Thursday, September 21, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: A History of Women in America by Carol Hymowitz and Michaele Weissman

It's always good to refresh and expand your education, and it doesn't have to be Women's History Month to check out this US Women's History book!

Genre: Non-fiction/US History/ Women’s History

4.5 Stars

Have you ever considering that using your brain dries up your ovaries? Well in 1874, Harvard Medical School professor Dr. Edward Clarke certainly suggested that education was detrimental to women’s reproductive health. (My two children conceived years after obtaining my Master’s degree got quite a laugh out of that.)

Sadly a similar mentality may be to blame for robbing courageous women of their accomplishments. It would certainly explain why most students are taught the famous ride of Paul Revere, but not the successful ride of twenty-two year old Deborah Champion who made the same trip without getting caught!

Using a similar format as I did with my review of Who Cooked the Last Supper, here’s the lowdown on this informative text on US history for women from the founding of the nation to the bra burning days of the 1970’s.

 Why this text is still relevant: 
“…stop giving lip service to the ideas that there are no battles left to be fought for women in America” (341).
Betty Friedan said it in 1963, but I know many women, myself included, felt it in January 2017 when uninformed women took to social media to criticize and chide three million other women who took to the streets to participate in the women’s march. So yes, the answer is pretty clear—this text is still very relevant and would do well to be required reading for all US students. History text books are far from universal, meaning they don’t equally depict both sexes. It’s books like this one that are needed to know and understand what the women of American were doing and feeling while the men were carving out rights for themselves and making laws that benefited only one gender; how women participated in the founding and expansion of this country; how women contributed to winning wars while the men touted the victories; how women stood up for not only their cause but the plight of other disadvantaged as well.

I also think that modern women— whether stay at home mothers, working mothers, or single career women— will find places where they are able to relate to the various struggles depicted here.

What does this book cover? This book provides a detailing of the opposition—physical and ideological—against equality for women alongside the biographies of notable women suffragists. The authors state in the introduction that they hoped to balance the lives of ordinary women and extraordinary women. They also aimed to show both the oppression women faced as well as how they overcame it.

This book is organized into 19 chapters under four subsections. Topics addressed include:   
Life for women in the early colonies (Ch.1); religion & law (Ch. 2); women’s roles in the American Revolution (Ch. 3); the conditions of life of slave women and roles of white women during slavery (Ch. 4); 19th century new roles attitudes towards women (Ch. 5); notable early feminist (Ch. 6);  the lives of notable early movement organizers alongside the struggles they faced (Ch. 7); the life and conditions for women in the factory system of the 1800’s (Ch. 8);  women’s roles and contributions to the Civil War as well as the injustices suffered by black women after the war (Ch.9);  the complicated relationship feminist experienced with abolitionists during Reconstruction as well  with proponents of controversial and progressive ideas regarding free love and sexual freedom (Ch. 10);  women’s lives in the West and its effect on suffrage (Ch. 11); life for immigrant women and families (Ch. 12);  women’s involvement in social reforms including some of the ironies of their organizations causes (Ch. 13); women’s labor force & the conditions thereof in the suffrage fight years (Ch.14);  the final organization of women leading up to the right to vote, varying attitudes surrounding it, and interest groups against it (Ch. 15); changes in sexual attitudes post suffrage and the birth control movement (Ch. 16); jobs for women in the post suffrage years and the effects of the Great Depression and the world wars on that (Ch. 17); social roles of women—middle class, working class, and African Americans—in the 1950’s (Ch. 18); and new goals and attitudes towards women’s liberation in the 1960’s and ‘70’s (Ch. 19).

Shortcomings: The authors acknowledge in the introduction that there are omissions in the text as far as coverage for Native American women, African-American women from 1880-1920, women in the arts, and certain professions. 

Published in 1978, the discussion of birth control is outdated. The history of it is still important to know. Women’s health care, in general, is one topic I felt should have been expanded on. Though it’s addressed sparsely throughout, a full chapter would have been useful.  Whenever women’s health care is addressed or included, its discussion is lacking. For example, S. Weir Mitchell is mentioned, but the detrimental effects of his rest cure are not adequately explained or expanded on. My women’s literature studies were far more informative on this controversial treatment. In fact, while Charlotte Perkins Gilman is mentioned, her famous piece “The Yellow Wallpaper” isn’t even named.  

While the book does a good job of providing the background and biographies for famous women (including but not limited to Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony) associated with suffrage rights, or the first wave of the women’s movement, notable second wave participants (such as Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem to name a few) are not given the same background paragraphs.

What Readers Might Find Interesting:  The women’s movement, including the fight for suffrage, was not a unified front.  Many women of the times didn’t support it, and even the ones who did were divided on things from organization to ideology.

How I felt reading this book:  I nearly celebrated myself when they finally won the right to vote after roughly 75 years and many chapters of detailing their obstacles and setbacks.  Every woman in the US should read this book if for nothing else than to understand the long arduous process and decades that women put into the fight allowing women today to have the rights and opportunities that they do. It should also serve as a motivation to not give up the continued fight to retain and advance women’s rights. 

Is this a feminist text? 
By definition (cited here from Merriam-Webster dictionary) and largely from a scholarly theorist perspective feminism is “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes as well as organized activity on behalf of women's rights and interests.” This book details women’s history in the US addressing the fight for political, economic, and social equality. So yes, it’s a feminist text.

Bear in mind that over the years the term feminism has taken on a variety of negative connotations (often the work of its opposition in an attempt to discredit it). The later chapters actually touch upon those disparaging assertions that feminist are angry man haters. I think the response voiced by a demonstrator aptly sums up the true position of feminist protestors and activists:
“What I want to cut off is the power men exercise over women. And if a man associates that power with his genitals, that’s his problem” (356).

Themes: Despite differences in class, race, and culture, there is a prevalent theme of loneliness and struggle for identity. 

Triggers:  There are mentions of rape and violence against women but it’s not graphically described.

Historical Accuracy: I am not a historian, but from my previous knowledge of the subject, the majority of the book appears sound.   

How I got this book/Why I read this book/My background: 
I ordered this book (paperback edition) from Amazon a few months ago after browsing several books on the subject for consideration for my kids’ educational studies. I read it first and made a chapter by chapter study guide for our lessons. I have a background in English literature with a concentration in women’s literature and feminist criticism so the general subject matter wasn’t previously unfamiliar.

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