Wednesday, October 21, 2009




Picking up where her previous successful, and highly lauded book, America's Women, left off, Gail Collins recounts the sea change women have experienced since 1960. A comprehensive mix of oral history and Collins's keen research, this is the definitive book about five crucial decades of progress, told with the down-to-earth, amusing, and agenda-free tone this beloved New York Times columnist is known for.

The interviews with women who have lived through these transformative years include an advertising executive in the 60s who was not allowed to attend board meetings that took place in the all-male dining room; and an airline stewardess who remembered being required to bend over to light her passengers' cigars on the men-only 'Executive Flight' from New York to Chicago.

We, too, may have forgotten the enormous strides made by women since 1960--and the rare setbacks. "Hell yes, we have a quota [7%]" said a medical school dean in 1961. "We do keep women out, when we can." At a pre-graduation party at Barnard College, "they handed corsages to the girls who were engaged and lemons to those who weren't."

In 1960, two-thirds of women 18-60 surveyed by Gallup didn't approve of the idea of a female president. Until 1972, no woman ran in the Boston Marathon, the year when Title IX passed, requiring parity for boys and girls in school athletic programs (and also the year after Nixon vetoed the childcare legislation passed by congress).

What happened during the past fifty years--a period that led to the first woman's winning a Presidential Primary--and why? The cataclysmic change in the lives of American women is a story Gail Collins seems to have been born to tell.


When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present by Gail Collins follows her successful book in 2003, America’s Women, Four Hundred Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines. Gail Collins was the first female editorial page editor for the prestigious New York Times and so no stranger to breaking the glass ceiling early on. This book continues the plight of modern American women and is amazingly entertaining when one realizes this is really a history book! Collins has filled the book with not only her own thoughts about these times but had interviewed more than 100 women for the book. Many of us who lived through this era will be able to relate well to the book but even those who thought they would, will find amazing new information about the time period and its effect on women in our country. Collins not only uses interviews but does extensive research after reading through many court cases, laws passed, and people's own personal stories.

WHEN EVERYTHING CHANGED reads like a novel as it begins by taking the life of a young woman in 1960, Lois Rabinowitz, and shares her story of going to court to pay a speeding ticket and getting kicked out because she was wearing slacks and a shirt. Excuse me, for all of you younger readers who have just about stopped breathing from the sharp intake of air as you gasp at what, to you, is such a ridiculous ruling, but alas is true. In fact, her husband had to go pay the ticket since the judge had thrown Lois out of his courtroom for showing such disrespect! And there is the beginning of recounting the way life was and how it changed during this tumultuous time in American history if you were female. Examples
are cited of everything from this court story to the description of how boys sports were played on proper courts and fields while girls' teams, if there were any, had no such place to play.

These many cases and stories could and did anger women at the time but rather than stay that way, most, including myself, can look back on these times with a good laugh and shake of the head. As I remember my freshmen year in a state university when girls could only wear slacks on Saturdays and had to be in our all-girl dormitories by 10:30 during the week and midnight on weekends...and that was as long as you maintained a C average. We literally had "dorm mothers" who stood at the door when you came home from a date to shake their heads should someone decide it might be time for a good night kiss but would most surely smell your breath. If the smell of alcohol was found, you were sent to an on campus court to "get help". This was NOT being done at the dorms where boys lived. I tell young people that now and they are just sure there was no electricity or planes when I was growing up either!!

And things didn't get better after college, that is if you went and didn't marry right out of high school because everyone just knew the reason you went to college was to find a good husband.
In all fields, women were never on equal footing with men. In journalism, Collins talks about how women would do research for articles but not write them. All these stories and more are in this book as well as long time women activists who worked to change this kind of discrimination. Women whose names will be familiar to most like Gloria Steinem to Bella Abzug. But as it says in the title, what happened, when and why did "everything change" for our American women? The big change came when the Civil Rights Act, in 1964, added to it the wording about banning discrimination against women in employment. A Southern Congressman wanted the whole bill done away with and so added this wording thinking it would surely kill the bill when anything having to do with "sex" was brought up. But it backfired as women everywhere rallied behind it and got it passed. It seems like though out history, women had a better chance of riding on coattails like this then going it alone.

So many of us in the 1960s were so involved with getting the civil rights bill passed for all people that it came as a surprising bonus to many when we suddenly found out the advantages now were there for women. NOW, the National Organization for women gained support in the 1970s as women improved their causes in the job market working on things like daycare centers at work for their children only to find out that here some 30 years later, we are still fighting for that.

The book goes on in this almost narrative like way to tell how things continued to improve in some ways and yet sometimes the fight became even harder. But the rewards are also more evident as we watch today for instance, women playing such an important part in politics. Look at all the women President Obama has placed in powerful positions.

And yet, one theme remains the same...and that is how hard women fight to balance their lives. To be a supermom who works and has a social and active lifestyle and usually does twice the work a man does, still the norm. Even with all the feelings changing, we have a long way left to go. As the saying back in the 70s said, "You've come a long way baby" is true but...the progress is still slow. Women continue to crack and make dents in the proverbial "glass ceiling" as they say, but the speed that we are doing it in is still far from acceptable. Progress along these lines continues but at a slow rate.

But no matter what, if you have lived and "grown up" in this time period just as I have, one knows how things have been before and what still needs to happen. You look at all the women that have gone before us and the ones we march with now, and realize our changes have just started. We look at young women today who have never known this type of prejudice in their lives or careers and wonder if they know they need to thank the women who have gone before and paved the road for them.

I think for me the best part of the book is at the end when the women who you read about early on are reintroduced and you see what has happened to them. Their spirit and determination has led them, and the ones who follow, to new heights. It is my hope that the younger generation will pick up that torch as it is passed and continue this journey of women's right in our country and in our world. Do not forget. Read this book and learn. Collins has done a great job of allowing all people to realize what transpired during this time in history and in our lives.


bermudaonion said...

I remember the day when girls couldn't wear pants to school. We've come a long way, baby! I'm really looking forward to reading this book!

fredamans said...

I read and reviewed it too, and I too loved it! Quite an empowering book, whether you're American or not. It's just a female thing.

Great review!

Booklogged said...

I lived through those days - skirts or dresses every day to school (even college) and we didn't go bare-legged back then so we work nylons. Panty hose were a godsend! And then there were the pointed bras!