When Everything Changed, by Gail Collins

I wrote about meeting NYT columnist Gail Collins a couple weeks ago.  Here’s the recording of the conversation that I heard.  I hope to write about her book soon, as well.  Carry on!

*Thus commences review of said book.*

Moments ago, I closed the epilogue of Gail Collins’s social history of American women from 1960 to the present, When Everything Changed.  I found it to be a fascinating, informative read.  I’m young enough to have been raised in a society where girls and women are expected to be high achievers, and the educational and professional discrimination barriers have mostly been eliminated.  I was occasionally shocked at the misogyny and paternalism evinced by political leaders and corporate executives, but the enterprising spirit of the many women profiled in the book overshadowed those injustices.

The book is very readable, despite clocking in at 400 pages.  In part, I would attribute that to the column-length sections within each chapter.  Gail is an op-ed columnist for the NYT, so it seems that her comfort range for relating a story is pretty standard.  This is also helpful for the reader, and it enables Gail to jump around to tell different stories without making the themed chapters seem disjointed.

Over one hundred women, famous and unfamous alike, were interviewed for the book, and their stories enrich the familiar tales of issues like the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment, the sexual revolution, and the 1980s quest to “have it all.”  There was a good variety of women from different races, ethnicities, socio-economic backgrounds, geographic areas, and academic qualifications.  One of the most interesting chapters centers on African-American women in the civil rights movement, many of whom were summarily pushed aside in favor of black male leaders.  Gail does a good job of recognizing that feminist waves that featured the plight of white middle-class women didn’t always encompass poor women and women of color.  She features the struggles of lesbians to be accepted and included in mainstream feminist fights, so there’s very much a multi-faceted representation of individual women and their experiences.

What really struck me as I read the book was how much I have to appreciate in terms of women’s acceptance in American society.  I’ve worked in offices where women are the only staffers, I attended a university with a female chancellor, and I grew up in a world in which almost everyone’s mother worked.  Quotas for women as doctors, dentists, and lawyers are eliminated now, but I realize that it wasn’t so long ago that they existed.

True, there is still inequality between the sexes at home and in the public sphere.  From the anecdotes and statistics that I read in Gail’s book and elsewhere, it seems that child care continues to be the issue that holds women back.  If you’re a working woman and you have a child, do you stay home until your child goes to school?  Do you arrange for child care part-time or full-time?  Does your partner leave his/her job to take care of the child?  How can you afford all this?  And if you leave your job for a while or work part-time, what does that mean for your long-term promotion and earnings?  It seems like a tricky issue even for parents who want to split child care between father and mother.  I know that when I was growing up, my mom was the one who had to arrange her schedule to drop me off and pick me up from school or to take me to doctor’s and orthodontist’s appointments.  My dad and stepdad chipped in (Bill drove me to algebra every day in eighth grade), but my mom certainly bore the brunt of the scheduling and driving tasks.

There was an interesting experiment in Slate last month between two married writers, one of whom is a freelancer who stays home with their boys, while the other is a full-time editor at Slate.  “Freaky Fortnight” followed Susan as she took her husband’s editing job and Mike as he cared for the boys.  Both concluded that the office job was by far the easier role, yet both craved the longer stretches of parenthood.  Clearly there’s not a perfect solution for working parents, but some experimentation isn’t a bad place to start.

But getting back to When Everything Changed:  if you are even remotely interested in modern social history, if you find the women’s movement even vaguely interesting, then you should read this book.  It is fun, it is well-written, and it will fill your brain with knowledge and trivia.

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