I took a survey pair of classes in college called History of Women in the U.S., and they were two of my favorite college classes of all time. I had always had a love-hate relationship with history. Some of it is so fascinating, and it is always interesting to me to see how current culture and politics echoes the culture and politics of the past, but, on the other hand, sometimes history seems to be all wars and generalities. It is often zeitgeist and statistics, rather than subtlety and story. But, my History of Women classes were different: they were letters and stories of all kinds of women living in North America. Women who cared centuries ago about things I care about now. It was brilliant. I thought, this is what history has been missing for me: women. I’m sad to say it, but this book proved me wrong.
I started following Gail Collins’s op-ed columns in the New York Times
during the 2008 election because she is very witty and sometimes hilarious. I think she is a lovely, smart woman. This book, however, failed overall for me. It was full of the generalities that bother me in so many history books. Like, “Women watched this television show,” “Women wore this clothing,” “The U.S. wanted this or that,” “People felt this way.” It just rubs me the wrong way. I feel like if historians continue to live and breathe these sweeping observations about culture, people in the future will assume I am just like Brittany Spears. Not that I really have a problem with Brittany Spears, but I am not very similar to her. I like history through individual eyes and stories.
And this book didn’t really even succeed for me when there were individual stories. Collins would pick out a notable woman and briefly summarize her story, but the scope of this book was too huge to do anybody justice. For example, she discusses Margaret Sanger twice, but, unless I missed it, did not touch at all on her racism or advocacy of eugenics. From one standpoint, I think her legacy obviously goes far beyond eugenics, and Sanger was an amazing woman in so many ways and an incredible advocate for voluntary birth control. But, to ignore her advocacy of eugenics seems suspect to me. Does it come from an assumption that someone with one so awful an idea could not do anything good? Does it come from a fear of even raising the topic? Is it just because there were so many people to cover in this book and so little space to do it? And, maybe she did mention it and I just missed it. But, if she didn’t (and I double checked and couldn't find anything about it), it seems like an example of a missed opportunity to talk about the nuance that exists in any cultural activism.
Also, I am big on citation. I am big on deliberate, meticulous, and transparent citation of sources, and I was not satisfied with how citation works out in this book. First, I prefer footnotes to endnotes, but having said that, I thought the endnote citation in Dead Man Walking were excellent, so I definitely see how endnotes have their place. I haven’t gone through all of the endnotes in this, but from having skimmed them, they appear not so much to be citation as further reading recommendations. They are not linked to the text through endnotes at all, but rather are cited to pages through quotes from the pages. So, what I’m saying is that the only real cited information is the quotations, and then there are other sources listed for further reading. That drives me crazy. Like, you can’t just say, “Women liked to make out in Model-Ts” and not cite me to your source. Who gave you this information, Michael Moore? Your neighbor across the fence? A dream? Grease
? A lot of the information in here about the early part of the twentieth century, for example, seemed to come from the Gilbraith family, which is fine, and I like them, but it’s not exactly a survey of diverse sources. And, as with Michael Moore, it’s not so much that I think the information actually is overall inaccurate; it’s just that I appreciate a well-timed citation.
Maybe some of my complaint comes largely from the fact that this book isn’t Early American Women or Modern American Women, which are AMAZING. Maybe it’s not a fair standard to keep, but I think history books should be that blend of primary sources and analysis. I freaking love those books. This one wasn’t terrible but it was a resounding meh. It was a really long B+ recitation of generalities about American women. I am totally bummed and disillusioned to not be jumping off the walls about it because this is the first time I have failed to jump off walls about a book on the history of women, and I think it is signaling a certain crotchety-ness in me. Oh, no wait, there was that eye-roll HBO production about Alice Paul. That was annoying, though it wasn’t a book. Anyway, I could see assigning this in a high school class, but I couldn’t really see going beyond that. And why not watch Ken Burns’s wonderful documentary Not for Ourselves Alone
, read the American Women books, or read one of Jeannette Walls’s books instead? Those are fucking amazing. People should freak out about the history of women, and the zeitgeists and famous people this book summarized just failed to make me freak out.