What does it mean to be a woman? Lessons from American history.

Via Peters

In a memoir written late in her life, teacher and poet Lucy Larcom recalled the decade she worked at a cotton mill in Lowell, Massachusetts, in the mid-1800s. “I felt that I belonged to the world, that there was something for me to do in it,” she enthused. As Lillian Faderman illustrates in her sweeping “Woman: The American History of an Idea,” that sentiment had been largely denied to women, who had long been told that their place was in the home. 

In her exhaustive study, Faderman, a prominent LGBTQ historian and professor emerita at California State University, Fresno, charts the changing meaning of “woman” from the 17th century to the present day. With such an expansive time frame, she necessarily writes in terms of broad historical patterns, but she illustrates them with a wealth of examples. 

When small numbers of women became industrial wage laborers in the early 1800s – performing their jobs away from the watchful eyes of their families, as opposed to bringing spinning or weaving work into their homes – the shift was momentous. As Faderman observes, a woman could “begin to define herself outside of her roles as daughter, wife, and mother.” 


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