Gail Collins, author of When Everything Changed: The Amazing Story of American Women From 1960 to the Present, was on a book tour last week mostly to share her amazement at “that thing we did,” meaning the transformation of the role of American women. As part of the tour, Collins and interviewer Lynn Yeakel talked to a packed crowd at Philadelphia’s Constitution Center. (Click here for Part One of WVFC’s coverage from Philly.) The conversation was heightened by a blizzard of controversy surrounding last week’s Shriver Report on women’s role in the U.S. economy, including a widely read New York Times piece by Joanne Lipman, “The Mismeasure of Woman.”
Part One of Collins’ talk focused on how women’s inclusion in the Civil Rights Act of 1965 sparked a near-half century of legal challenges to discrimination against women, and the dramatic shifts in public perception that enabled them to succeed.
In women’s sports, for example, Title IX of the Civil Rights Act enabled to equal participation by girls and women on the country’s athletic fields and school teams — but in many ways it was the iconic 1973 Battle of the Sexes between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs that turned the tide of public opinion, said Collins. When taunted by retired tennis pro Riggs, King “just turned it around and made it work for her,” including entering the Astrodome on a Cleopatra-style litter before easily beating her opponent. “Everything changed after that,” Collins said. “You didn’t have this universal feeling that women could not compete, or shouldn’t.”
Earlier, Collins had declared Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s run for the presidency last year “an unqualified success for women,” even with the subsequent election of Barack Obama. “You know, there are so many women for whom that was a grail,” she said. “They had this feeling that when a woman is president, then you just knew the revolution was complete. Last year was so hard; there were some sorry, sexist things said about her. But you know, 5 percent of the population is certifiably insane. No matter what you do, there will always be talk like that.”
More important, Collins said, is how candidate Clinton set an example. “She has made some mistakes that would flatten anyone else right to the ground, and you know what? She just goes back in and figures it out.” By the last months of the campaign, she’d learned from earlier mistakes and “people were right in there with her, you could tell…. She has taught every woman running after her how to run a presidential campaign, and the taught the entire country that a woman can be commander in chief.”
While all that may be true, one audience member asked why now-empowered women still feel burdened. “I went to my college reunion,” she said, “and we all talked about how when we started out, no one told us it was going to be this hard.“
Collins winced. “When I was in college, we thought the revolution was coming,” she said. “I don’t think we had much idea what the revolution would be, exactly, but if you told us we wouldn’t have universal health care, and free childcare, I think we would have been shocked.” Nearly 30 years after a national childcare entitlement was vetoed by President Nixon (see Part One), it’s going to take even more women and men working to change the name of the game.
Others asked about the effect of the birth-control pill and the sexual revolution on women’s empowerment, and Collins cited the explosion in law- and medical-school applications by women after the Pill. “If you don’t know when you’ll be pregnant, it’s hard to plan for a career.” There’s a lot left, she added, to ensuring that that most basic of rights is equally available to everyone. “Many lower-income women have never had it.” And looming over all of us, Collins added, is the horrifying specter of violence against women, which is only now being recognized as a hate crime. She pointed to two of her male colleagues at The New York Times, Bob Herbert and Nicholas Kristof, as “taking on these issues in a major way” in their op-ed columns.
The latter may reflect, in part, the influence of Collins, who became editor of the paper’s editorial page in 2000. Asked how it felt to be the first woman appointed to the post, Collins half-laughed. “I’d never thought about it. I loved writing,” she said. “But Howell Raines asked me to do it. He knew I was working on a book, and he said, ‘Hey! You can be a paragraph in your history of women.’ So I thought about it, and I realized, No one’s gonna offer me baseball commissioner anytime soon, and that could be great.”
Collins’ appointment to the job is yet another sign of the sea changes in society that she’s written about. “Until about 1920, the Times was against giving women the right to vote,” she noted. One famous editorial, “The Woman Suffrage Question,” claimed that women “have never possessed or developed the political faculty” and that to become capable of voting would “inevitably [mean] a roughening process, in which women would be changed, and not for the better.” Eighty-some years later, Collin took her place in the same office where that editorial was written, which features portraits of some of them. “I have to confess,” Collins grinned, “that while I was working on America’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates and Heroines, I would sometimes walk into that office and want to say to their faces, ‘Hi guys [chuckle]. I got your job.'”
As the talk wound down, Collins returned to her theme that most of the change she chronicles was brought about not by celebrities, like Hillary Clinton or Billie Jean King, but by people just as extraordinary who never asked for or achieved fame. “The people that just knock me out were regular people who just did stuff,” Collins said. “Everyone knows now about Lilly Ledbetter, but what about Lorena Weeks, this woman from a small town in Georgia?” Weeks, who in 1968 refused to accept it when told by her employer that the higher-paying job she’d applied for was not open to women, and eventually achieved redress in 1972, in the federal court ruling in Weeks v. Southern Bell. “She just kept at it for years. Through lawyers, and appeals, and years. There are women like that everywhere,” said Collins.
After signing 50-something books, Collins was ready for an end to her long day, which had begun with a radio interview on WHYY’s Radio Times, and much of Philadelphia’s journalism establishment was ready to take her out to dinner (including the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Dick Polman, whose own blog about the event is here). But she lingered a moment to talk to WVFC about how women who also lived through this revolution, who weren’t born yesterday, can help push ahead to the next stage.
Collins said she’d met all of us, in some way. “Back in 2000, when Hillary Clinton was running for the Senate, we’d get these crowds of women about her age,” said Collins (who is herself 64). “These were accomplished women for the most part. They’d worked, had families, they’d done stuff, but in the crush of it all they had kind of given up on the dream of doing something extraordinary, something amazing. And I would watch Clinton speak to them; she was sending them a message that no, it’s not too late to do that amazing thing. So I would say to your readers, to us: Go ahead. Do the amazing thing. We need you.”
The Constitution Center in Philadelphia, perhaps best known in recent years as the site of President Obama’s iconic speech on race, was packed this past Monday night. The two women onstage, Lynn Yeakel and Gail Collins — Yeakel, a Drexel University professor and the woman who challenged Senator Arlen Specter in 1992, and Collins, the first female editor of The New York Times editorial page — were familiar faces to the women and men of varying ages who filled the hall (including your editor filing this report).
Collins, at the end of a grueling book tour, was in Philadelphia to talk to Yeakel about her new work, When Everything Changed: The Amazing Story of American Women From 1960 to the Present, a book that “tells the story of my life,” Yeakel said at the event.
Yeakel’s not the only one, as she went on to point out. The changes that have occurred since 1960, when the sexual double standard reigned and women could get thrown out of court or the workplace for wearing pants, were brought about by countless women, including Yeakel, Collins and many of the audience members, many of whom started the now long-lost struggle to add the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Despite the ERA’s failure, Collins told Yeakel, all who fought for it ultimately succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, helping to create “that tiny sliver of history in which all the presuppositions about gender were completely smashed.”
Asked by Yeakel how this book differs from her earlier America’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates and Heroines, Collins said that the first book “informed the second one in so many ways.” In looking at women before 1960, she continued, she was “continually struck by how smart and how able they were. They were strong, they were independent, fulfilled their destinies.” The new book bears a similar wonder, while telling of a revolution she and Yeakel and many others helped make happen.
As she traveled the country reporting for the book, Collins added, most feminists of a certain age got their start working for the ERA. “But by then, what we hoped the ERA would do was already happening — theories about what it would do were kind of theoretical” on both sides. And thus Phyllis Schlafly, a woman who broke all stereotypes by traveling to speak out against the ERA, was able to appeal to traditional housewives, women who “had done everything right by what they’d been brought up to believe. Then feminism comes along, and some of it was very harsh, with lines like Marriage is slavery,” Collins said.
In any event, Collins added, far more key was the addition of “sex” to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — which started out as a joke from Virginia Congressman Howard Smith, who thought it would kill the bill barring discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion or national origin. “There were jokes on the floor of the House of Representatives: We’ll have women flying airplanes next. He really thought it would kill it.” Even the liberal New Republic, she added, “ran this really violent editorial, saying. How can you do something so frivolous as include women when civil rights was at stake?” Nonetheless, Congresswoman Martha Griffiths and Senator Margaret Chase Smith made that ‘joke’ a reality. “They just took the ball and got it to the 50-yard line.”
And that, added failed senatorial candidate Yeakel, “is why it’s so important to have women in office.”
Collins emphasized that nearly every element of change she tracks in When Everything Changed was powered by that language in the Civil Rights Act, starting with the transformation of “stewardesses” from inflight cocktail waitresses to skilled flight attendants. Those women were the first to show up when the Equal Opportunity Commission first set up shop, she added, and the commissioners were astonished at how the women were being treated.
Some of these changes boiled down to what Yeakel called “all the fashion stories,” starting with the 1960 story of Lois Rabinowitz, who was evicted from traffic court for wearing slacks. The women’s uniform of the day included a hat, gloves, high heels and nylons held up by a girdle (no matter how slender you were). “Even Barbie had a girdle in those days!” chimed Collins, who also laughed as she recounted how Rabinowitz’ husband was told by the judge that “he’d better crack down on his wife, or it would just get worse.”
Collins and Yeakel agreed that, given all the change since, it’s a bit dispiriting to see how many barriers remain, as identified this week in The Shriver Report and elsewhere. “How long is it gonna take us for real equality in leadership?” Yeakel asked point-blank.
Collins’ answer was elegant and challenging. Leaving aside the near-lethal effect of incumbency on political challenges, she said,”the big hunking secret reason” it’s been so slow boils down a single factor: what many nowadays call the work-family balance. Political women tend to start their careers late after having had families, she noted, and inequality for women in the corporate world doesn’t kick in at all until those factors enter in.
Noting recent figures showing that “in New York, young women make more than young men in the private sector,” Collins added that it’s still near-impossible to “have it all” when women are still considered the primary caretakers of the family. The audience laughed along with Collins and Yeakel at the memory of this 1980 commercial:
The 1990s equivalent, Collins added, was Claire Huxtable, the physician-mom of The Cosby Show. “I know some women can have husbands, children and incredible careers,” but most women’s careers are bookmarked somehow by having to juggle the work-family balance, she said, something that might have been different but for one of the major untold stories of the book: how close women nearly came to a universal, Medicare-like entitlement to childcare, only to lose at the last minute.
In 1971, a “bipartisan bill to guarantee affordable early childhood education in the United States was passed by both houses of Congress,” Collins said. The bill, sponsored by Walter Mondale, was vetoed by President Nixon — somewhat unexpectedly for its Republican sponsors — after a particularly intemperate letter by young staffer Patrick Buchanan. “It became a rallying point against us,” Collins added later. “No one would touch it.”
Stay tuned for the next installment (to come tomorrow or Monday), in which Collins and Yeakel discuss Hillary Clinton’s impact on women’s chances for the presidency; changes in women’s sports, catalyzed by the famous match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs; audience questions about the 1960s sexual revolution and the invention of the Pill, and how it felt to be the first female editor of The New York Times editorial page. Collins will also deliver a direct message to WVFC about how women of our generation(s) can help keep progress going.
Throughout, Collins urges that we maintain our baseline of joy, of why we believe we can do the rest. “I know it’s dangerous to ignore the problems that we still have,” she said, but “it’s good to remember; This is cool! We did some amazing things!”
By Elizabeth Willse, Contributing Editor
On Sept. 20, 1973, Billie Jean King competed against Bobby Riggs in a hard-fought Battle of the Sexes. Her victory not only made tennis history, but marked the beginning of a new era for women in sports and society.