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.”

Photo: Sports Illustrated

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.”

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