Gail Collins’ Whirlwind Tour Through Feminist History


I expected to be somewhat irritated by Gail
Collin’s new book "When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of
American Women from 1960 to the Present" based on its title alone. After
all, everything hasn’t changed for
women: feminists are still here. And the word "amazing" sounds a
little perky for the serious work of securing women’s equality.

But it turns out that writing a popular history of feminism was a brilliant
move on the part of Collins, NY Times
Columnist who served as the paper’s first female editorial page editor.
Collins’ book covers the recent revolution in women’s roles, from culture to
politics to fashion, from the bedroom to the workplace, from Rosa Parks to
Gloria Steinem to Anita Hill and Hillary Clinton. She approaches each of the
past four decades without the burden of self-scrutiny that would be carried by
someone trying to advance feminist theory or muse on the movement from within.
Instead, she evaluates feminism’s successes and failures with unemotional
briskness. And needless to say from her title, Collins chronicles far more
successes than failures, compiling evidence suggesting that (although she
doesn’t say it expicity) the movement for women’s equality may in fact be the most
accomplished social change movement of the last century.

Collins starts in a juicy, if frightening place, with a detailed and blunt
description of existence for women pre-1960. Her stories make the verbal
harassment and belittling comments faced by the women on "Mad Men"
look like a picnic. The cards were stacked against us, she writes:

"Everything
from America’s legal system to its television programs reinforced the
perception that women were in almost every way, the weaker sex. They were not
meant to compete with men, to act independently from men, to earn their own
bread or to have adventures of their own."

This
applied equally to suburban housewives and to the majority of women who had to
work, says Collins. She offers a series of hair-raising anecdotes of women
bullied, impoverished, confined and policed by unfair laws and restrictive
customs: widowed or divorced women who couldn’t support their families, working
women demoted or denied raises, young women ashamed of their sexuality, steered
away from studying math, told a husband was their only worthy goal, and
forbidden from even calling boys for homework help.

Based on this evidence alone, readers know there’s going to be a huge leap
forward. And the bulk of that leap–as well as the most riveting part of
"When Everything Changed"–takes place in the 60s and 70s, when
social upheaval and protest from all quarters rocked America.

Even for those of us focused on battles for the future, it’s not a bad idea to
pause and note how far we’ve come. Collins charts a trajectory so speedy and
impressive that it might inspire even the most history-conscious feminist to
utter a second series of "thank-you"s to her forebears. And the women
name-checked by Collins are not just the mainstream figures we’re used to,
either. Collins describes seminal moments like Marian Anderson singing and
Betty Friedan writing, yes, but we also get the less-celebrated trench warriors
whose courage boggles the mind, from early female politicians who had to use
public restrooms, to the middle-aged African-American women of Montgomery,
Alabama who planned to make radical demands during the famous bus boycott.
There’s Ella Baker, the "Gandhi" who guided young SNCC activists
marching for civil rights during the early 60s, Viola Liuzzo, a white volunteer
during "Freedom Summer"  shot down in broad daylight by the KKK
for having a black man, another volunteer, in her car, and Margaret Chase
Smith, the female senator who managed to get an anti-sex discrimination amendment
put into the Civil Rights Act because her male colleagues thought it was a
joke.

A parade of Lily Ledbetters march through Collins’s history, brave women who
began suing for pregnancy leave, for equal pay, for an end to sexual
harassment–often getting meager results for themselves but blazing a trail for
following generations. And most importantly, she (and her research team) has
found "ordinary" women’s voices, women who experienced "click
moments" that we think of as the cliches of feminism: being moved to tears
by "The Feminine Mystique" while folding laundry, appalled by the
chauvinism of a colleague in the civil rights or antiwar movement, invited to a
consciousness-raising or to join in a discrimination lawsuit. We meet women for
whom donning blue jeans or wearing their hair in a natural afro was a huge act
of transgression and freedom. Through these women, Collins reminds us that
"Women’s Lib," the stuff of myth today, was real and had a real
effect on American women, despite its imperfections.

And threaded throughout the legal and social battles is an endless tussle over
sex and women’s bodies that we’re still fighting. Again, the timeline may be
familiar but it arrives in compulsively readable style–the planning behind
Griswold vs. Connecticut, the move from diaphragms to the Pill, the first
skirmishes over abortion flaring into pitched battles, the abandonment of
girdles and the forcible breaking down of social taboos around virginity and
premarital cohabitation. It’s true, as Collins notes, that a dam burst: within
a few short years, co-eds around the country went from curfews and formal teas
to sit-ins and men sleeping over in the dorms.

Like the movement it chronicles, the book’s energy fades a bit during the 80s
and today while discussing the Mommy Wars and the rise of sexual harassment
suits, glossing over the anti-feminist backlash that Susan Faludi documented so
memorably. The reality is that "When Everything Changed" serves
largely as a democratic, wide-angled history of the "Second Wave" and
its impact on the fabric of America–and it’s a necessary and sweeping history
at that.

Collins doesn’t skip over feminism’s foibles; she is frank about racial
tensions, homophobia, and class-insensitivity when it appears in her history.
Nor does she claim that today’s women should be joyful because they have more
rights and options. Instead, she’s looking at the movement based on what it
accomplished in concrete terms– opened doors– and it’s enough to inspire
today’s feminists to double down their efforts to solve the problems we still
face today.

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Follow Sarah Seltzer on twitter: @sarahmseltzer