I’m being serious. For succor, I recommend Gail Collins’s new book, “No Stopping Us Now,” subtitled, “The Adventures of Older Women in American History.” Collins, an opinion writer (and formerly the first female editorial page editor) at the New York Times, is a cheerful companion through the decades. Right from the introduction, the reader understands Collins’s point of view: A woman can be kind, intelligent, hard-working and successful, but we’re always going to wonder if she’s coloring her hair, or has gained or lost a little weight. Nevertheless, there are dozens upon dozens of heroic stories of remarkable women in this book that will be new to the average reader. And though you may already be an expert on Eleanor Roosevelt, I was not, and thus I could be surprised by Collins’s take that, as she traveled nonstop, speaking and writing on all manner of important issues, Roosevelt “was possibly having the most extraordinary middle age of any woman in American history.”
This is a history book, a sprightly one. But since it begins in 1630, the narrative starts on a grim note. Middle-aged women were likely to have gaping holes in their gums where their teeth used to reside. (Personally, I’m pretty convinced that I would have died from a hit-and-run horse, as I can barely see without my 20th-century inventions, contact lenses.) Life in the early years of our country saw few comforts, and sadly one often outlived several of one’s own children. Medical treatments were limited to bloodletting, homemade remedies and sometimes opium.
You recall from your American history class long ago that independent-thinking women in the pre-Revolutionary War years might be taken for witches. An Englishman visiting the colonies in 1646, Collins writes, “deplored the way in which ‘every old woman with a wrinkled face, a furr’d brow, a hairy lip, a gobber tooth, a squint eye, a squeaking voice, or a scolding tongue . . . is not only suspected but pronounced for a witch.”
With that warning, if women wanted to pretty themselves up they had to be rich enough to use the family bacon. I mean this literally, as Collins explains that applying bacon to one’s face was said to prevent wrinkles. However, in most communities, makeup and hair dye were shunned as misleading, dishonest and reflecting the bad character of a woman trying to fool a man into marrying her.
Most women didn’t have many or any career options. However, once they had launched all their children and ditched the housework, many older women won respect — the old-fashioned way. They were midwives and ministers, writers and editors. Take for instance, the author of “The Frugal Housewife,” Lydia Maria Child, whose story is woven throughout these pages. She was perhaps the first-ever influencer, and though female, she traveled the country spreading her opinions on matters of dress, decorum and stain removal. (Child had another hit in 1865 with “Looking Toward Sunset,” a meditation on aging.) One gets the impression that throughout the 18th and 19th centuries women were crisscrossing the country giving “talks” in parlors and auditoriums, telling their fervid audiences how to be.
One thing they could not be was too youthful. It was deceitful and unseemly. Collins quotes the author Robert Tomes, who wrote “The Bazar Book of Decorum”: “Old people of the best breeding now seldom resort to the hair-dresser to refurbish their shattered and decaying frames.” Since many evenings in town involved going to parties with dancing, the old people were best served — according to society — by sitting quietly in a corner, cognizant of their own obvious decline. When lovely, healthy, married women were seen enjoying themselves, well, that was almost vulgar. “To dress cheerfully and becomingly is considered as an attempt to affect youth; to converse gaily an unsuitable effort to attract admirers. There is really no limit to the ungracious things said,” complained the married Caroline Kirkland.
The painful adherence to beauty standards that created the corset and later the girdle gets its due in Collins’s history. Although a Brooklyn gynecologist in 1910 suggested that it was dangerous for women to wear corsets, around the same time an editorial in Harper’s Bazaar suggested that eliminating this item of “foundation” would be regrettable for the older woman: “an ill-advised experiment . . . if she wishes to look neat and trim and well-groomed.”
In the 1920s, youth was a queen in a short flapper dress. “The whole nation got the idea: the younger generation intended to live life full-force and, of course, never get old.” The amount of fabric needed to make the average woman’s outfit had dropped from a voluminous 19¼ yards to a trim seven yards. Americans now had movies and movie stars to emulate, as well as beauty and fashion magazines filled with ads. Collins writes that there were 7,000 beauty products on the market by 1927, and the ads she quotes are harshly phrased, terrorizing their customers into buying their wares. Naturally, corsets were required for the modern silhouette. And they continued to be worn, though they were harder to buy, during World War II, when rubber was needed for the war effort. Women were urged for the first time to locate their abdominal muscles and exercise them to flatten their tummies if the manufacturing of these foundations were to take a hiatus.
(Women complained. There was a backlash, and the government rethought a restriction on sales, deciding that girdles were helpful to the many women working in factories.)
“No Stopping Us Now” devotes much more time and space to politics and good works. From America’s first female senator, Jeannette Rankin of Montana, to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, American women devoted themselves for years and years to winning the vote and equality under the law. Women were the trailblazers of the civil rights movement as well. Many of the pioneering women we used to read about — Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Jane Addams, Alice Paul, Carrie Chapman Catt and others — were the mothers of both movements, some starting settlement houses for the poor.
We gals have made a ton of progress over the 389 years covered in Collins’s book. We may one day even conquer the White House. But my favorite story belongs to Frances Willard, a leader of the temperance movement, whose interests included suffrage and “health reform.”
Willard learned to ride a bicycle at the wobbly old age of 53 and then wrote about it: “The most remarkable, ingenious and inspiring motor ever yet devised upon this planet.” She became a devoted cyclist and advocate for the exercise and the experience. The year was 1895.
The Adventures of Older Women in American History
Little, Brown. 422 pp. $30