Friday, October 16, 2009

Realizing dreams

New York Times Columnist Gail Collins re-enters the realm of history with When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present

The following review was published this week at the Books page of the History News Network website.

This is a book that begins and ends with a pair of pants. In the summer of 1960, a 28-
year-old secretary named Lois Rabinowitz was fined $10 for showing up in court in slacks to pay her boss's parking ticket. Forty-seven years later, a 33-year-old woman named Tahita Jenkins was fired from her job as a New York City bus driver because she refused to wear them, citing her Pentecostal religious beliefs. One could plausibly bookend a narrative history of women this way to show how, when it comes to gender relations, some (female) people just can't win. But for Gail Collins, these incidents dramatize the success of a revolution so decisive that it's easy to forget just how much has changed.

Collins, one of two regular women columnists for the New York Times (I view her as a
milder chronicler of human folly than the somewhat more venomous Maureen Dowd -- not that I mind a little venom with my breakfast in the morning) has a sharp eye for telling detail that really keeps her story moving. When Everything Changed is a sequel to America's Women, her 2003 book that traced the directory of women's lives from the colonial period to the 1960s. Over the course of 400 pages, Collins covers topics that include the growing presence of women in the workforce in the decades following the Second World War, the impact of the Civil Rights Movement on the gathering Women's Movement, the rise of the sex revolution, and the full flowering of what came to be known as "Women's Lib." She also describes the backlash in the decades that followed, hostility most evident in the successful fight to halt the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and the ongoing strength of the antiabortion movement. Chapters on the last three decades suggest a kind of stasis marked by sometimes surprising counter-currents and contradictions.

This is, of course, a very familiar story to even casual students of women's history. Collins is a classic liberal feminist who sees events like the founding of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the fight over the ERA as central events in the struggle for female emancipation. Such a sensibility has room for more edgy figures such as Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown, radical feminist Susan Brownmiller, and Conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, who are all treated respectfully here (as is Sarah Palin). But it's mainstream feminists like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, and legislators like Jeannette Rankin and Bella Abzug, who seem closest to Collins's heart as well as her head.

But what really makes the book work, and likely to last, is the skill and empathy with which Collins weaves in the stories of ordinary women, who navigate dilemmas ranging from what shoes to wear to whether or not to keep a baby. It's the journalist in her who makes sure we hear the voices of mothers, daughters, lesbian lovers, and employees, and the way those voices are often those of the same people. Collins is also attentive to the broader social forces that are shaping the possibilities and limits of modern feminism, most notably an economy in which women's skills became increasingly attractive, and whose contraction made two- income couples increasingly indispensable.

But perhaps the most important message in this book is generational. Whatever their ongoing challenges, young women today take for granted that they should have the same educational and occupational opportunities as men, be paid equally as men, have at least some participation in housekeeping and child raising with men, experience about as much sexual satisfaction as men; and so on. This sense of equality was not only missing a half-century ago, but widely regarded as laughable, if not insane. When Everything Changed is not only a reminder that some things did change, but also that things can. As such, it can be read as a warning. But also, more decisively, as a gift of hope. It's one we should relish.