Gail Collins took on a monumental task when she set out to write When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, published in 2010, with an updated appendix. Collins is the former editorials editor of The New York Times and writes a column for the Times op-ed page. Her method of detailing the history of the second wave of the feminist movement is to include personal anecdotes of individual women with the historical events that marked and shaped their lives. The personal anecdotes based on interviews with hundreds of women make the book readable and entertaining.
As a person who came of age in the '60s and who felt the exhilaration of first, seeing the Civil Rights Movement and anti-war movement unfold, then secondly being a part of The Feminine Mystique generation, I not only had my memory jogged as I read this book, I relived some of the events that took place during those years. Many women of my generation woke up to the realization that they didn't have to follow the traditional path that their mothers and grandmothers had trod. Rather they had choices that included activism but did not necessarily have to include having sex with and making coffee for the men in the anti-war and Civil Rights movements.
I did take part in some anti-war marches in the ‘60s, but I was also the mother of young children at that time, so I was not making coffee for any movement. Even so I knew I wanted a career of some kind that involved getting dressed up and going to work every day. As it turned out, I chose a career that women traditionally went into, teaching, for the reason that many women choose such a career. It left me time to be at home with my children when they were at home. My children often went to school at the same schools where I taught, which was an added benefit. Many women of my generation, however, went into high-powered careers such as the law, medicine, business, and other jobs that required them to juggle family life and work life in a way that wasn't always satisfactory.
Among the first incidents Collins recounts is the story of Lois Rabinowitz, who in 1960 was told by the judge to leave traffic court after she showed up to pay a fine wearing slacks. While this may seem to be a minor event in the overall scheme of the women’s movement, it had a great deal of symbolic import. Women’s clothing in the early ‘60s was almost as confining as it had been in the Victorian Era, given the girdles, nylons, pointy bras, and form-fitting skirts and dresses women wore. In fact, another author, Charles Reich, dealt with the meaning of the issue of clothing in The Greening of America, published in 1970, in which he wrote about the growth in popularity of blue jeans in the 1960s.
Collins traces the changes in women's lives from the days of communal living to the days of women getting a college education, then in recent times outdoing boys and men academically. Collins points out that when males were outdoing females scholastically, no one got upset about it. However, when the women started graduating from college at a higher rate than men and outdoing men scholastically, the issue became a national crisis worthy of coverage by major news outlets.
Another issue Collins deals with is that once younger women began to reap the benefits of what their grandmothers and mothers had fought for--equality in education, in jobs, in respect -- many of them decided to take more time for their children and concentrate less on climbing the ladder of success. Collins does concede that most women don't have the luxury of choosing between work and family because they have to work to support those families.
Child care is always a troublesome issue for career women. The government, once going in a liberal direction on this issue, pulled back when conservatives like Phyllis Schafly and her ilk saw such a move as socialist. Yet, women, well off and poor alike, still struggle for adequate child care solutions.
Collins explains why younger women not only don't want to hear about the struggles older women went through to gain rights everyone takes for granted now, they also don't want to deal with those struggles themselves. She is not critical of young women, who are taking advantage of the world of choices they were born into. Given the turn politics has taken recently, however, it might be good for everybody interested in equal rights for women to understand that those rights must be defended if they are to remain in place.