New York Times columnist Gail Collins starts with the colonial period and concludes in the present, presenting an array of anecdotes about women, aging and events across time. Her methodical research unearths surprising facts about women’s expectations for their lives and livelihood prior to the 2oth century. Collins is an accomplished cultural historian, and her focus on women and aging provides a lens for better understanding how US society perceives women and their roles, and how that has and hasn’t changed, at work and beyond.
In colonial times, longevity was seen as a gift from God.
In the 1800s, pervasive illnesses made old age a sign of good fortune, a mark of God’s grace. While some churches sat older congregants near the pulpit, some ministers also encouraged aging women to contemplate death and sit unobtrusively in a corner at home, unless their family needed them to do chores. In farming communities, older women wore tight caps indicating they were no longer on the market for marriage.
If a husband died without a will, his widow had the right to one-third of his property until she died. In the 18th century, widows outnumbered widowers by a factor of seven. Though remarriage was popular, some women preferred the independence of widowhood, which allowed them to run businesses and manage their own money.
Books and magazines promoted a vision of women’s lives.
The 19th century provided women with books and magazines that taught social graces and set societal expectations. They expounded middle-class values focusing on a woman’s role as wife, mother and moral beacon. A woman’s place...
New York Times journalist Gail Collins is the first women to serve as the Times’s editorial page editor (2001-2007). The author of seven books, Collins has received numerous awards, including the George Polk Award for commentary.