178)
- Jane Addams said in a 1897 speech: "I am not one of those who believe-broadly speaking-that women are better than men. We have not wrecked railroads, nor corrupted legislatures, nor done many unholy things that men have done; but then we must remember that we have not had the chance." (Hutchinson, page 313)
- When told that it would be easier for Wyoming to become a state if they stopped giving women the right to vote, the state legislature telegraphed to their Washington negotiators: "We will remain out of the union a hundred years, rather than come in without our women." (Collins, page 236)
- Prudence Crandall started a school for black girls In Canterbury, CT. The state legislature passed a law making it illegal to start a school for out-of-state black children. Prudence was arrested, and averred: "I am only afraid they will not put me in jail." Eventually her students were terrorized into leaving, but a few of the black girls she taught went on to become teachers themselves. (Collins, pages 163-165)
- Barbara Bush, speaking at Wellesley College commencement, ended her speech with this gem: "Somewhere out in this audience may even be someone who will one day follow my footsteps, and preside over the White House as the president's spouse. I wish him well!" (Hutchinson, page 117)
- Mother Jones, a union organizer, was imprisoned in Colorado in 1913 at age 76. She said of her ordeal: "I had sewer rats...to fight, and all I had was a beer bottle; I would get one rat and another would run across the cellar at me....I fought the rats inside and out just alike." (Collins, page 288)
- Lindy Boggs, a member of the House of Representatives, was part of the Banking and Currency committee when they were writing a bill to end discrimination in banking. Lindy added the phrase forbidding discrimination on the basis of sex or marital status, and said to her fellow committee members: "I'm sure it was just an oversight that we didn't have 'sex' or 'marital status' included. I've taken care of that, and I trust it meets with the committee's approval." Later, when she was buying her first house alone, the loan officer wrongly tried to turn down her loan, making up federal requirements that did not exist. Lindy told the loan officer: "My dear, I am the author of the law that forbids this type of requirement for female persons and the elderly. You are not complying with the federal regulation, you are in defiance of it." (Hutchinson, page 342)
- "If there's a book you really want to read but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it." - Toni Morrison (Hutchinson, page 127)
American women are awesome!