Review: When Everything Changed

When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present
Gail Collins
Published 2009 by Little, Brown and Company
480 Pages

women

This book opens with an incident in 1960, in which a 28-year-old woman was sent home from an appearance in traffic court – to pay her oil-executive boss’s speeding ticket – because she was wearing slacks. Collins quoted the magistrate who sent her home:

“I get excited about this because I hold womanhood on a high plane and it hurts my sensibilities to see women tearing themselves down from this pedestal,” the magistrate told reporters. It was a convoluted expression of the classic view of sexual differences: women did not wear the pants in the family – or anywhere else, for that matter. In return, they were allowed to stand on a pedestal.

Ugh. Vomit.

What follows is a wide-ranging survey of the (almost) 50 year span between that incident and the book’s publication. Collins uses news articles and interviews to document the big-picture changes through individual lived experiences of American women:

One day coeds were in school just to earn an MRS degree, and then – whoops – there were so many qualified, competitive young women winning the best places in the best colleges that the media worried about what would become of they boys. One year little girls were learning the importance of losing gracefully, and the next they were suing for admission to the Little League. It left many people shaking their heads, wondering what propelled such extraordinary change so rapidly.

This book was a good conversational starting point, to be sure. Collins covers a lot of ground, including the differences between reformers and radicals in the women’s movement, the role of black women caught between movements for their race and for their gender, how women were able to rise in their careers thanks to the availability of lower-class women to help with childcare and housework, and how Gloria Steinem “served as a symbol – whether she liked it or not – that women could be both militant and sexually appealing.”

The movement’s various factions had little in common. The reformers did not want to overthrow the existing system – they wanted to open the gates so that women could become part of it…the leaders of the radical wing of the women’s movement wanted to go much farther than simply leveling the playing field when it came to things like job opportunities. They were going to examine everything about American womanhood…they intended to figure out what had kept their sex in such a secondary role…If you could connect all the dots and examine the patterns, you could identify the patriarchal forces that were keeping women down.

Mostly, this book left me wanting more. Of course, that’s not so much a statement on the book as it is a statement on 2016 society, folks.

One piece of history that seems to have been lost at some point, was that in “in the early 70’s, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators and representatives actually passed legislation that would make child care available to every family that wanted it.” Huh. Did you know that? However, it was vetoed by Nixon – in a move that surprised many – and we’ve never had that kind of support again.

So in a world where women have certainly earned a seat at the table in schools and corporations and politics, there’s still a relegating to “women’s issues” things like healthcare and maternity leave and education and childcare, as women are left to solve those problems on their own.

When the young activists of the ‘60s and ‘70s had imagined what life would be like for the liberated woman…they did truly believe that the structure of society would change to accommodate their new ways of living. They thought the humanistic corporations of the future would offer flexible schedules so both the husband and wife would be able to pursue success on the job while having time to take care of the responsibilities at home. They expected that men would automatically do their share of household chores. And they believed the government would start providing early child care the same way it provided public education. They had not considered the possibility that society might remain pretty much the same as always, and simply open the door for women to join the race for success while taking care of their private lives as best they could.

I’ve paid close attention to opportunities for women in America since 2nd grade, when my mother called out my teacher for saying that the girls in our class can grow up to be mothers. “Of course they can. Mothers and what? Or did you also tell the boys they can grow up to be fathers, full stop?” I’m paraphrasing here, but the story is definitely a true fact. Anyway, for being in-tune with the topic, I did learn a few new things and new perspectives from this book. I’m glad I read it, but it’s not going to go down as an oft-quoted favorite.

Reading this general overview reminded me of some more topic-specific reads I’d like to get into.

Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights (link to Shannon’s review on River City Reading)

The Birth of the Pill (my sister’s review)

Notorious RBG (my sister’s review)

Bad Feminist (my sister’s review)

Anything else you would add to this list?

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11 Comments

  1. WHAT. How do I not know that story sister – call me. And ALL the RBG love. And you should read those books. Maybe we should read Gloria Steinam’s book together too. Or just everything. Your first story from this book makes me feel like I would be too ragey to read the whole thing almost.

  2. Can I get in on this sister call about the 2nd grade story. Your mom sounds like a badass – no wonder you both turned out so great.
    That last quote really does sum up the state of affairs doesn’t it, especially in the US. I think it’s a bit better up here but that could also be because of where in Canada I live. I didn’t notice the gender divide as a kid but I notice it as an adult. We’re definitely not making as much progress as we’d like to.
    I can’t decide if reading this book would be a good thing or if it would just make me irate. I did just read Bad Feminist and loved it. I have Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women on my shelf and can’t wait to get to that. I like to think I’m a difficult woman and wear that badge with pride.

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