Sunday, January 24, 2010

400 Hundred Years of American Womanhood

During my recent confinement I finally got around to reading a book that's been on my shelf since 2004. The title "America's Women: 400 years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines" made it irresistible.
I read some of the printed comments on the first page that praised Gail Collins' book up, down, left and right. For the most part, I agree with all the praise. It was a huge undertaking and she managed to put four centuries of history into 442 pages (not including the 114 more pages of epilogue, notes, bibliography and index.)
Her take on the earliest European women to survive life in the colonies is fascinating. There was absolutely nothing romantic or fun about those early days. A woman's role remained subservient and was far harsher than any male's. Old ways died hard.
The basics of life as they had known them didn't exist when Europeans came ashore in Virginia and New England. Shelter was rudimentary at best and crowded. Water had to be drawn from mosquito infested, briny marshes -- by women -- and bathing was unthinkable, as it had been in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. But, unlike Europe, Virginia was miserably hot and humid.
Collins bravely went where few have ventured before; speculating on how women handled menstruation. Apparently, nothing much has ever been written or revealed on how that played out. Baby diapers were rags and, because doing laundry was hard labor, they seldom were washed. Babies might spend days in one diaper that would then be scraped clean, air-dried and re-applied. Of course, lack of cleanliness wasn't the only reason for high infant mortality. Women were almost forced to keep having babies in hopes that some would survive to work the fields.
Moving through the Revolutionary and Civil Wars women were forced into roles that exacerbated their already difficult existence. During World War I, a woman's role was to keep the home fires burning which meant doing all the farm work her "brave Dough boy" couldn't help with because he was off fighting the war in Europe.
World War II again required double duty of women. They filled factory jobs where they were little appreciated by the men who felt emasculated -- women belonged in the home. Rosie the Riveter was a figment of an illustrator's imagination. When U.S. soldiers came home after the war, the women were instantly out of work, even those who were single or widowed and the sole support for their families.
Women in the military came away scarred and disillusioned. They had been openly resented by the males they replaced because it meant that the men would be sent into the fighting. Women pilots who fought for the right to enlist were then assigned mundane or dangerous jobs like hauling targets for gunnery practice.
When women returned from military service, they were not cheered or feted with ticker-tape parades. They were expected to take off the jumpsuits and boots, clean the grease from their fingernails and return to skirts and heels to satisfy their men. Most shamefully, only their male counterparts received recognition and veterans' benefits.
Women who had done heavy factory work AND kept the home fires burning were not recognized for their service. They lost their jobs as soon as the men came back to take them, even if the women were more skilled.
The author did a decent job of reporting on the cultural tsunami of the 60s and 70s. A significant omission, however, is not mentioning our concern with over-population.
Zero population growth became a mantra for millions of young adults. We were constantly reminded that the world was quickly approaching the tipping point in how many humans it could support with Earth's limited resources. Birth control became a grave responsibility rather than just a convenience.
We baby-boomers are blamed for all sorts of coming disasters like the depletion of social security funds, sky-rocketing health care costs and more. I would argue that if we early boomers had continued the baby boom our parents started, we'd be in far worse shape now. By controlling birth-rates (which very few of our parents embraced in any form or fashion) we left room for today's 20 and 30-somethings to come into their own.
Many restrictive double standards no longer discriminate against women OR men thanks in large part to women activists. Gail Collins' book helped to flesh out how complex and daunting a task that has been.

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