Once women strapped on aprons; now we're more likely to find ourselves strapping on a pair of cleats. These books look at a woman's place, past and present.


Whether she's a stay-at-home parent or an office-bound professional, today's woman probably has a household to manage, even if it's just herself, a Labrador and a ficus. Somebody has to put food in the fridge, cook it, do the dishes -- on top of which there are floors to be vacuumed, toilets to be scrubbed, clothes to be dropped off at the drycleaners and then collected again. With the cult of busyness ever more fashionable -- who has time for all this? -- no wonder we feel chained to our chores. And the bigger the household, the bigger the mess.

Next time you want to throw your dishpan hands up in despair, douse the dirty laundry with gasoline and order pizza instead of whipping up a nutritious and delicious meal, pick up The Illustrated History of the Housewife, 1650-1950 by Una A. Robertson (St. Martin's, $18.95). It'll make you feel better. Though it focuses on the British Isles, Robertson's catalogue of labors applies universally, covering such basics as washing, cleaning and food storage and preparation. After reading about the epic endeavor that was laundry day circa 1800, you'll bless your grumpy old Maytag:

"It was customary to accumulate dirty clothing, bed and table linen for several weeks and have the occasional mammoth wash . . . . After soaking items were washed individually, then transferred into clean water and washed again. Plain linens and cottons were put to boil in the coppers [tubs] in order to give them a good colour and remove the soap; if boiled any sooner in the process the dirt would be fixed in, never to be removed thereafter. Everything was then rinsed several times and blued or given other, specialized finishes, after which the items were wrung out and put to dry, either on an outdoor drying green provided with lines slung between upright posts or on an area of grass, in which case the articles had to be watched lest they blew away or were stolen."

Post-washing, a housewife (and her helpers if she was lucky enough to have them -- wealthier households had servants or professional washerwomen on call) had to get the wrinkles out of those arduously cleaned clothes. Mangles or presses of all sorts were used, and in some creative locations. Dorothy Wordsworth, the poet's sister, was perturbed to see women rolling clothes on horizontal tombstones in one Scottish churchyard. In the same country, in Dumfries, women spread clothes on blankets on the ground and, like old-fashioned grape pressers, did the job with their feet. Talk about pressed for time.

All Dressed Up

For Jo Copeland, wardrobe maintenance was a career in itself. A New York fashion designer who defined -- and defined herself by -- style, Copeland had the sort of relationship with her clothes that most people hope to have with their spouse or children: intimate, loving, sustaining. In Mommy Dressing: A Love Story, After a Fashion (Anchor, $12.95), Copeland's daughter Lois Gould remembers the care and attention her mother lavished on dresses and accessories but almost never on her offspring. Here's Jo getting ready for her twice-yearly trips to "view the collections" in Europe:

"Packing her off was a precise and exacting science, whose foundation rested on the stacks of white tissue and an army of cream-colored leather steamer trunks that materialized suddenly in her bedroom and stood at attention for a week before the packing. Then, at a touch, their jaws sprang open, revealing drawers and closets of amazing intricacy. . . . each dress had to be filled with tissue as if someone were already wearing it: whole bodies of tissue shaped and molded to round out the arms, pull up the bosom, stiffen the collar. Sheets of tissue shielded each creation from the next, lest some precious paillette snag a maribou, and neither of them survive."

Watching from the door of her mother's bedroom, the daughter feels excluded from a ritual that's "like a birth, with frantic women performing mysterious, urgent tasks. . . . All of them crushing and smoothing, pressing and folding. . . . Throughout her life, my mother traveled with her entire wardrobe. The rationale was simple: she never knew what sudden event might demand the one pink chiffon scarf she'd left behind."

Gould is a novelist (Such Good Friends, No Brakes), and she fits the pieces of a sad, privileged childhood together as deftly as her mother might have stitched a silk lining into one of her couture creations. There's the charming father who abandoned the family when Gould was 3, the mother who wanted to be anything but, the children unwanted but expected to live up to impossible standards of dress and decorum. Even "my mother's city had strict geographical rules," Gould writes. "Park Avenue was where people lived; it ran up the East Coast like a starched French ribbon. Fifth Avenue was where you shopped or had lunch at the Plaza. Central Park was a transverse that you tunneled across to where you had to go `downtown,' i.e., work. That she went every day to Seventh Avenue was scarcely acknowledged. She went to Number 498, `the place,' in a taxi, without looking out the window."

Flying Solo

If she'd been born a few decades later, Jo Copeland might have made a good interview for The Improvised Woman: Single Women Reinventing Single Life, by Marcelle Clements (Norton, $14). When Copeland's first husband left her and the kids, "she was, suddenly, a single parent. Not a glamorous career woman with a handsome husband, but the sole support of a young family and a very expensive lifestyle." Many of the women in Clements's book could tell a similar story.

Clements talked to single women in every stage of adult life, from just out of college to old-old. Some have chosen to be single in reaction to their parents' unhappy marriages or their own romantic misadventures, others because they're just happier on their own. More than an embrace of singlehood, she thinks, this reflects changing views on marriage: For widows in their sixties and beyond, for instance, "marriage has very specific, inexorable responsibilities, and remarriage renews them. Many of these women simply don't want to live with a new boss. As for younger women, independence is no longer a luxury, it's a necessity for self-fulfillment."

Self-fulfillment sounds just fine, but it's a fitful presence in this book. (And can't you be self-fulfilled in a marriage too?) I admire Clements's stated goal, which is to explore, anecdotally, the "vastness of potential" in being a single woman. It's liberation, not spinsterhood! Skeptical myself about traditional domestic arrangements, I expected to find testimonials about the power of one; but disappointment hangs like a torn bridal veil over many of these stories. With sub-chapter headings such as "All the Mr. Wrongs" ("There seems to be an endless variety"), the book circles back time and again to its unofficial theme: bruised hearts and broken dreams. It may be dicey to be alone, these women seem to be saying, but it's dicier to be in a relationship when relationships are so unpredictable, so demanding, so confining, so badly designed, so much toil and trouble.

"Oh, you want me to talk about the joys of being single?" says Evelyn B., once married to an alcoholic. "Yes, I guess there are some. Like being rid of your ex-husband. . . . Sometimes you meet a guy, and there's an attraction. But then you tell yourself he's probably married, or he drinks, or he's going to turn out exactly like your ex-husband. By now we're all smart enough. We know the end of the story."

Not all of the singletons in The Improvised Woman sound so battered by love. Still, this book may be a better tonic for couples needing reassurance about the partnered state than for people going it alone. Maybe Clements will write a follow-up in 10 years and see how much progress we've made.

By Leaps and Bounds

More uplifting in every sense is Whatever It Takes: Women on Women's Sport, edited by Joli Sandoz and Joby Winans (Farrar Straus Giroux, $13). The editors, both athletes, "began this project by asking questions. What is it like for a woman to wrestle? To box? To learn to race a motorcycle? What does victory mean to women? What do today's girls think as they lace up their Sheryl Swoopes sneakers on their way to shoot hoops with the guys? What did the first woman ever to step onto a basketball court think, back in 1892?"

The contributors write mostly as participants, mostly amateur. Rene Denfield, an amateur boxer from Portland, Ore., recalls why she took up the gloves: "I didn't take up boxing to make a political statement about women. As a writer, I was looking for something to get me out of the house. Boxing seemed like fun and offered the bonus of physical fitness. I hoped it would help me quit smoking. Eventually, it did."

She trained, she shadowboxed, she worked the heavy bags, she learned that boxing is about controlling emotion: "You agree to hit each other, as equals, in this safe place, with no hard feelings." Then she faced her first opponent, a man: "The first time I got into the ring to spar, my knees were shaking. . . [The gloves] felt foreign on my hands, heavy and bulky, and I flexed my fingers inside their sweaty interiors, feeling the empty spaces." But hitting, and being hit, she thinks, " `That doesn't hurt so bad.' Somehow that realization was more exciting and fulfilling than I could ever have imagined."

Jennifer Howard's e-mail address is howardjen@washpost.com.