When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present by Gail Collins
I was too young and also incredibly lucky to have been raised by a mother who never said “You can’t do that, honey, you’re a girl” to be paying enough attention to the women’s rights movement. So it’s lucky Collins wrote this definitive history, so I can read about Lois Rabinowitz getting thrown out of a NYC courtroom in 1960 because she’s wearing slacks, and about Tahita Jenkins, fired from her job as a New York City bus driver in 2007 because she wouldn’t wear pants.
The greatest irony of the celebration of forty years of suffrage was that it seemed that once women had gotten the right to vote, they never got anything else.
writes Collins, and takes us into the lives of women like Lorena Weeks who after an interminable, impoverishing legal battle forced Southern Bell to stop being a company where the lowest-paid man made more than the highest-paid woman, and other women who were fired and laid off for working while female, or ignored because they were female and black. It was, of course, all about the money.
After the war [WWII], the economy didn’t just improve. It exploded. Americans were producing half the world’s goods in the mid-’50s, even though they made up only 6 percent of the world’s population…In the 1960s, as the economy was constantly creating employment, two-thirds of those new jobs went to women…That year  President Johnson urged employers to consider hiring women (along with teenagers, the handicapped, and immigrants) to fill their openings. Large firms such as IBM and Texas Instruments targeted stay-at-home moms in recruiting campaigns…The fact that the percentage of married women in the workforce kept quietly going up was really the key to women’s liberation.
The nation’s ability to direct most of its college-trained women into the single career of teaching was the foundation upon which the national public school system was built and a major reason American tax rates were kept low.
I can say, wow, I didn’t know that, and then I remember Laura Ingalls’ first teaching job, which paid twenty dollars a month and board.
Young unmarried women did not have widespread access to the Pill until the early 1970s–which not coincidentally was the same time they began to apply to medical, law, dental, and business schools in large numbers.
And still are. The ability to have children in one’s own time, or not to have them at all, is a hard-fought right of American women and one to be cherished and protected, and it’s never more clearly explained than in this book.
One of the most eye-opening stories is that of Phyllis Schlafly, the anti-women’s rights activist who nearly singlehandedly caused the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment. “I’d like to burn you at the stake,” Betty Friedan told her to her face, I must say with some justification, because, Collins writes, quoting Robin Morgan, in private Schlafly
readily admitted that without the doors opened by the women’s movement, she would never have been able to achieve so much. “But she would never repeat that in public,” Morgan said.
Toward the end Collins illustrates where we are now with a matter-of-fact narrative of the 2008 election, using Hilary Clinton and Sarah Palin as her models, with the best defense of Palin’s vice-presidential candidacy I’ve yet seen:
…the failure of her candidacy [Palin’s] was not a failure for women. At the very minimum, it was a triumph that voters did not seem to regard her floundering as a commentary on anything but Palin herself. On a more positive note, she won over many voters who had tended in the past to be hostile to the whole concept of a woman in the White House. She had a special affinity with younger working-class men. They liked the way she talked about hunting and hockey, and introduced her husband as first dude…Younger men with no college education were the people who had always been most threatened by women in the workplace and often the ones most resistant to any idea of being bossed by a woman anywhere. In a somewhat roundabout way, Palin made many of them converts to a new way of thinking. “They bear us children, they risk their lives to give us birth, so maybe it’s time we let a woman lead us,” a former truck driver told a reporter during a Palin rally in North Carolina.
A book that should be required reading in every American high school history class, along with its prequel, Collins’ America’s Women. Both highly recommended.
Click here to read all my Goodreads reviews