When rich women seeking a “migratory divorce” headed west by train to states with more lenient divorce laws in the 1890s—maids, lawyers and multiple wardrobe trunks in tow—they hardly looked like revolutionaries. Yet they started something. Historian April White's exhaustive account, The Divorce Colony: How Women Revolutionized Marriage and Found Freedom on the American Frontier, captures a game-changing cultural moment during the tumultuous years of the Gilded Age.
In the late 19th century, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, required only a 90-day residency before a woman could file for divorce, making it a magnet for those in more of a hurry to get divorced than other states would allow. In New York, only proof of adultery and (still true today) a year's residency did the trick; South Carolina allowed nothing to break the sacred marital bond. White's colorfully detailed work follows four women, their families and their paths out of unsatisfying marriages through the courts of law and public opinion to their fates as divorcées—or wives once more.
Baroness Maggie De Stuers traveled with her private secretary, soon to be her next spouse. Mary Nevins Blaine blamed her mother-in-law, not her inept husband, for her marital woes. Blanche Molineux never wanted to marry in the first place. Flora Bigelow Dodge “wanted something entirely without precedent: ‘a legal and dignified Dakota divorce.'” Reporters followed these women, spying on their luxurious suites in the city's iconic Cataract House, seeking gossip and scandal. Businesses profited from their deep pockets. Clergy denounced them as threats to all that God had joined together. Judges became suspicious. Lawmakers, from local governments to the White House, wrestled with family values and federal oversight—a struggle that continues today, as different states still choose different rules for divorce and as the challenge of defining and upholding women's rights goes on.
In White's hands, this slice of history is as entertaining as it is enlightening.
In April White’s hands, this slice of Gilded Age history about women who headed west to states with more lenient divorce laws is entertaining and enlightening.
In the mid-20th century, air travel was considered glamorous, even romantic. Federal regulation kept fares high, and passengers were mostly businessmen en route to work destinations. And what did those men want to see at the end of a long work week? A blushing, girlish attendant who doted on them—or so the airlines assumed. A new pair of nonfiction books offer insight into the sexism women faced in the early decades of commercial flight, as seen through the eyes of the women who lived it.
The Great Stewardess Rebellion recounts the midcentury fight to get airlines to overturn their sexist requirements for flight attendants. In the 1960s, stewardesses were often fired after their 32nd birthdays, or upon marriage, or upon becoming pregnant—whichever came first. Their continued employment was dependent on regular weigh-ins, and they were required to meet other physical expectations, too, such as cutting their hair to their employer’s standard or wearing gloves while in uniform.
Journalist Nell McShane Wulfhart traces flight attendants’ union and legal battles throughout the 1960s and ’70s, focusing on two women whose experiences help make the political personal. Patt Gibbs was unconcerned with age limits when she applied to American Airlines at age 19, since 32 seemed impossibly distant, and she happily monitored her weight to better her chances of being accepted, dropping from 121 to 110 pounds before submitting her application. However, once Gibbs was hired and she saw how poorly she and her colleagues were treated, she became involved in union work—reluctantly at first, then as a passionate advocate for better pay and fewer discriminatory rules.
Like Gibbs, Tommie Hutto also became enraptured by air travel as a young woman. She became an American Airlines flight attendant after college graduation, as a way out of her conservative Texas surroundings. Hutto, too, became involved in the union, and as she and Gibbs sought better treatment for the women who staffed every flight, they transformed from adversaries to allies.
Wulfhart tells the story of airline unions through Gibbs’ and Hutto’s experiences while weaving in the tales of dozens of other bold women—such as Sonia Pressman, who fought for airline industry change as an attorney for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; Dusty Roads and Jean Montague, American Airlines flight attendants who brought the industry’s discrimination to the EEOC’s attention; and Cheryl Stewart and Sharon Dunn, Black flight attendants who challenged their colleagues’ racism. With stylish flair, The Great Stewardess Rebellion explores the nuances of these spirited women and the sexism they battled.
While Wulfhart reveals how women fought to change air travel, Ann Hood paints a portrait of how air travel shaped one woman’s life. Hood (The Book That Matters Most, The Red Thread) is now a bestselling novelist, but in the late 1970s and early ’80s, she was a TWA flight attendant. She always wanted to write, but first she wanted to see the world beyond her Rhode Island home, especially after falling in love with air travel when she took her first flight to Bermuda as a teen.
Hood’s memoir, Fly Girl, brims with details and personal anecdotes that air travel buffs will love. She recounts both the horrifying ways that misogyny affected her workplace, including unwanted advances from badly behaved passengers, and happier memories of the glamorous days of flying, when stewardesses could bring home sizable paychecks thanks to the work of the flight attendants’ unions. However, as the industry changed in the 1980s, Hood experienced furloughs and had to take jobs with less affluent airlines, bouncing from plane to plane. Through all the ups and downs, jet lag was her normal.
With time, Hood’s self-confidence grew, with regard to both her ability as a flight attendant and her understanding of people and cultures. She began to use time in the jump seat to write, and steadily she made her way toward the writer’s life she’d always dreamed of.
“Life unfolds on airplanes,” Hood writes. “People are flying to funerals and weddings, they are on their honeymoon or leaving a partner, they are carrying a newborn on their first flight to meet grandparents or taking a kid to college or on their way to adopt a baby. And they fall in love.” In Fly Girl, Hood paints a first-class portrait of chasing your dreams and coming of age in the sky.
Two nonfiction books render the complex lives of women during a bygone era of air travel.
These four provocative nonfiction books offer fresh perspectives on our nation.
A first-rate collection of essays gathered from Southern Living and Garden & Gun magazines, Where I Come From: Stories From the Deep South by beloved memoirist Rick Bragg provides unique insights into the author’s corner of America. In these brief but powerful pieces, Bragg’s curiosity ranges far and wide as he reflects upon personal interests (pickup trucks, Southern cuisine, country music) and more universal matters (race and religion). Offering a kaleidoscopic look at the contemporary South, this colorful compilation is sure to inspire rousing discussions.
David Gessner takes readers on an unforgettable tour of the nation’s monuments and parks in Leave It As It Is: A Journey Through Theodore Roosevelt’s American Wilderness. Gessner gives an overview of the life and conservation work of Theodore Roosevelt and also shows how that work remains significant today as he visits Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Canyon and other sites. Subjects such as environmentalism and the future of public lands will get book clubs talking, and Gessner’s humor and incisive observations make him a wonderful traveling companion.
InLooking for Miss America: A Pageant’s 100-Year Quest to Define Womanhood, Margot Mifflin delivers a fascinating historical survey of the Miss America pageant. Using the contest as a gauge of the advancement of women in America, Mifflin traces its evolution from a tourist attraction in Atlantic City in 1921 to a scholarship contest 100 years later. Her brisk, spirited narrative will entertain readers even as it presents fruitful material for discussion, with topics as wide-ranging as the #MeToo movement and the role of pageants in society.
Ojibwe author David Treuer gives a fresh account of Native American history in The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present. Blending history and reportage with personal narrative, Treuer sets out to show that, contrary to the story told in books such as Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Indigenous culture was not destroyed in the late 19th century. Rather, it is still alive and vibrant today. Authoritative yet accessible, his book is rich in talking points, including contemporary depictions of Native Americans in popular culture and the impact of the American Indian Movement.
These four provocative nonfiction books offer fresh perspectives on our nation.
The campaign for women's suffrage in the United States was a tough slog over three generations, from the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 to the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Frustrating defeats were the rule—except in the West. By 1914, 11 Western states already allowed women to vote. In Wyoming, they'd been doing it since 1869, well before statehood.
Winifred Gallagher’s comprehensive New Women in the Old West: From Settlers to Suffragists, an Untold American Story unearths this story through the lives of dozens of forgotten trailblazers. Suffrage is only part of it; women settlers were integral to building communities and developing the economy as the United States expanded, and the Native and Mexican women already living in the West were critical in the fight against encroachment and discrimination.
Early pioneer women were crucial full-time partners to men who were farmers and miners. Many became “town mothers,” the forces behind the establishment of schools, churches and libraries. Countless women built businesses, including Luzena Stanley Wilson, who became a successful hotel entrepreneur during the 1848 gold rush. A surprising number of women, like Oregon suffragist Abigail Scott Duniway, became prosperous as milliners, a business friendly to women at a time when everyone wore hats.
Beginning in the 1860s, the federal Homestead Acts, which granted applicants ownership rights to public lands in the West, and the Morrill Acts, which created land-grant universities, opened other paths for women. Female homesteaders, many of whom were immigrants, were relatively few in number, but they proved their claims at a higher rate than men. Coed land-grant universities also grew the teaching profession, newly open to women.
Gallagher is candid about the less appealing elements of this story as well. Initial suffrage measures passed in part because white men hoped the votes of white women would offset those of immigrant and Black men. Additionally, Gallagher documents the ways in which white women who were missionaries and teachers demeaned people of color and backed damaging assimilationist policies.
Overall, Gallagher’s rediscoveries are inspirational. Hard conditions and sparse populations created opportunities for women in the West unavailable to them elsewhere. They fought their way into business ownership, education, professional careers—and ultimately voting booths and elective office.
The campaign for women's suffrage in the United States was a tough slog—except in the West. New Women in the Old West unearths dozens of forgotten trailblazers.
We’re all familiar with the method of discrediting women by making allegations against their mental health whenever they dare to stand up to a man in power. As Radium Girls author Kate Moore ably demonstrates in her new book, The Woman They Could Not Silence: One Woman, Her Incredible Fight for Freedom, and the Men Who Tried to Make Her Disappear, this particularly pernicious tool of the patriarchy has been in use for a very long time.
Elizabeth Packard was a housewife, mother and champion for the disadvantaged and underserved. In the middle of the 19th century, she was involuntarily committed to an Illinois asylum by her husband, a controlling, Confederate-sympathizing Presbyterian minister with whom she had begun publicly disagreeing. At that time, female madness was defined in part as any unladylike behavior, such as arguing one’s case or expressing unhappiness at one’s situation. Anyone who committed these transgressions could be “sent to the madhouse” on nothing more than her husband’s say-so. Packard discovered two terrible truths from her own experience of this tactic: Married women had no rights or legal recourse, and neither did the inmates of asylums.
Once within the walls of the asylum, women were subject to filthy conditions and horrifying physical abuse and torture. As Packard noted, it was as though these asylums were designed to encourage insanity, not heal it. Faced with this seemingly hopeless situation, Packard set out to prove her own sanity and liberate herself and her fellow sisters in a gripping and improbable battle against rich, powerful men.
Packard’s story is, incredibly, not simply one of a woman who survived three years of imprisonment in an asylum for disagreeing with her husband’s religious views. She didn’t throw her energy into merely freeing herself, clearing her name and being reunited with her beloved children. Instead, the brave, brilliant and unshakable Packard went on to pen multiple books on subjects such as emancipation, women’s rights and the rights of people who are mentally ill; to get bills passed asserting the basic human rights and liberties of married women and mentally ill people; and to gain notoriety for confronting injustice no matter the odds.
The Woman They Could Not Silence is compelling not only because of the way it creates an alliance between the reader and the courageous Packard, but also because of how it forces the reader to examine once more the language and attitudes around women’s mental health. In Packard we see a foremother of the female leaders of today: intelligent, tenacious and impossible to cow.
In the 19th century, a brave, brilliant and completely healthy woman named Elizabeth Packard was involuntarily committed to an Illinois asylum by her husband.
Whatever stereotypes we associate with the profession of home economics, Danielle Dreilinger is here to assure us that everything we think we know is wrong. As she explicates in her thoroughly entertaining book, The Secret History of Home Economics: How Trailblazing Women Harnessed the Power of Home and Changed the Way We Live, home economics in the United States is much more complex than we might have imagined.
Since the time of Catharine Beecher, who published A Treatise on Domestic Economy in 1841, home economists have not simply reacted to societal changes and trends but have helped shape them. For starters, we have home economists to thank for things like food groups, the designation of a federal poverty level and the consumer protection movement. Home economics also opened doors for some women, including women of color, to enter careers in science that may have otherwise been closed to them.
As a journalist, Dreilinger knows the power of storytelling and makes the women from this history come to life. For example, she mines oral histories to shed light on the challenges Dr. Flemmie Kittrell faced as an African American nutritionist visiting South Africa in 1967. Dreilinger also provides overall historical context, delineating the marginalization of Black women in the home economics field.
As for the role of home economics in the 21st century, Dreilinger says the most common response she received when telling others about writing this book was, “We should bring that back.” Dreilinger closes with several suggestions for doing just that, including diversifying the profession to include more people of color and teaching home economics as an interdisciplinary field that explores the connection between our homes and the world, “with an eye to addressing the root causes of problems such as hunger, homelessness, isolation, and environmental devastation.”
Dreilinger, who completed her book during the COVID-19 pandemic, correctly notes that people have been thinking about the meaning of home and how homes work more than ever before. As we look toward the future, it’s always good to consider where we’ve been, and The Secret History of Home Economics helps us do that.
Whatever stereotypes we associate with home economics, Danielle Dreilinger is here to assure us that everything we think we know is wrong.
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