Growing Up Female

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…

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