“Amazing” is often overused, but author and New York Times columnist Gail Collins uses it powerfully in her book title, When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present.
An enlightening and energizing read, Collins opens with the tale of 28-year-old Lois Rabinowitz who in 1960 was thrown out of New York traffic court for wearing slacks. Outraged, the magistrate sent her home to put on more suitable clothes.
Respect for and treatment of American women has improved over the last 50 years. Men are less likely to declare in public, like Dr. Charles Meigs did during a 19th century lecture to male gynecology students, that “She has a head almost too small for intellect….” But it’s been a long, hard climb out of the washtub of wifely woes.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, as I describe in A Shocking & Unnatural Incident, started the drive for women’s rights. Susan Anthony, Alice Paul and others focused on women’s right to vote. The women’s movement, however, began to fly around the time airline attendants–required to be young, pretty and single–got tired of bending over to light men’s cigars and incensed over being fired for being married.
To tell her tale of women’s fight for equality, Collins interviewed older American females who struggled with their traditional roles of housekeeper, mother and wife; who jumped into the job market in times of war and economic depression and were booted out when males came home to roost.
Through the efforts of feminists such as Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan and thousands of females with less familiar names, women gradually became half of the American workforce. Collins discusses common problems (e.g., the double standard, getting gypped on equal pay for equal work, the mommy track, sharing household chores) but their commonality magnifies their significance. The scope of Collins’ research brings fresh viewpoints and the lively voices of average American women trying to advance–and often just survive–in a world dominated culturally, economically and politically by men.
Collins discusses the black female experience during the Civil Rights movement, when black women sat in, marched and rode for freedom, often before black men did, but were later refused credit for their courage and denied influential positions of authority.
When the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) elected a chairman, only a few were surprised when it turned out to be Marion Barry rather than Diane Nash. “Diane was a devoted, beautiful leader, but she was the wrong sex,” Congressman John Lewis said.
We must admit things have gotten better for American females, and Collins hammers out the gains of the late ’70s, ’80s’ and ’90s. Still, some wonder if the women’s movement is dead. Young women take for granted and think quaint many of the issues their mothers and grandmother fought for. That’s one reason I wrote A Shocking & Unnatural Incident.
Few women in their 20s will believe there was a time when some cities outlawed women on the streets after dark in slacks. A crime is underway! Call The Pants Police!
They’d find it incredible (and this is a good use of that word) that in the 1950s and ’60s some women Collins interviewed never left their houses without their husbands. Today, these draconian restrictions hinder some women in the Middle East, but not American women.
Female law school graduates are no longer offered jobs as cafeteria workers or secretaries (like Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court). Half the seats in medical and law schools are filled by women and they dominate fields that were once exclusively male, such as pharmacy and veterinary medicine.
It’s been 40 years since the dean of the University of Texas dental school admitted no more than two women in every class of a hundred because “girls aren’t strong enough to pull teeth.” And got away with it.
Yes, American women have the opportunity to do pretty much anything they want to do. They must make sacrifices men don’t have to make. That old tugger–motherhood–still beckons and many women lose ground professionally when they answer the call.
But things have changed and men are smarter now. A Ritz-Carlton bartender in Boston didn’t know what he was starting when he told Betty Friedan in the early 1960s, “We do not serve women” and shuttled her and a whiskey sour over to a little lounge off the ladies restroom.
We know what happened after that!