WHEN EVERYTHING CHANGED by Gail Collins

Book Quote:

“The postwar economy created a demand for women workers, and the postindustrial economy created jobs that they were particularly suited to fill. The soaring expectations of the postwar boom, followed by the decline in men’s paychecks in the 1970s, made wives’ participation in the workforce almost a requisite for middle-class life. The birth control pill gave young women confidence that they could pursue a career without interruption by pregnancy. The civil rights movement made women conscious of the ways they had been treated like second-class citizens and made them determined that their own status was one of the things they were going to change. It was, all in all, a benevolent version of the perfect storm.”

Book Review:

Review by Poornima Apte (JAN 03, 2010)

Title IX bans discrimination in schools based on gender—thus ensuring equal opportunities for girls and boys in academics and athletics. When ex-congresswoman Pat Schroeder, one of the driving forces behind Title IX once visited a high school, a coach asked his team of boys to show her what they collectively thought of the legislation—they turned their backs to Schroeder and mooned her.

This shocking incident is but one of many Gail Collins uses to superb effect in her illuminating book, When Everything Changed. Collins, who works as a columnist for the New York Times (and who edited the Times’ editorial page for many years), frames many everyday incidents against larger rumblings for change.

It is but fitting that the book starts out in 1960—after all the 60s was the decade that brought about significant social upheaval in the country. Illuminating events and incidents from the 60s also serves to underline the relative newness of the many rights we know and enjoy.

The escalation of the women’s movement was brought about by a “benevolent storm” as Collins puts it, in the introductory quote above. After the war, the economy was in such overdrive that women had to be recruited to keep the astounding growth rate going. When women joined the workforce then, they thought it was a good deal: “Most tended to compare their opportunities and achievements to those of other women, not men. And for those who did venture into the public world, the mere fact of being allowed to take part was so exciting that the details scarcely mattered,” Collins explains.

Of course many women in the 60s were not in the workforce and the idea that they had to derive immense satisfaction from being housewives in perfect suburban homes was all but shattered when one of the early feminists, the famous Betty Friedan, conducted surveys among women for her groundbreaking book, The Feminine Mystique. One respondent tried to explain the dull nothingness her life had become: “There’s no problem you can even put a name to. But I’m desperate. I begin to feel I have no personality. I’m a server of food and a putter-on of pants and a bedmaker, somebody who can be called on when you want something. But who am I?”

This gnawing ache morphed into something larger as women tried to carve a niche in the world at large—Collins chronicles their steady march beautifully in When Everything Changed. In here, she describes the work of more famous feminists like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem but also less well known ones like Ella Baker and Pauli Murray. She describes the struggles of women across all cultural, racial and political divides—the resentment felt even within the women’s movement itself, is also highlighted.

In a strange way, it is also reassuring to see that hysteria has always been a part of the American political process and that fairness eventually does seem to come out ahead. For example, when the Equal Rights Amendment was first proposed, the opponents drew dramatic pictures: “Maybe the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts would have to be merged. Would child support become unconstitutional? What about unisex bathrooms? Since the language was so general, opponents felt free to argue that it could mean anything,” Collins writes.

Today, while many more women can do many more things, true rights and burden sharing have been more difficult to come by. In that sense, Collins also shows us what the women’s rights movement has not yet brought about. It’s captured well in this statement by First Lady Michelle Obama: “We have to be realistic and honest with young women and families about what they will confront, because to say, ‘You can do it all and should do it all,’ and not to get the support, to me is frustrating.” In other words, a larger societal network that makes daycare affordable, that makes flex jobs part of the equation, has yet to be implemented. As many women are finding out, giving 100% at work and at home without support of any kind is all but impossible.

What serves When Everything Changed very well is the fact that it’s extremely well edited and readable and above all it’s so very accessible. It is evident that Collins has done a lot of research (there is a good bibliography at the end) and conducted many interviews for the book but this is not an intimidating academic treatise—instead it has her funny and droll touches all over the pages. She writes crisply and draws out drama even in the shortest of sub-chapters. In that sense too, When Everything Changed excels—it makes the material more fun and readily consumable. Equally commendable is the way in which Collins treats the stories of women from all across the political spectrum (she gives Phyllis Schlafly as much coverage as Gloria Steinem; Sarah Palin as much as Hillary Clinton)—in that sense this is pure reporting undiluted by opinion.

Another reason to pay attention? As Collins herself points out, the fight is far from over. As daily news headlines about the Stupak amendment in a potential health bill, or a whole slew of other issues indicate, it could be dangerous to rest assured that women’s rights have been won in all areas that matter. In fact the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act that helps women from being discriminated against by means of pay, was passed only this year—the first one by the Obama administration.

When Everything Changed is a must-read for both women and men. Collins’ book expertly shows us why the study of history is so crucial. “There was … the disappointment of realizing that the younger women took it all for granted. The things I fought for are now considered quaint…” the novelist Erica Jong told Time. “They say, ‘We don’t need feminism anymore.’ They don’t understand graduating magna cum laude from Harvard and then being told to go to the typing pool.” Whether or not such fears are justified, When Everything Changed should be essentially reading for all young women. The famous scientist Isaac Newton once said: “If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.” That same statement is very applicable to the women’s movement.

As Collins’ book wonderfully shows, enormous progress has been made. We too stand on the shoulders of giants—women who challenged the status quo and paved the way for generations to come. It is because of the positive changes that have been implemented in the not-so-recent past that we can now hardly believe, for instance, that the appallingly discriminatory situations women find themselves in, in the television drama “Mad Men” were once the stuff of real life. What’s worse, they were the rule not the exception—until of course, (almost) everything changed.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 64 readers
PUBLISHER: Little, Brown and Company; 1 edition (October 14, 2009)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Gail Collins

The New York Times on Gail Collins

EXTRAS: Hachette Open Book Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Fiction that embodies this book’s premise:

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert

Bibliography:


January 3, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags:  · Posted in: 2009 Favorites, Class - Race - Gender, Non-fiction

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