The history of women is often told as a catalog of types and ideals, from Victorian shut-ins to crusading suffragettes. In America's Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines (William Morrow, 2003), Gail Collins also chronicles the struggles of the ordinary. Here are outtakes.
1. The first lawyer in our ranks was a colonial woman named Margaret Brent, who virtually ran the colony of Maryland during a period of crisis. She might also be blamed for planting the seed of our nation's litigiousness: She was recorded as a party in 134 suits between 1642 and 1650.
2. We found our voices much earlier than is generally recorded. In 1637, Ann Fowler was sentenced to 20 lashes for the rather indelicate suggestion that a county justice, Adam Thorowgood, could "Kiss my arse." In a nod to loudmouthed women, the Virginia General Assembly ruled that husbands were no longer responsible for damages caused by outspoken wives. The women could take their own punishment: a dunking in the river.
3. We've always been smarter than you think — even back when we were encouraged not to think. In the late 18th century, the popular book A Father's Legacy to His Daughters by John Gregory, urged young women to hide their good sense: "If you happen to have any learning, keep it a profound secret, especially from the men, who generally look with a jealous and malignant eye on a woman of great parts, and a cultivated understanding."
4. We might be famous for the scarlet letter A, but the more appropriate letter is P for pauper. As today, the most distressed segment of the population in 18th-century America was single women with children. In Brandywine Valley in Revolutionary Pennsylvania, a woman on the dole had to wear a red P on her sleeve.
5. We're the nation's most powerful consumers — and have been for 200 years. The literate women of the post-Revolutionary era were the nation's first mass book buyers. Harper's Magazine estimated that four-fifths of the reading public was female in the preffiCivil War era.
6. By 19th-century standards, we're all tomboys. The term "was applied to all little girls who showed the least tendency toward thinking and acting for themselves."
7. We knew how to capitalize on the domestic arts long before Martha came along. Lydia Maria Child was the country's first domestic guru. Her tome, The American Frugal Housewife, became a publishing sensation in 1829, with such advice as how to put odd pieces of string and fabric to use, how to remove inkspots, and the best way to stew prunes.
8. We're the real action heroes. Harriet Tubman not only escaped slavery, she made 19 trips back over the border to lead others to freedom in the Underground Railroad. During the Civil War, she served as a spy and scout for the Union Army.
9. We're the original change agents. Turn-of-the-century reformer and peace activist Jane Addams pioneered the settlement house movement in Chicago. She established Hull House; built the first playground; started a nursery school; and led demonstrations against bad health conditions. In 1931, she won the Nobel Peace Prize.
10. We risked our lives doing work men shunned. In World War II, 1,000 women pilots flew 60 million miles — mostly in experimental jets and planes grounded for safety reasons — and often towed targets past lines of inexperienced gunners. Then we'd get arrested for leaving base wearing slacks after dark.
Sidebar: Book Box
The Book: The Innovator's Solution: Creating and Sustaining Successful Growth by Clayton M. Christensen and Michael E. Raynor (Harvard Business School Press, 2003)
Big Idea: Christensen's The Innovator's Dilemma became the bible of the digital revolution after its 1997 publication. The idea was simple, elegant, and terrifying: the very attributes that give big, established companies their advantage contain the seeds of their destruction. Success blinds incumbents to disruptive technologies and innovative upstarts that come from nowhere.
Today, the fear and paranoia that drove company leaders to cannibalization, creative destruction, and radical reinvention have unwound into a less-sexy, but no less-urgent, agenda: sustainable growth. Christensen and Raynor not only appreciate how hard it is to create new sources of explosive growth — they understand and unpack why it's so hard. They zero in on the critical hinges of growth: what products you should develop, which customers you should focus on, and what kind of organization and processes you need to shape average business ideas into disruptive strategies that create new markets.
Data Point: If entropy is the ruling dynamic of the natural world, commoditization is the unyielding force that animates the marketplace. In 1992, the first one-gigabyte 3.5-inch disk drives were introduced at prices that offered 60% gross margins. Today, disk-drive companies barely manage 15% margins on products that are 60 times better.
The Last Word: Every dilemma demands a solution. And this book lives up to its promise: More than an engrossing read shot through with Christensen's rigorous thinking and trademark clarity, it's a valuable tool for every aspiring upstart — whether you're inside a billion-dollar company or have a billion-dollar glimmer in your eye.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2003 issue of Fast Company magazine.