PW: What spurred you to write America's Women?
Gail Collins: The last book I did was a history book about things that interested me in American history, and I learned so much doing it. I wanted to take it one step further. And this is the most interesting subject I could think of in the entire universe.
GC: Well, gee whiz, here we are. We are women and we are here. There's so much happening in my life that you don't really think about on a normal day. You think, is it possible that women were schlepping around all this time and then they erupted in 1970? Then you go back and look and see how smart and canny and enduring and brave and clever women were all the way along the line, given the circumstances they faced. It's a revelation.
PW: How did you find all of this material?
GC: I've got about 500 books of women's history at home and cartons of essays that my researchers have brought back to me, and I just started there. Actually, the beginning part was the easiest because there's so little known and there were so few women's voices from the 16th and 17th century that you can get a feeling you've covered pretty much all the bases because the bases are so limited. But once you get into the Revolutionary War, there's so much stuff that you really have to pick and choose and not beat yourself up for having missed something.
PW: How did you decide who to focus on?
GC: I swore what I would not do is to write a book only about the women who dared, the ones who went out and made enormous contributions or fought great battles. The thing that most interested me was what did it actually feel like to be there. Every time I read history, I keep wondering, "But where did they go to the bathroom? Did they wear underwear? If so, how did they clean it? The babies' diapers—what was going on there?" You see these glorious visions of women: they get on a boat, they go across the ocean or the prairies and do all these amazing things. I've always been one of those people who said, "Well, yeah, but did they wear corsets? Were there bras?"
PW: Were you surprised by anything you learned?
GC: I was surprised by everything I learned. I tried to stop every once in a while and imagine what it looked like from there, from the very first 16th-century moment when Eleanor Dare [came to the colonies]. You get on a boat with your husband, who says we're going to go to this entire new continent where there are no other people who speak your language except a few guys we left behind, who it will turn out are dead. Was she really, really brave or was she just easily led? I don't know the answer. Just try to imagine getting off the boat and walking into the colony that was full of nothing but weeds and empty buildings and a skeleton or two, and realizing that there's nobody left, and that you're there to start again, and you're going to be left there by the boats. What did that feel like?
PW: This seems like a wonderful book for younger people who don't realize what kind of boundaries existed not that long ago.
GC: I had in mind, when I was writing it, my niece who's 13, and thinking what I could explain to her—and also my mother, who's 79, who lived out the very traditional American woman's life. I didn't want [this] to be a book that devalued what happened to her. It's so clear that in most of our history women wanted to be in the house. It was certainly better than being in the factory or the field. I didn't want [this] to be a book that said, "Well, all that was meaningless, and then in 1970 we all changed and got so much better."