Hard To Enjoy Being A Woman

AMERICA'S WOMEN 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines By Gail Collins; Morrow; 556pp; $27.95

Several years ago, I picked up a household guide for women that had been written in the 1880s by a physician. There, among hints for baking a vinegar pie and advice on curing cancer, were instructions on sexual behavior. Ironically enough, it said those who wanted children must endure years of abstention: Upon getting pregnant, women were to cease having sex until the child reached age 2. Then one morning, after a good night's sleep and a nutritious breakfast, they were to have intercourse at precisely 11 a.m., when human procreative powers are at a peak. They would immediately get pregnant, the doctor said, and then must endure another 2 1/2 year dry spell.

Victorians expected wives to embrace the idea of triennial sex since women were seen as too delicate for much physical intimacy. Little matter that they were also required to be household drudges -- lifting children, laundry tubs, and cast-iron cooking pots.

Throughout American history, women have been required to adopt contradictory roles, writes New York Times editorial page editor Gail Collins in America's Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines, an encyclopedic narrative of a 400-year march of progress. Southern girls were raised to be helpless before marriage and plantation managers after. Pioneer women wore bonnets and gloves to keep their skin white while plowing the fields. White women were scorned for taking jobs, while blacks were vilified if they didn't.

America's Women is a one-stop account of the lives and times of the second sex in the U.S. Although it contains little original material -- and many of its stories will be familiar to students of women's history -- there's a wealth of information. Moreover, despite the book's heft, Collins' accessible, entertaining style makes it a brisk, enjoyable read.

One major theme in women's experience is "leaving home -- crossing oceans and continents, or getting jobs and living on their own," writes Collins. Among the first group of white women to ship out from England for America, in 1587, was Eleanor Dare. She arrived in time to give birth to the first white child, Virginia, named for the Virgin Queen. Shortly thereafter, mother and daughter, along with the other 100-odd settlers of Roanoke Island, mysteriously disappeared.

The death rate among all early settlers was astonishingly high. But women had the added burden of childbearing -- an average of seven children per female in early New England, where 20% of women died in childbirth. Spousal abuse was not uncommon. Occasionally, there were startling occurrences: One starving husband murdered his wife and "fedd upon...her partes." Little wonder that many women were reluctant to migrate to the colonies, just as some of their 19th century descendants resisted moving westward.

Women were expected to perform household duties under the most trying circumstances, and of course, freedom and opportunity were largely limited to men. Many readers will recall Abigail Adams' plea to her husband John to "remember the ladies" in his work at the Continental Congress. Less well-known is Adams' reply: "As to your extraordinary code of laws, I cannot but laugh."

The women in the early Republic actually had more independence than did their granddaughters. By the 19th century, a woman's property in many states became her husband's when she married, and he could use it as he saw fit. If a father died, a mother might find that a male guardian had been appointed to make decisions for the children. In North Carolina, only a virgin could charge a man with rape. And about 1800, a New York all-male jury acquitted a wealthy lawyer of raping a seamstress, in part because the girl should have known that someone of his position couldn't possibly be interested in her for anything but sex.

Collins shows that female roles changed according to what men wanted. During the Great Depression, married women who worked were seen as a menace to society, since they were taking jobs away from men. Just a few years later, during World War II, the government pleaded with women to take defense work -- and blamed war losses on those who shirked. Then, after the war, women were fired so male veterans could take their jobs. The postwar economy needed females to act as consumers.

While progress has come in fits and starts, "it's impossible, still, not to cheer" the undeniable advances, writes Collins. In the year 2000, women were awarded 55% of all college degrees and accounted for almost half the students in law and medical schools. Women are in the executive suite, on the Supreme Court, and in space -- but they still might be expected to know how to bake a pie.

By Sandra Dallas

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