Gail Collins's When Everything Changed.

Reading between the lines.
Nov. 23 2009 7:03 AM

The Real Secret of Feminism

Gail Collins reveals who actually made change happen.

When Everything Changed by Gail Collins.

Do you have a daughter who thinks feminists are dowdy man-haters who don't shave their legs? A single friend who blames the women's movement for her lack of a husband or children—or a married one who thinks it's Gloria Steinem's fault that she has to earn a living? I'm guessing that, unlike me, you don't know any radical feminist activists from the 1970s who feel they've made virtually no difference in American women's lives—but you may well know women like a writer acquaintance of mine who confessed, a few years ago, that she'd rather not fly in a plane with a female pilot.

All of these women—and comparable men—need very much for you to make them a holiday gift of Gail Collins' exhilarating, accessible, and inspiring saga of women's progress to equality over the last 50 years. Part social history, part reportage based on wide-ranging interviews conducted by Collins and a busy team of researchers, When Everything Changed fills a major gap on the big shelf of books about modern feminism. Crammed with works for specialists, scholars, activists, and enthusiasts, that shelf has lacked, up until now, one book that captures the sweep of the whole story for the general reader.

If there's one word to sum up the startling changes Collins recounts, it may well be "pants." "Do you appreciate you're in a courtroom in slacks," magistrate Edward di Caiazzo thundered at Lois Rabinowitz, an 18-year-old secretary who showed up before him in Manhattan traffic court to pay a ticket in the summer of 1960. The judge sent her home to put on a skirt and told the press, "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." (To Lois' husband he was more forthright: "[S]tart now and clamp down a little or it will be too late.")

Respectability, subservience, and rigidly enforced gender differences—to say nothing of the discomfort of girdles and garter belts and the general difficulty of moving about in full ladylike regalia—were all bound up together in a way that, in 1960, seemed immutable. In 1960, women were treated like children in many more crucial ways than being told what to wear by officious men. Job discrimination was both legal and rampant, and so were the tiny quotas—or outright bans—on women in law and medical schools. Unless they happened to be congressmen's widows, women played almost no role in government. Women needed their husbands' permission to start a business, get a credit card, or even rent an apartment as a separated spouse. In some states, women were barred from serving on juries. (After all, as Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren was advised in a memo from his clerk, letting women serve "may encourage lax performance of their domestic duties.") Marital rape? Legal. Sports for girls? Forget it. That women were the weaker, dumber, more boring sex was a given.

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This elaborate structure of law and custom had been in place seemingly forever. And yet within a few decades it was shattered so completely that young women today can be forgiven for thinking it sounds like some science-fiction dystopia. Collins does a very good job of presenting the underlying economic and social conditions that let the women's movement take off—rising prosperity, home appliances, the influx of women into the workforce during the 1950s and '60s, the pill, the civil rights and anti-war movements. She reminds us of the frustrations that bubbled just under the surface: "I was hanging clothes on the line with tears just streaming down my face," recalled a rancher's wife and mother of three.

But what really excites Collins, and what will give many readers a jolt, is the collective and individual heroism of the women who made it happen. When Everything Changed captures better than any other book I've read the daring, the brio, the intoxicating release of powerful creative energies that began in the 1960s and exploded in the early 1970s. "We were totally confident we were making history," said Muriel Fox of the early days of NOW, and Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem, Robin Morgan, and other famous activists get their predictable dues. But so do forgotten figures like Esther Peterson, the much-thwarted head of the Women's Bureau in JFK's Department of Labor, who organized the president's Commission on the Status of Women.

Peterson, who believed in protective laws for women workers, intended to use the commission to muffle supporters of the ERA; instead, it produced a network of proto-feminists that would have lasting impact. In another of history's little jokes, Rep. Martha Griffiths, the only lawyer among the very small female contingent in Congress, shrewdly managed to keep women in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, where they had been inserted as a poison pill, to much hilarity, by the racist Rep. Howard Smith of Virginia.

The best stories, though, are those of ordinary women. The stereotype of feminism is that it was only of interest to educated middle-class whites, but Collins shows that some of the most important battles were fought by, and benefited, working-class women. Lorena Weeks, a Georgia phone-company clerk, battled Southern Bell for years to get a much higher-paying and more interesting job testing equipment. ("The man is the breadwinner in the family and women just don't need this type of job," the head of her union told her.) Her victory in Weeks v. Southern Bell is why there are women in good blue-collar jobs today.

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