Woman: The American History of an Idea

Image of Woman: The American History of an Idea
Release Date: 
March 15, 2022
Yale University Press
Reviewed by: 

“Faderman’s engaging style defies the fear of this being a dense, obtuse, textbook. It isn’t. It’s a page-turner with regular ‘you gotta be kidding’ moments triggering head-in-hands reactions.”

Throughout history women have been relegated to the back seat of everything. Lillian Faderman’s latest book takes readers on the historical and exasperating journey of how women have been dismissed, denied, and discriminated against from 17th century America into the second decade of the 21st. It’s a bumpy ride.

What becomes excruciatingly obvious is that the language and reasons have not changed over the centuries, and the outcome remains the same: women are considered less than men and are constantly subjected to efforts at subjugation and ridicule whenever they make any attempt to break out of the box men (and some women) insist on keeping them in.

What also becomes apparent is being a woman in America—past and present—requires stamina, patience, intestinal fortitude, as well as the ability to speak up. Susan B Anthony said it best, “Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputation and social standing, never can bring about reform.” Or, in other words, “well behaved women seldom make history.” And this book is filled with the women who misbehaved (according to societal norms) to achieve civil rights for women.

History does not so much repeat itself as reflect the ongoing and continuing saga of the nonsense to which women are subjected. Men decided women had specific roles to play, which were limited to being barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen. Politics, government, business, professions—all were off limits as being beyond the capabilities of women. Reading Faderman’s exquisitely researched book a something becomes apparent—men were, and still are, terrified of women. It’s the only logical explanation for the rampant and incessant discrimination against women that persists today.

Aside from the misogyny, sexism, and patriarchal running rampant, something else permeates the narrative of opposition to women’s rights: how women were complicit in perpetuating the tyranny. For every woman who demanded the right to pursue her own course in life, there were others who came after her with a vengeance to rein her in because of a perceived threat to their position. 

Women, then and now, who deviated from the proscribed course were demonized. Throughout history women have fought against “the place where God had set her,” and paid the penalty. The 1600s saw women executed as “witches” because they were different or smart or capable, “those who balked openly against following prescriptions that circumscribed their agency risked paying a price from banishment, whipping, or worse, to public shaming as hens that crow . . .” So claimed Benjamin Franklin in 1734. Women who failed to conform to traditional gender roles, as defined by men, were anathema in America.

Faderman extensive and comprehensive research tracks the centuries’ old campaign to keep a woman in her place. This book can be an exercise in frustration that segues into anger, and a takeaway is that the backlash against women and their pursuit of legal and civil rights is vicious.

Woman is an engaging read that pulls the reader into 500 years of history involving women, their rights, and their place in the country and the world. Faderman is a distinguished historian, and one might be apprehensive to read the book, which at 424 pages, can be intimidating. But Faderman’s engaging style defies the fear of this being a dense, obtuse, textbook. It isn’t. It’s a page-turner with regular “you gotta be kidding” moments triggering head-in-hands reactions. And the diversity of women presented in the book is remarkable.

Not all women who sought to break out of the gender straitjacket did so from a white, middle- or upper-class position. Women of color, Native American women, immigrants, and poor women also knew they deserved and were entitled to more. Most don’t know that Rosa Parks was a civil rights activist long before she got on that bus. But her experience has been smothered and she is portrayed as a tired domestic who just wanted to sit down. Women disappear too often into the mists of history and Faderman is excellence at resurrecting them and their stories. 

The book isn’t perfect; no book ever is. It is unfortunate that Dr. Mary Walker, a physician who served in an ad hoc position during the American Civil War, is not mentioned. One wonders if her absence is due to the animosity directed at her by the male establishment as well as some of the suffragette leadership like Susan B. Anthony. They didn’t like her because she was outspoken, strident, assertive, and brash. And she wore trousers—oh, the horror! Walker is a fascinating figure and deserved to be included. After all, she is the only woman to ever be awarded the Medal of Honor reflecting her service during the Civil War.

There is little discussion of how the rise of “gender-nonconformity,” “nonbinary,” and “transgender rights” will impact the legal rights of women, girls, and lesbians. Along with the demand that women give up their single-sex spaces to accommodate transgender women, and the push to erase the word “women” needs to be addressed it is not addressed. Do women have the right to their own spaces? Are the attacks on women who demand their own spaces just another form of the discrimination that men have perpetuated throughout history? What is the long-term impact on women’s rights?

These are serious questions that require serious discussion. Women who raise the issue are, demonized, threated with rape, death, and torture. Once again there is a concerted effort for women to shut up and these reactions smack of those experienced by women in 17th century New England, or suffragettes in the 19th and early 20th century United States, and certainly the feminists of the past 60 years.

Lillian Faderman’s book deserves a wide and diverse audience. She makes it clear that for all the advances women have made since the 1600s, the attacks continue. Efforts to control all aspects of women’s existence and never cease.

Susan B. Anthony had her own idea of a “true woman.” Her “true woman did not belong in the domestic sphere, nor in any one sphere. Her true woman roamed freely. She was her own individual self, did her own individual work, stood, or fell by her own individual wisdom and strength, and—like a man . . . was made for her own individual happiness.”

“True women” fill the pages of Lillian Faderman’s book.