By People Staff
November 03, 2003 12:00 PM

by Gail Collins

[STARS 3.5]

In pre-Civil War America, Collins writes, “Virtually everything women read told them that corsets were bad, [but] everything they saw stressed how essential they were.” It was, notes Collins, “one of many eras in American history when young women were at war with their bodies.” Collins, editorial-page editor at The New York Times, shows off enviable skill presenting 400 years of women’s political and social struggles–and the mixed messages delivered every step of the way. It’s a masterful overview that covers subjects as varied as exercising in hoop skirts to bathing to sanitary napkins–the first went on sale in 1921, “in what must have been one of the most important unheralded moments in the history of American women.” Collins’s sly wit and unfussy style makes this historical book extremely accessible: When turn-of-the-20th-century women embraced bicycling, she writes, “. . . people barely had time to go through the traditional soul-searching over whether cycling would make women nervous or endanger their reproductive systems.”