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!”

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