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Growing Up Female

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Thomas E. Smith/Cincinnati CityBeat
Gail Collins at the Woman’s City Club of Greater Cincinnati, March 12, 2009

In When Everything Changed, Gail Collins picks up the saga of women and their role in the culture, economy, and political life of the United States where she left off in America’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines (2003). That exhilarating earlier volume began with the Mayflower and ended in the Seventies. Lively, always entertaining, and frequently enlightening, When Everything Changed is a worthy sequel. Its subtitle is “The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present,” and amazing it is. In half a century, Collins shows us, everything really has changed. And yet…

And yet, the basic conflict between motherhood and career, like some sort of blotchy chronic dermatitis, keeps erupting in new unexpected patches. It is a sign of just how intelligent and generous a writer Collins is that by the end of her book, the feminist dilemma seems less an incurable virus than a challenge, one that has already been met with so much energy, stubborn courage, and radical hope, not to mention desperation, drama, and, sometimes, in retrospect, downright silliness, that we feel we are all on a human adventure, and all on it together.

The former editorial page editor for The New York Times and now a columnist there, Collins is a serious and accomplished journalist who here regards the journalistic reports of her predecessors with wit, fascination, and skepticism. Some of the most enjoyable moments in the book come when Collins quotes newspapers like her own. In 1960, she notes, women had held the right to vote for forty years, and it was estimated that there would be more women voting for president than men. Indeed, women had even participated in the presidential nominating conventions the summer before the election. How did the press cover this infusion of female civic participation? With a quick nod to a rather insignificant news item, Collins puts it all in context:

The meal begins with “Swan Canterbury,” which consists of fresh pineapple on a bed of laurel leaves surrounded by swans’ heads in meringue,’ the New York Times reported in a story headlined “GOP Women Facing a Calorie-Packed Week.”

A skillfully constructed tale, When Everything Changed is not only a history of women; it is also, necessarily, a story of historical perception. So much of American women’s fate has been tangled up in the culture’s vision of a woman’s “role” that Collins is able to set the historical events and often nearsighted contemporary accounts side by side with great effect, sometimes comic, sometimes enraging.

She begins in the suburbs of the Sixties, a place that in the popular imagination of 2009 has taken on almost mythical status, like the dark forest of fairy tales, a place of little boxes housing quietly despairing adulterers in gray flannel suits and quietly despairing dipsomaniac housewives. The era’s own suburban myth was, of course, quite different:

By 1960 the United States was no longer a farming country—only 30 percent of families lived in rural areas. The nation was booming, and its prosperity reached farther down into the working class than ever before. Sixty percent of families lived in a home they owned, and 75 percent had a car. A quarter of all families were living in the suburbs, the much-exalted fulfillment of the American dream—to own a nice house on a plot of land, with healthy children going to good schools and destined for even higher levels of prosperity.

That prosperity looks quite modest from today’s suburban vantage point of a seven-thousand-square-foot McMansion:

In the beginning, the newly constructed dream houses were, by our current standards, very small. (In the famous Levittown development on Long Island, the basic house was a 750-square-foot, four-room Cape Cod with one bath and two bedrooms.)

But after squeezing in with their in-laws during the Depression or the war, the suburbs must have beckoned like a little bit of heaven.

For women, World War II had offered an opportunity, and often the necessity, to get out of the house to work. Just as postwar prosperity eliminated the need for many women to work outside the home, the new suburban life also removed the opportunity. “The early suburbs,” Collins writes, “were singularly unfriendly to the concept of a two-income family.” Day care was nonexistent. The mother or grandmother or aunt who might once have acted as a babysitter did not live nearby—they were back on the farm or in the cities the young suburbanites had fled. “Besides,” Collins notes, “many of the young couples setting up housekeeping were escaping hard times, and a stay-at-home wife was a kind of trophy—a sign that the family had made it to middle-class success and stability.”

If many women welcomed the role of full-time housekeeper and homemaker, it did not reflect, Collins points out, a “lack of enterprise” on their parts. Even with the economic boom that made staying home possible, the jobs available to women were limited in both kind and potential. And at least as housewives they were in charge. For black women, in particular, the chance to stay home and take care of their own children instead of someone else’s was welcome, as Ebony pointed out in an article titled “Good-bye Mammy, Hello Mom.” Automatic washers and driers, frozen dinners, A Campbell Cookbook: Cooking with Soup, vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, steam irons, wash-and-wear, and, of course, Jell-O: for women who just a generation before might not have had running water, all these time-saving products ought to have saved time.

Yet,” Collins notes, “the housewives did not seem to be working any less…. A methodical study by the sociologist Joann Vanek that used pretty much all the data available concluded that in the 1960s, the full-time homemaker spent fifty-five hours a week on her domestic chores,” which is a little more than was spent in the 1920s by all those women feeding each shirt into a clothes wringer.

Like the new highways that added more and more lanes, which simply filled with more and more cars, the empty hours became glutted with new chores. “In the 1950s the average household laundry soared from thirty-nine pounds to sixty-five pounds a week.” Women “took up gourmet cooking or interior decorating.” Collins interviews one woman who made her own diapers, another who vacuumed the entire house every day. It was a world of proto–Martha Stewart perfection and consumption encouraged by advertisers and the magazines they supported. Even the hallowed halls of Harvard paid tribute to the happy housewife: “The (male) president of all-female Radcliffe celebrated the beginning of every school year by telling freshmen that their college education would ‘prepare them to be splendid wives and mothers and their reward might be to marry Harvard men.’”

Of course, like any popular social trend celebrated in newspapers and magazines, this land of aproned domestic juggernauts was not an entirely accurate picture. Collins points out that even though the stay-at-home wife was the ideal, some 40 percent of married women with school-age children did in fact have jobs. According to other magazines, those not devoted to women and the appliances and soaps they might buy, “the prototypical suburban husband…was going off to work at a white-collar job that often entailed a great deal of psychological stress. And where did his salary go? To pay for more work-saving appliances for his nonworking wife!” At the same time, Redbook ran an article in 1960 called “Why Young Mothers Feel Trapped.”

Anyone who has read a Trollope novel knows that women did not have to wait until 1960 to feel trapped. But

it surprised the nation—or at least the media—that the women who had acquired better homes and more conveniences than any previous generation should seem to be particularly miserable. “She is dissatisfied with a lot that women of other lands can only dream of,” said Newsweek.

And then came Betty Friedan. Her book, Collins writes, hit in 1963 “like an earthquake.” The shameful, confusing malaise felt by many women after the war now had a legitimate source, and the source had a name: The Feminine Mystique. Friedan busted the myth of the happy housewife so thoroughly that it took decades before women who were happy housewives dared to say anything about it. Women, Friedan said, “were being duped into believing homemaking was their natural destiny.” The dueling desires of motherhood and selfhood were articulated at last, and the feminist movement turned from the clear-cut demands of suffragism and equal pay to the less-defined realm of empowerment.

Collins follows the progress of the idea of feminism and the politically active women’s groups who drove it forward not only through influential and well-known feminists like Friedan, but also through the stories of aging but indomitable suffragettes like Alice Paul, and women unintentionally caught up in the argument like Lois Rabinowitz, who was fined for wearing pants to traffic court in 1960.

One of the things that is startlingly clear from the first chapter is how much women’s history has been bound up, sometimes literally, in women’s clothes, used symbolically by both sides: Hemlines, silk stockings (a sign of vanity in one era, of propriety in another), Bella Abzug and her hats (her mother told her they were “a surefire sign that she was not a secretary”), Gloria Steinem and her sunglasses, the hideous Eighties power suits with their floppy bows, the post-feminist stiletto heel. Decisions on how to dress were sometimes strategic, sometimes controversial, always significant. Collins quotes Muriel Fox, one of the founders of the National Organization of Women, saying, “I have pictures of the early NOW meetings. We wore hats.” During the heyday of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Collins writes, an earlier custom of wearing one’s Sunday best to sit-ins in order to be taken seriously had given way to jeans, a more practical outfit for being thrown in jail and a statement of solidarity with the working class. But, Collins notes,

Marian Wright Edelman said she would never forget “the disappointed looks” of rural black Mississippians “who heard there was a Black lady lawyer in town…and who came to look for and at me. When they saw me in blue jeans and an old sweatshirt, they were crestfallen. I never wore jeans in public again in Mississippi.”

Collins, whose prose is vigorous and direct, has an unflaggingly intelligent conversational style that gives this book a personal and authoritative tone all at once. Whether she writes about fashion or the great political and social events of the day, she observes the telling details that an academic writing in greater depth or a polemicist offering stronger theoretical arguments might pass over. With deadpan comic restraint Collins provides that unexpected detail or statement or observation that can put an entire episode into its legitimately absurd perspective. The Miss America pageant that inspired a radical feminist protest (organized by Robin Morgan and including a guerrilla sheep and the promise of bra-burning)? “It was the one program that President Nixon said he let his daughters, Julie and Trisha, stay up late to watch.” In 1984, when the honorific “Ms.” was considered by the late William Safire in The New York Times ? “To our ear,” he wrote in his “On Language” column, “it still sounds too contrived for newswriting.” To other ears at the Times as well apparently. In the same year, Collins says, the Times reported in a story about Gloria Steinem’s fiftieth birthday party that the dinner’s proceeds “will go to the Ms. Foundation…which publishes Ms. Magazine, where Miss Steinem works as an editor.”

Sometimes the absurdity Collins reveals is less humorous than it is grotesque. Viola Liuzzo, a white mother of five who drove from Detroit to Selma in 1965 to join the civil rights protests, was shot and killed by the Ku Klux Klan while giving a fellow marcher, a black man, a ride home. “FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, briefing the attorney general on Liuzzo’s death, told him ‘that she was sitting very, very close to the Negro in the car; that it had the appearances of a necking party.”

Collins writes extensively about the crucial and leading role of women in the civil rights movement. Women like Unita Blackwell, a sharecropper from Mississippi, were instrumental in local voter registration drives, while SNCC was based on the ideas of Ella Baker. Yet the official positions of power within the movement were held exclusively by men. Women were marginalized at the same time that the male leaders of the movement relied on the unthreatening decorum and perceived powerlessness of a lady for gaining white good will. Collins points out that almost all the victims of racism taken up as symbols of the cause were women: “When the Montgomery bus driver told [Rosa Parks] to give up her seat to a white man or be arrested, the petite, middle-aged seamstress calmly replied, ‘You may do that.’” She also notes that ladies like the “Women’s Political Caucus, a quiet organization of Montgomery’s middle-class black teachers and social workers,” were often far more radical than their male counterparts: “While the ministers pressed the bus company for a more orderly system of dividing the seats between the races and more courteous drivers, the women wanted total integration.”

A tale of women in the last fifty years is necessarily a tale of reform movements, and Collins takes us from the civil rights movement to the antiwar movement, a time when radical women were often relegated to making sandwiches for the men. At a 1968 New Politics conference in Chicago, when some of the women attending wanted to introduce a resolution on women’s rights, the men in charge refused. One of the women was literally patted on the head by the chairman. “‘Cool down, little girl,’ he said. ‘We have more important things to do here than talk about women’s problems.’” When a woman spoke at the Washington antiwar rally during Richard Nixon’s inauguration, some of the men in the crowd called out, “Take it off!” and “Take her off the stage and fuck her!” The free love movement, too, with its flower power and hippy communes, kept one traditional structure firmly in place—women performed the domestic duties.

Women who wanted to work were supposed to be single. This attitude informed even supposedly freethinking books like Helen Gurley-Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl. The message of that volume is that single girls should busy themselves seducing their bosses while they bide their time and hone their seductive skills until Mr. Right finally shows up.

One group that was forced to remain single in order to continue at their jobs was stewardesses. Stewardesses were a joke to many of us coming of age in the liberated Sixties. They were no joke in the women’s movement that liberated us, however. It should not be a surprise that members of one of the few professions that welcomed women, exclusively, would fight for women’s rights. And they did. Amelia Earhart notwithstanding, women were effectively barred from becoming pilots by the Commerce Department. They became stewardesses instead, a job that began with nurses and soon changed to attractive servers. For small-town girls it beckoned as a glamorous career, a way to travel, to see the world.

The pay, however, was low, and the job itself turned out to be far from glamorous. As late as the Sixties, “one regular run, the ‘Executive Flight’ from New York to Chicago, actually barred female passengers. The men got extralarge steaks, drinks, and cigars—which the stewardesses were supposed to bend over and light.” The women were monitored by “counselors” who weighed them and took their measurements regularly to make sure they kept their figures. “Besides limits in weight and height, stewardesses were required, according to one promotion, to have hands that were ‘soft and white’—a hint as to how welcome African-American women were at the time.” When the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission convened, the flight attendants’ union was the very first in line. In a House subcommittee hearing in 1965,

Representative James Scheuer of New York jovially asked the flight attendants to “stand up, so we can see the dimensions of the problem.” The airline industry continued to argue with a straight face that businessmen would be discouraged from flying if the women handing them their coffee and checking their seat belts were not young and attractive.

To which Martha Griffiths, one of the few women representatives in Congress, replied, “What are you running, an airline or a whorehouse?”

Flight attendants were also among the first women to turn to the courts for equal rights. In addition to the requirements of appearance, stewardesses were not allowed to marry. Supervisors scanned wedding announcements looking for transgressors. When Eulalie Cooper was fired by Delta after six years for being secretly married,

a Louisiana judge agreed with the airline that serving food and ensuring safety on an airplane was a job that young single women were uniquely qualified to do, and therefore fell under the [Equal Employment Opportunity] law’s exemption for “bona fide occupational qualifications.”…

And yet with all of Collins’s examples of laws and ideas that have contributed to keeping women in their place, When Everything Changed is not simply a book about what the world of men has done to hold women back; nor is it a book about the worthy and courageous things women have somehow pulled off in a man’s world, though it certainly pays tribute to feminist heroes, both famous and uncelebrated. This is instead a narrative that has not yet reached its conclusion. The book recognizes and records an ongoing story that ought to be obvious but has so often been obscured in the last fifty years of change, upheaval, and polemics: simply that in the process of both shaping it or being shaped by it, women live in the world, and there’s just no getting around it.

This is an account of women crying out for change and coming to terms with the consequences of that change, and it is not always a pretty sight. Collins reminds us of the absurdity, the excess, on both sides. Some aspects of the women’s movement have come to seem almost as quaint as the early demonstrators in white gloves—the consciousness-raising groups, the calls to sexual warfare, the “freedom” names like Warrior and Sarahchild that women adopted to escape the taint of patriarchy. But Collins never loses sight of their importance as part of this modern epic. She shows women, like men, adapting as best they can. Some of those adaptations seem preposterous now, but without them, we could not have evolved to where we are.

And where exactly is that? There are now more working mothers than ever before. Women are in positions of power the most radical of activists could only dream of in 1960. Last February, The New York Times reported that with the loss to the recession of jobs in traditionally male fields like construction, working women were about to outnumber working men for the first time in American history. And yet…

Eleanor Roosevelt was able to talk wartime shipbuilders into creating innovative and comprehensive on-site day care for the children of thousands of working mothers. Her success in promoting the private sector’s responsibility for day care has never been repeated. Sufficient government-run day care is not available for most working mothers, either. At the same time, few employers are willing to create schedules friendly to working mothers. The “image” of women, too, has changed and changed back and twisted itself pretzel-like until we have drunken high school girls exposing themselves to the cameras of Girls Gone Wild in the name of freedom and liberation.

Collins ends her book with a look at three very current characters, three powerful mothers who have had to deal with the contradictions of careers and parenting, making it up as they went along: Hillary Clinton, who waited until she was in her thirties to get pregnant, facing her generation’s now familiar difficulties of fertility and child care; Michelle Obama, who has been able to recreate an earlier era of extended family members helping out by bringing her mother with the First Family to the White House; and Sarah Palin, who throws her various children over her shoulder and brings them along on the plane at taxpayers’ expense. None of these tough, successful women has discovered the perfect road.

Even so, we’ve obviously come a long way, baby, as the saying goes, and the effect of much of the earlier sections of the book is one of an uncomfortable jolt to memory, a snort of laughter and a grimace, which all add up to a mixed feeling of shame at our early follies and of smug satisfaction at how far we sophisticated Americans have come. If the book is less satisfying as it approaches the present day, perhaps it is because, without the perspective of time, we can’t predict exactly which of our notions and behavior will reveal themselves as ridiculous in twenty or thirty years’ time. The last few chapters of this “Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present” is intelligent and thorough, but it is also a little too close for either comfort or discomfort. It is what we know, it’s home, and home never really feels like it’s part of the journey at all.

What we do know for certain is that the difficulties of growing up female have not been weeded out—they continue to blossom, unexpected, inevitable, invasive plants—and if we’re lucky, Gail Collins will continue to comb through them, careful and hopeful, smelling the roses along with whatever else she digs up.

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