A Success Story

It was 1958. I stood before three examiners from a national fellowship foundation. I was a college senior. They represented a foundation established to support graduate students committed to college teaching. I supposed we would discuss my love of history, the particular field I hoped to study, the graduate schools I’d applied to. Wrong. They wanted to talk about my plans for marriage. I told them I was not in a romantic relationship and had no idea whether I would marry. But what if I were to marry? they asked. I said I hoped I would find a man who understood that my career was as important to me as his was to him. (I did not like where this was going.) But, they persisted, what if he did not? What if my husband did not want me to work? Pushed to the wall and profoundly unnerved, I answered that if I had to choose between marriage and career, I supposed I would have to choose the marriage. I left the room convinced I had lost all chance of winning the fellowship. (I got it anyway. I don’t know why.)

This anecdote could serve as a prologue to Gail Collins’s When Everything Changed, a quite comprehensive and engaging account of, as the subtitle puts it, The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present. The book rests on a firm foundation: it relies on the work of social scientists and historians (credited appropriately in the notes and bibliography) as well as on vivid stories and interviews that make the narrative come alive as no statistic or generalization, however apt, ever could. The style—like Collins’s op-ed columns in the New York Times—is friendly, informal, sometimes colloquial, and makes for easy and pleasurable reading. I found myself frequently glued to the page.

I was particularly pleased that Collins looked beyond the famous names to explore the stories of lesser-known figures in this history. Her account of the women’s movement gives due space to Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, but also highlights women like the wonderful Pauli Murray—lawyer, civil-rights activist, and co-founder of NOW (and an Episcopal priest)—and lobbyist Marguerite Rawalt, whose tedious, unglamorous labor of love resulted in hundreds and hundreds of letters sent out to keep supporters informed and to urge them on to activism. As Collins puts it, “Whenever anything happened in the inchoate struggle for women’s rights, Rawalt reached for her stamps.”

So also with civil rights. Collins’s account of the Montgomery bus boycott rightfully pays tribute to Rosa Parks, but also tells the story of Jo Ann Robinson and the Women’s Political Council, the ones who actually planned and coordinated the boycott. After Parks was arrested, Robinson stayed up all night cutting a mimeograph stencil and running off thirty-five thousand leaflets, distributed by her university students, explaining the plan to Montgomery’s black citizens.

This copious narrative covers the territory well. Are there things missing? Well, yes; Collins is much more interested in actions than in ideas. She gives short shrift to the ways radical feminists, in particular, tried to change the deep-seated gender biases that decreed the roles of men and women, boys and girls. I would have welcomed, for example, an account of the attempts of feminists to change the profoundly boy-oriented nature of children’s literature, in which girls usually sat and watched as boys had adventures. (Can I forget the way social messages affected the young in my own household? Around 1973 or 1974, my older son, about nine, corrected his younger brother, who had referred to another boy as a sissy: “Oh, no, Dan, only girls can be sissies.”) Radical feminists also tried, with less success, to change the language: we do not use “ve, vis, ver” for “he/she, his/her, him/her.” However, most of us, most of the time, do now say “humankind” instead of “mankind,” and we don’t think of it as a radical-feminist gesture.

Overall, the book is notable for its fair-mindedness. This is no polemic: Collins has wisely chosen to let her stories speak for themselves. They may cause the reader to gasp, guffaw, or groan, but Collins herself is not telling us what to think. Did I enjoy this book? Very much. Did I need it? Not really—I lived it. The ones who need it are our children and grandchildren, male and female, to whom this history is terra incognita. I could wish that the book would be required reading for them. Has everything changed since 1960? Of course not. But enough did change that the events of these fifty-odd years, and the roles and status of women during that time, make up a story that is truly—to borrow a favorite word of the young—awesome.

Published in the 2010-02-26 issue: 

Cynthia Russett is Larned Professor of History at Yale University, and the author of Sexual Science: The Victorian Construction of Womanhood (Harvard University Press).

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Religion
Culture
Books
Collections