Reading Journal: "When Everything Changed"
Gail Collins, When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present (Little Brown 2009). 471 pp. (including notes and index). Hardcover. $27.99.
Gail Collins is one of the most consistently thoughtful and entertaining op-ed columnists at the New York Times, and she brings those qualities, along with an impressive amount of research, to the story of the women's movement from 1960 until the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century. I was born in 1964, a few months after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, which included an amendment prohibiting discrimination on the basis of a person's sex. Although I had lived through much of the history covered in Collins' book, I found that I really knew very little of it. I knew about Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, of course, but I new nothing about many of the "ordinary" women whose persistence and courage helped to bring about such remarkable change in American society over the past half century—women like Lorena Weeks, the plaintiff in a landmark lawsuit against her employer, Southern Bell, that struck a major blow against sex discrimination in the workplace. Nor did I know about the bill, cosponsored by Walter Mondale in the early 1970s, that would have provided universal free or subsidized childcare for American workers. The bill passed both the House and Senate with bipartisan support, only to be vetoed by President Nixon at the urging of conservative staffers led by Pat Buchanan, who feared the bill would lead to "the Sovietization of American children." Collins is a lively writer, and her combination of archival research and oral history presents a colorful picture of the period. When Everything Changed is a fast, captivating, and often inspiring read.
Note: One of the lesser-known heroines of Collins' book is the late Republican state Assemblywoman from New York, Constance Cook, who introduced the first state law legalizing abortion, in 1970. The law became the model for the decision in Roe v. Wade. Constance Cook represented Ithaca, New York, and was a familiar name when I was growing up in her district in the 1970s.