October 2009

Gail Collins

In a fascinating history, Gail Collins goes behind the scenes of the women’s rights movement
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It is hard to disagree with the weight of this statement from New York Times op-ed writer Gail Collins: “The conviction that women’s place was in the home, that they were weaker than men and weren’t really up to life in the public world . . . were beliefs that had existed for thousands of years, and they were shattered in my lifetime. That thought still knocks me out.”

In When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, Collins explores this period of time when “long-held patterns of behavior and beliefs got upended so suddenly.” The book is a follow up to America’s Women, Four Hundred Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines, Collins’ acclaimed work from 2003. The subject of American women—specifically, their struggles and broken barriers—is natural for Collins. She became the first female editorial page editor at the New York Times in 2001.

When Everything Changed provides a sweeping, fascinating look at modern women in our country. Filled with facts, court cases and legislation, the book is rich with personal anecdotes. Collins and her researchers interviewed more than 100 women for this history, and for many contemporary readers, their findings will be startling and sometimes heartbreaking.

The book begins with the story of 28-year-old secretary Lois Rabinowitz. In 1960, Lois went to traffic court to pay her boss’ speeding ticket. The judge had a fit when he saw Lois’ outfit: “neatly pressed slacks and a blouse.” In an outburst, he said, “Do you appreciate you’re in a courtroom in slacks?” Lois’ husband had to pay the ticket; the judge had thrown her out of the court for wearing pants. In her interview with BookPage, Collins recounts other outrageous stories she encountered: “the NASA official who said the idea of a woman in space made him sick to his stomach or the public high school in Iowa where the boys’ tennis team practiced on the school courts and the girls had to play on the driveway, jumping out of the way to avoid getting run over.”

Although the women who went through these ordeals could have turned bitter and angry, Collins says a lot of her interview subjects “looked back on these things with amusement . . . they see them as the artifacts of a long-departed world.”

She continues: “Others were sort of bemused that it never occurred to them to object when they were told that—of course—a woman would have to work twice as hard as a man to get ahead in the Justice Department. Or that—of course—Newsweek only hired women to be researchers, not writers. That was fascinating, because some of the people telling me this were among the feistiest and most outspoken women I know.”

For readers enticed by the book’s title, the big question will be when—and why—“everything changed” for American women.

“The law banning discrimination against women in employment was really what triggered everything,” says Collins. “That was added to the Civil Rights Act [in 1964] as a kind of joke/diversionary tactic by a Southern Congressman who would have preferred to kill the whole bill. And then the women were smart enough to jump on the opportunity to get it pushed through.” That Congressman was Howard Smith of Virginia, who at 80 years old hoped the addition of “sex” to Title VII would delay the passage of Civil Rights, rather than advance the position of women.

“Our happiness is all wound up in the happiness of our husbands and sons and brothers,” Collins says. “It’s harder for us to form a united front, and in American history, the points at which women have advanced have been the ones in which other discriminated-against groups were leading the way.”

A young woman during the 1960s, Collins says that even she was “totally fixated on civil rights . . . the women issue really didn’t register for a long time.” By the 1970s—when the National Organization for Women had been around for a few years; when women had gained widespread access to the Pill; when female students began to apply to medical, law, dental and business schools in “large numbers”—the issue had started to register.

“By the 1970s, my friends and I were completely confident that we were going to change the world,” she says. “It actually never occurred to me that by the 21st century there would be any problems left. I would have been shocked if you’d told me in 1979 that 30 years down the line, there wouldn’t be daycare centers in every office building, or that it wouldn’t be totally common for husbands to be the chief caregiver for the children.”

In spite of that disappointment, Collins admits, “I don’t think we had any real conception of what it would be like if young women had the same expectations and ambitions as young men. We thought we did, but it’s way better than we imagined.”

It may be a history book, but When Everything Changed reads like a page-turning saga, a race through the years to learn how we got here today, when “there was no speculation about whether [President Obama’s administration] would include any women in the most powerful posts because it was inconceivable that it would not.”

One of the strongest themes toward the end of When Everything Changed is that of women struggling to achieve a balance in their lives—waking up at 4 a.m. to bake cookies before going to work; doing twice as much housework as their husbands even when both spouses work.

“The ceiling is cracking all the time, but the rate of progress has slowed considerably,” Collins says. “If you ask me for one reason, I’d say it’s the work-family divide. For women to balance their jobs with childrearing is our one big, fat continuing challenge, and it leaches out into so many other things—including why women still make so much less money on average than men do,” she says. “If we only have 17 women in the Senate, it’s partly because women with children normally don’t start political careers until after the kids are in their teens, so they get a much later start climbing the ladder. And if the percentage of women lawyers who make partner in big firms isn’t budging, it’s mainly because those companies demand an extraordinary commitment of time and energy to get to the top.”

Be that as it may, Collins has never seen the history of American women “as malevolent-men-crushing-pathetic-women’s-souls.” She recognizes that women’s struggles were not “just the product of one sex,” and she seems proud and optimistic in the final pages of When Everything Changed. She writes, “American women had shattered the ancient traditions that deprived them of independence and power and the right to have adventures of their own, and done it so thoroughly that few women under 30 had any real concept that things had ever been different.”

And though Collins acknowledges that “there will always be people who look at change and see a problem,” the end of her book will make many readers swell with pride—it features updates on the lives of the interview subjects featured in the book, many of whom went on to break barriers for many years. The story their lives helped write—of American women from the 1960s to today—is inspiring and compelling. Collins explains why in one obvious and poignant sentence: “Our story is particularly compelling because it’s about us.”

Get the Book

When Everything Changed

When Everything Changed

By Gail Collins
Little, Brown
ISBN 9780316059541

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