Lady Sings the Blues

Harriet Beecher Stowe
Harriet Beecher Stowe; drawing by David Levine

As editorial editor of The New York Times Gail Collins is responsible for seeing that writers get to the point and get to it quick—ASAP, as the current lingo would have it. She herself gets to the point ASAP on the opening page of her long, ambitious history of America’s women:

The history of American women is all about leaving home—crossing oceans and continents, or getting jobs and living on their own. Some of our national heroines were defined by the fact that they never nested—they were peripatetic crusaders like Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, Sojourner Truth, Dorothea Dix. The center of our story is the tension between the yearning to create a home and the urge to get out of it.

Animated by that tension and willing to dramatize it in a multitude of examples, Ms. Collins has produced a rapid, readable, polyglot history of womenfolk in America, a book that seethes and bubbles with information. If the juxtapositions she throws up sometimes seem capricious, the facts are mostly fascinating. In only the third paragraph we learn that Louisa Adams, wife of John Quincy, was so miserable as First Lady that she spent much of her time eating chocolates, although as a diplomat’s wife and a young mother she had crossed Russia during the Napoleonic Wars in a carriage with her young son. And then, same paragraph, hardly pausing for breath, Ms. Collins informs us that during World War II female aviators risked their lives pulling targets for unpracticed gunners to shoot at—the same females were subject to arrest if they tried to leave the base after dark wearing slacks.

If one paragraph can accommodate two such diverse pieces of information, how much pith can we expect 450 pages to yield? Gail Collins of course is well aware that she is practicing bullet-train history. The hundreds of mysteries, puzzles, enigmas, conundrums, and ambiguities which litter our historical landscape are not all going to be tidily resolved by Ms. Collins or, probably, anyone else. For those who want to make a deeper investigation of some of these matters a generous eighty-seven pages of notes and bibliography are provided. We are frequently reminded that there are many silences in our history, some of them involving women who were so appalled by what they had got themselves into that they made no report at all.

This shroud of silence is wrapped most closely around the first European and African women to arrive on American shores. Thanks to the discovery in the 1960s of the eleventh-century Norse site at L’Anse aux Meadows, in Newfoundland, it now seems that the first European child to be born on the soil of this continent was little Snorri Karlsefni. Ms. Collins mentions the Vikings but is more concerned with the first females to arrive in Virginia and Massachusetts.

What became of Virginia Dare, daughter…

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