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Did Women’s Liberation Work?

Audio

Aired 12/1/09

Has the women's liberation movement really made a difference? Anyone wondering whether it has, has only to compare American life today with what it was in 1960. We look at how women, men and society began to change when women started to reject second-class status.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. It seems that every couple of years there's a new media assault on feminism. We hear stories that young women don't care about equal rights, or that most women really do just want to stay home and take care of the kids, or that feminism has failed. Before you're tempted to buy into the notion that the last fifty years of the women's rights movement were misguided and unproductive, you may want to read Gail Collin's new book, “When Everything Changed.” In it, Collins guides us through the societal revolution that took women from the steno pool to the threshold of the White House, all in less than the span of a lifetime. Gail Collins is the first- ever female editor of the New York Times, she is currently an op-ed columnist for the Times. The full title of her book is "When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present." And, Gail, welcome to These Days.

GAIL COLLINS (Author): Thank you. It’s good to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Now I’d like to invite our audience to join the conversation. Gail Collins is going to be with us for a full hour. So, I wonder, do you remember a time when women were not allowed to be members of the military or play sports in school? Tell us your stories about the amazing journey of American women. Call us with either your questions or your comments. The number is 1-888-895-5727. Now, Gail, your book’s focus is about, as I said, the last 50 years and yet a lot of it reads like it must’ve been longer ago than that. Is part of the reason for this book the fact that we don’t have a good sense of how much things have changed for women in America?

COLLINS: I think so. And the interesting thing to me is that it’s such a good story. It’s amazing. When I – During the millennium, the Times magazine asked me to do an introduction to an entire issue that they were doing for the year 2000 on women over the last 1000 years. And when I was working on it, I really – I had never really thought about the fact that the attitudes towards women that had existed in Western civilization from really the beginning of recorded time, from the year 1000, were still there in, you know, 1960, you know, the sort of basic attitudes about what women’s place was and what women’s strengths and weaknesses were and their place really being in the home, and that all that stuff changed in my lifetime. I got to see preconceptions about what women were that had existed for millennia in all of the world. And I was so taken by that idea, that I got to be around to watch this thing happen, that I really knew I did want to write about it.

CAVANAUGH: Now this has happened in such a brief period of time and yet there are a lot of women who are unaware of what things used to be like. So I wonder if you could tell us some stories about what life for women in America was like, say, as late as the 1950s. Who – For instance, I think you have some statistics about the typical white American woman.

COLLINS: The typical white American woman. Well, let me – Can I start with the clothes? I’m always really taken by the clothes…

CAVANAUGH: Absolutely.

COLLINS: …and what goes on with that. Women – My favorite story in the entire world, I’m really a person who likes to think about history in terms of what people wore and whether their shoes were comfortable and stuff like that. But my – the book begins with a woman named Lois Rabinowitz…

CAVANAUGH: Right, right.

COLLINS: …in 1960. On a terrible day in the summer of 1960 in New York, she became the tabloid story of the day because she was evicted from traffic court for attempting to pay a ticket while wearing slacks and the judge was horrified. He said, you know, she was demeaning the dignity of the traffic court. And I don’t know what your traffic courts are like but in New York, our traffic courts are not exactly replete with dignity to begin with. But – And he threw her out. And the poor woman, it wasn’t even her ticket; it was her boss’s ticket she was trying to take care of so she couldn’t just walk away. She called her husband who drove in and paid the ticket, and they’d only been married for two weeks, and the judge gave the husband a huge lecture on how he really had to crack down right away at home or it was going to be too late for these things, and went out to see the reporters and made a big speech about women’s dignity. And while I was writing all this stuff, I remembered that I was in college in the late ‘60s and we weren’t allowed to wear slacks out of the dormitory unless we were going bowling.

CAVANAUGH: Great.

COLLINS: That was the rule. And, you know, we just signed out for bowling quite a bit. And I’m not sure how much we thought about it at the time. But it was – in so many of the women that my researchers and I talked to while we were doing the book, we just asked lots of normal women just to talk about their lives, when they thought about it and looked back, said, Lord, was that awful. You’d have to wear a skirt. You know, even if you went to work in the post office, you were still supposed to wear a skirt. You know, farm wives put on a skirt if they went to the post office to pick up the mail. And when you wore a skirt back in those days, of course it was before pantyhose so you were wearing nylons and you were wearing probably a girdle. Everybody wore girdles, no matter what size they were. Barbie had a girdle. The person least in need of a foundation garment in the world, Barbie, had a girdle at the time. And the whole idea was basically you didn’t move around very much, and you didn’t move around very much back then. You didn’t play sports in school. There were some women in Des Moines, I think – Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who organized a women’s movement later on around the fact that in their high school, the boys’ tennis team played on the court and the girls’ tennis team played on the driveway. And they said all they wanted to do was to get the girls not to be run over while they were playing tennis.

CAVANAUGH: Umm…

COLLINS: And you just didn’t move. There were no jobs, women could not get jobs that involved moving around. You all – The idea of women traveling, except for family matters or vacations was sort of unheard of and the only people who did travel for work, only women, were stewardesses.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Gail Collins. She is, of course, op-ed columnist for the New York Times. She’s also the author of a new book called “When Everything Changed.” We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Speaking, Gail, of clothing and the look of things and how that relates to the limitations women were under back in the ‘50s and the early ‘60s, in the reviews of your book some writers have referenced the TV show Mad Men as a way of giving people an idea of what life was like for women before feminism. And I wonder, are you familiar with the show? Do you think it’s an accurate portrayal?

COLLINS: I love Mad Men.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

COLLINS: It is. I mean, it is not a historic drama but I think a lot of it is very, very accurate. It was – Actually, advertising was one of the few kind of businesses where women could get executive jobs of some sort because you had women’s products that they did. You know, if you were doing the girdle ads, you probably wanted a woman there doing them. But they were kept very separate usually from the men. They didn’t work with the men. So Peggy in that show is actually more of a pioneer than you might even think…

CAVANAUGH: Right, right.

COLLINS: …with her little job there.

CAVANAUGH: Now most women, though, from what I understand at least, got married pretty young and stayed home.

COLLINS: Yeah, the median age for a woman to get married in 1960 was 20. And if you were…

CAVANAUGH: The median age?

COLLINS: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: Wow.

COLLINS: So you were real – you know, they were going – And if you were in college and you were a senior and you were not engaged yet, everybody thought you were in real trouble. You were really going to be a failure. There was a woman who I talked to for the book who went to Barnard who said that when she graduated there was a party for the graduating seniors and the girls who were engaged got corsages and the ones who weren’t got lemons. And she still has not gotten over that. It’s been, you know, 50 years but she’s still, you know, thinking about those lemons that she got when she graduated.

CAVANAUGH: It’s – I think it’s hard for some people to put themselves back in that time. What did women who were basically they knew that they were home and they were basically going to stay at home, it wasn’t they were taking off a couple of years to have kids, they were going to stay at home. What did they do with their time all day?

COLLINS: Well, they were very busy because they had children so early. I mean, the post-war generation tended to have two or three or four children very rapidly. And so when you’re talking about the first suburban generation in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, these were women who had, you know, a lot of little kids running around the house. And it was still a time—although, you know, I had really a good time talking to some of the older women who are in the book, how they did housekeeping back then, you know, and they had – they would describe for me how to – how you ironed a shirt, for instance, and it was quite a project. You know, you didn’t have any spray starch or permanent press and you sort of made your starch with water and then you dipped the collar in it and you, you know, went through all this stuff and you had to keep the stuff all wet so that you didn’t – the clothes didn’t dry out and you put them in the refrigerator to do that. It was quite – And people still believed at that point that you had to make stuff from scratch, so there was quite a bit of cooking going on in a lot of kitchens. But even the people who wrote for women’s magazines celebrating what an amazing, wonderful thing it was to be a wife at that point in time…

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

COLLINS: …they all said, almost inevitably, it’s very weird but these women don’t seem to focus on what they’re going to do when the children get older and, you know, where they’re going to spend their time at that point. And they didn’t really think about it because no generation before that had had that problem. You tended, by the time you were done having children, you tended to be dead…

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

COLLINS: …because people died earlier and they had children later. And, you know, there was – You know, often people would be having children into their, you know, late forties and then they would, you know, by the time they were grown, people died in their fifties and sixties. And then if they didn’t they were staying home with the grandchildren. But then suddenly this new world came of the suburbs and there weren’t any grandmothers around and once the children were gone, there really wasn’t that much housework left to do and that was, I think, the point at which a lot of women sort of felt that there was – you know, they had to figure out some other projects there.

CAVANAUGH: What about African American women, women of color, they suffered from two kinds of discrimination back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. I wonder how – I know that the early women’s movement was often criticized as being a white women’s movement but was that actually the fact?

COLLINS: Well, there was so many different kinds of women’s movement. The African American women were very interested in some of the key points of the early women’s movement, the things like making sure that women had equal opportunity at work to get overtime, and equal opportunity qualifying for jobs that generally had been kept only for men because they involved lifting stuff but that paid better. Stuff like that was very important to them. The more social end of it, once you started having a woman’s movement and in the later ‘60s, it kind divided and you had the people who were very clearly working simply on reform issues like equal pay and getting sports for girls in school and so on, and then you had the other group that was trying to kind of redesign society to eliminate whatever it was that had created this double standard to begin with, and those were the women who were sort of talking a lot about is marriage meaningful? What does that mean? And, you know, maybe marriage is slavery. And that kind of stuff didn’t really interest that many black women at the time; they had other stuff to worry about. But it was very complicated for black women in general because there was a lot of sexism in the civil rights movement but most black women were much more interested in, you know, pursuing the needs of the community than they were in fighting about it early on.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Gail Collins about her book, “When Everything Changed.” We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Let’s take a call now from Barbara in Vista. Good morning, Barbara. Welcome to These Days.

BARBARA (Caller, Vista): Good morning. Thank you so much for your program and thank you for Gail Collins, and I read the Times every day.

COLLINS: Thank you.

BARBARA: I’m a subscriber, too, to your station in the Times. I do want to say that I had, you know, grown up in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and I know that when I first applied for my first credit card in the early 1970s, when they first appeared, I had to – it had to read Mrs. John Doe.

COLLINS: Yeah.

BARBARA: It couldn’t be in my name alone. When I purchased a house with my husband in 1967 and we were both tenured New York City teachers—I had taught for 8 years before and I held -- and so I had a secure job—my salary was not considered in applying for the mortgage. They looked at me and said, you are of child-bearing age. I was 26 when I married so I was quite – and I’m 73 now so you can guess that I was way above the standard age for the time. But they wouldn’t give us the – The only way we got the mortgage was in my husband’s name, my husband’s net salary only and then we doubled it at that time. They probably had the right idea considering what’s happened since then with mortgages. But this was discrimination. Also, when I taught in New York City and if you were pregnant, you had to leave after four months because it was considered dangerous for you to be in the workplace. Many of today’s women, it seems to me, aren’t – are not aware of the battles that were fought, in the seventies’ women’s liberation movement, to improve their chances in life today. I had a friend who attended medical school in 1954 and she was the only female in her class and she said when she would get up during a lab experiment class, all her materials, lab materials, were scattered on the floor when she returned from, let’s say, the bathroom.

CAVANAUGH: Barbara, thank you for that. Thank you so much for that litany of reasons that Gail Collins has written in this book. Gail, would you like to comment?

COLLINS: Yeah, Barbara’s really – I’m glad she brought up the credit thing because that’s one of the things that when you, you know, talk to younger women they find so astonishing, that women couldn’t get credit in their own name even if they had – if they were making money, if they had jobs, if they were self-supporting. There are just incredible, crazy stories that, you know, go back to that period of women who – There was one woman in New York who had a job and wanted to get, I think, a lease on a house and she had to go to the mental hospital where her husband was a patient and get him to co-sign it because you couldn’t rent anything. We couldn’t sign a lease if you were a woman unless you had a man’s signature, too. And it was also very true, as she said, about mortgages, that banks would not count women’s income toward a mortgage or toward a car loan unless she was older or she could prove that she had, you know, been sterilized because their presumption was that every woman who was walking who was of childbearing age was about to bear a child.

CAVANAUGH: We have to take a short break, Gail. When we return, we’ll continue talking about the book “When Everything Changed,” and taking your calls. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: Welcome back. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. My guest is Gail Collins. She’s op-ed columnist for the New York Times and the author of a new book called “When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present.” We’re taking your calls about, well, either your memories of the amazing journey of American women or if you’re a young woman today, do you realize the accomplishments of the feminist movement? Would you feel comfortable describing yourself as a feminist? Give us a call at 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Gail, before we get to the time when everything began to change, I want to give a more sweeping view of the kinds of discriminatory practices that were commonplace for and against women during that time because after 40 years of having the vote in America, women were still discriminated against in schools, in the military, for sports, Social Security benefits, salaries, would you like to comment on this array of places where women were just simply not thought of as first class citizens?

COLLINS: When I talk, I tell the story about the executive flight on United. United had a flight that went from New York to Chicago every day and back. It was for men only. Women could not get a ticket on the executive flight, and they gave the men big steaks and cigars and the stewardesses were trained to bend over and light the cigars. And when I tell that story, often younger women will say, wasn’t that against the law?

CAVANAUGH: Right.

COLLINS: Really, nothing was against the law when it came to women, you know, to making separate judgments on the basis of the fact that you were a woman. It was perfectly legal to tell a woman that these jobs, whatever job it was, was for men only or to say that she couldn’t have a promotion because it really wasn’t good to have women supervising. There’s – Madeleine Kunin, who later became the governor in Vermont, wanted to be a copy editor in this period and went to the Washington Post and they said, well, maybe, maybe. And then they called her and said, no, we’ve decided we’d rather have a guy. And then she went to the Providence paper and they told her, no, we had a woman here once and she was raped in the parking lot so we’re not going to do that again. And then she came to my paper, to the New York Times, and applied for a job as a copy editor and they said, well, no, but we do have an opening for a waitress in the cafeteria. And that sort of thing went on all the time. It was perfectly legal. It was legal and frequently law schools and medical schools would set quotas of, you know, two women per class or six women per class or something like that. There’s a famous quote from the head of the dental school at the University of Texas saying women were not admitted at all because women were not strong enough to pull teeth. And that was his theory. And all that stuff was completely and totally legal.

CAVANAUGH: So…

COLLINS: You could do anything, really.

CAVANAUGH: So, Gail, when did everything begin to change, to go to the title of your book. When did that start to happen?

COLLINS: It started to happen in the middle ‘60s. Really, the civil rights movement was the big thing that pushed everything forward. When the civil rights movement happened, Americans became very conscious as they got their heads around the fact that this country had done something so incredibly unjust to so many of its citizens for so long. They – the sense of fairness became a very big deal. People were very sensitive to the ideas things were fair. And women, looking at that, I think, you know, leapt suddenly to the front and said, hey, talk about fairness here, we’ve got some issues. Also, women were trained in the civil rights movement, a lot of young women, you know, worked in the civil rights movement and they took those skills back and applied them to their own issues. And, of course, the birth control pill came on the market in 1960 and it was gradually becoming more available and that was just a huge, huge change because women had generally worked under a double standard which presumed that women were supposed to save themselves for their husband, that guys could do whatever they wanted. But so you weren’t supposed to be sexually active until you were married. When you were married, you were going to probably get pregnant fairly soon, so the idea of having a career at all was like taking the veil. You know, you were just going to really become nun-like in your chastity if you wanted to have a career, so all that stuff began to change and that was really huge. And the first big precipitating moment came in 1964 when the Civil Rights Act was going through Congress and a southern Representative, who was very powerful and very conservative, decided to add women to the groups who could not be discriminated against in employment. And it’s not clear whether he did it hoping to kill the bill somehow or as a joke.

CAVANAUGH: Wow.

COLLINS: But when it came up on the floor, everybody was laughing hysterically, all the guys were just making jokes about, you know, of course, in my house I’m the one who’s discriminated against and yada-yada-yada. But there was Representative Griffiths from Detroit who was one of the very few women in the House, who was a lawyer, the only woman who was a laywer in the House, thought that if she – She had been a big proponent of doing something about women in employment opportunities and she thought, well, you know, if I take my people and add them to the conservatives, I could actually get this sucker through. And she did, it got through the House. The Senate planned to block it but then Margaret Chase Smith, who was the only woman senator, who was just this powerhouse from Maine—Maine has this thing with women senators…

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, apparently so.

COLLINS: But, yeah, she just grabbed it and ran with it and it became law. Women had never imagined this was going to happen. This was the sort of thing that they had hoped to do a study commission about in maybe five or ten years but, I mean, no one imagined they would get such a thing at this point in time. But once they got it, they expected it to be enforced and it became very clear very fast that the government had no intention of enforcing this, that they were just going to pretend it didn’t exist. And that was really the thing that mobilized women. That led to the creation of the National Organization for Women, NOW, which was the big, aggressive, you know, demonstrating, protesting, and occasionally bringing court suits group, and from that everything else followed really.

CAVANAUGH: Gail, there are a lot of people who want to join our conversation. We are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Let’s hear from Marilyn, calling from downtown. Good morning, Marilyn. Welcome to These Days.

MARILYN (Caller, Downtown San Diego): Thank you for this wonderful program. I’m going to buy two of Ms. Collins’ books, one for myself and one for my 18 year old niece as a graduation present. I’m 64, so I have a lot of stories to tell but I’ll just tell one to be brief. I graduated from Granite Hills High School with a 4.0 average, which was the highest you could get at the time, and I was student body secretary and all sorts of extracurricular activities so when I went to the University of California, I applied for a Regent’s Scholarship, which is the highest honor that the university bestows on undergraduates. I went in for my interview and the panel was about four or five old, white men. They interviewed me, sent me out. When I came back in, they said, you have all the qualifications to be a Regent’s Scholar but we know you girls come to college just to find a man so if you’re here in two years, come back and we’ll give you a Regent’s Scholarship. So that’s what I had to do. Then I went on to get a Regent’s Fellowship at both Berkeley and Davis. But – And my sister was turned down in the 1970s for credit at a local department store. She was a probation officer, was not married at the time, and they wouldn’t – they said our father had to sign, and she didn’t get the credit card until she brought in her attorney boyfriend and he straightened them out.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for the call, Marilyn. Thank you very much for those stories. Let’s talk to Andrea in San Diego. Good morning, Andrea. Welcome to These Days.

ANDREA (Caller, San Diego): Yes, my comment – and an excellent show. Thank you very much for airing this important book and issue. When I – when I was in college—I grew up in Ohio—and I was born in 1961 and I decided to go into chemical engineering and I would routinely get bullied in the hallways by my professors and particularly the department chair who would come over and say, you know, you really picked the wrong career. You don’t belong here. Which kind of fueled me on to really continue and I did continue and became a chemical engineer and it was just kind of a funny twist of fate that once I really got into the working world and I was about 30 and married and wanted children, I – it had never occurred to me that I might someday not want to work and actually stay home and take care of the family. So in my paradigm, it was never an option. So I just wanted to present that different view.

CAVANAUGH: Andrea, thank you so much.

COLLINS: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And, Gail, I’d like to get your comments on both of these calls.

COLLINS: Yeah, it’s – And, you know, it’s wonderful. I love it when I sort of go around and people come up and they tell me their stories. And one of the great things about them is that so frequently they end so well. You know, it’s, you know, the great pleasure of doing this book was to celebrate all these women who did all these amazing things and in order to pursue their careers at that kind of turning point time and to help other women along the way. And it’s – so it’s always very neat to hear those stories, and to hear, you know, I love your callers. They’re all lovely.

CAVANAUGH: Well, we’ll hear a couple more of them in just a moment but right now I’d like – if you could tell us the story that’s included in your book about Lorena Weeks of Georgia. It was one of the first cases that was taken on by the National Organization for Women, about enforcement of the Equal Employment Opportunities Act. And I’m wondering, because I think that her story is so indicative of the preconceptions, the casual preconceptions, that were just part and parcel of the culture back then.

COLLINS: Yeah, she was a lovely – she’s still around. She was just the best person to interview. And I do find that so many of these women who do just incredible work in fighting for their rights are women who come from – often from the south and from working class back – families who really know that women have to work and who just don’t have any illusions about that. And Lorena was a poor young woman. She had raised her brother and sister after her parents died. She worked as a waitress and then she got married and she and her husband desperately wanted to send their kids to college and he was a – worked for the phone – I think as a mailman, and she worked for the phone company and they were always looking for ways to make more money. And a new job opening came up for something called a router, which basically involved being in an office and making sure the equipment was moving along, and she was pretty sure she could do that. She was a clerk at the time. She applied for it and her boss told her that women weren’t accepted for that job; it was a man’s job. And she went to her union and her union told her that was a breadwinner’s job and she wasn’t a breadwinner. And then she saw a sign for the Equal Opportunity Commission saying if you think you’re discriminated against, you can file a suit. So she wrote to them and they investigated and they – the company said, well, no, there’s a law in Georgia that says that a woman can’t lift anything more than 30 pounds on the job, and this router business has a 35 pound thing that you carry around. And she said, well, no, it’s on a dolly, you can just push it.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

COLLINS: And my typewriter is 40 pounds. And – But they had no – So she stopped moving her typewriter and then they got very angry and she was frightened and she went to NOW and she filed a suit and the suit went on for several years during which she was one of those women who just pursued what she thought was right even though nobody thought it was a good idea. Her husband was sort of dismayed. Her children didn’t understand what was going on. Her neighbors thought it was weird. Her co-workers were very upset. But she just went at it and finally she won the case and she told me, you know, she got the job. Her children all went to college. One of them is the tax commissioner in her town now and when she went to apply for Social Security in her little town, the woman at the desk said, I have never seen a salary for a woman of this size before.

CAVANAUGH: Wow.

COLLINS: It was just – And she’s just there today. And she’s still just very proud and very happy.

CAVANAUGH: You know, Gail, I think one of the most shocking aspects of your book, “When Everything Changed,” is the reminder of the dismissive tone that was routinely adopted against women. I’m thinking about the TV host David Susskind who said about Gloria Steinem, you feel like kissing her and hitting her. Now that kind of language would get someone in a lot of trouble these days.

COLLINS: Yeah, you could really just about say anything you wanted. I mean, frequently in law schools when the – if you had women in your class, they generally early on weren’t allowed to speak, they were supposed to just sit there. They weren’t usually called on. And then there would be one day they would call ‘women’s day,’ which was a story I heard from a number of women from different schools. And on women’s day, only women were called on in class and a couple of the women said, and that was the day they always talked about rape classes – rape cases…

CAVANAUGH: Hmm…

COLLINS: …in very graphic detail, you know, just in order to humiliate the women there, and that – You could just get away with almost anything. There was a famous case when the stewardesses, who were the great fighters – you know, now people think of flight attendants as sort of not a cutting edge job, I guess, but they were really the pioneer fighters for women’s rights because they had this crazy job in which they were discriminated against in thousands of different ways every day. And all of these customers couldn’t keep their hands off of them so they finally wound up before the House of Representatives and when they were seated there testifying, one of the Representatives said, ah, why don’t you all stand up and turn around so we can see the dimensions of this problem, you know. This was in the ‘60s.

CAVANAUGH: And, of course, that was – Didn’t Representative Griffith (sic) make a famous comment about what kind of a operation are you running?

COLLINS: Yes, when they were – the airlines then came in to explain that they couldn’t get rid of their rules, which said that they could fire a stewardess for, I think, hitting the age of 30 or 35 or for getting married or for gaining weight because it was very important to their customers that all the women waiting on them be very attractive and young. And Martha Griffiths said, are you running an airline or a whorehouse here, sir?

CAVANAUGH: We have to take a short break. When we return, we will continue talking with Gail Collins about her new book “When Everything Changed,” and taking your calls here on These Days on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. We’re talking about “When Everything Changed.” That’s the title of the new book by Gail Collins. She is an op-ed columnist for the Times. And the book is about the amazing journey of American women from 1960 to the present. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And, Gail, in addition to all the successes that the women’s movement had in the ‘60s and ‘70s, you also talk about what I guess is the big setback, the real setback, and that was the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment. Tell us a little bit about what the Equal Rights Amendment was and why it failed.

COLLINS: The Equal Rights Amendment was a very simple proposition. It basically said that, you know, that there can be no discrimination against women in any laws in any state in the United States. And it was a great, great goal of the early suffragettes, that was their, you know, ultimate thing. As soon as they got the right to vote, they turned right around and started working on the Equal Rights Amendment. And it had gotten nowhere fast for really – for about 50 years, and then once all these things started to change in the late ‘60s – And if I could say, my own theory about what happened here was, in part, that if you remember back in the day, the Republican Party was actually much more liberal on most social issues than the Democrats were. The Democrats were more liberal on economic issues, but it was the Republicans who were more likely to be in favor of, say, women’s rights, for family planning, things like that. And I – In the ‘60s, the late ‘60s, each party started to move and my vision has always been that in the early ‘70s they were sort of together in the middle there because very suddenly in the early 1970s, you got all this legislation coming through. You got Title Nine, which prohibited discrimination against women in any school that took federal money, which was how we suddenly got women’s sports right up to the front. You got, all the credit laws were fixed to make it illegal to discriminate against women. All of the labor laws were fixed, just an enormous amount of stuff happened very fast then. And one thing also that happened was that the Equal Rights Amendment, which had been sitting around forever, suddenly passed right through the Senate, zoomed out into the world, was passed by, you know, about 20 states rapid fire, and then slowly things got slower and slower and slower and slower and they were still three states, I think, away from ratification when things just came to a dead halt. And that was really at the point when the social right was beginning to rise up and people were beginning to express their difficulty – And it’s amazing to me actually that there wasn’t much more reaction than there even was because when you think about the hugeness of the change that had happened so fast, the vision of what women were supposed to do, was transformed almost overnight and women who had grown up believing that the greatest success you could have would be to marry a guy who did so well that you didn’t have to work and you could become a fulltime housewife and that that was the greatest calling a woman could have are suddenly being referred to, and find themselves referred to, as losers, people who couldn’t get a job, as if they were unemployed. And there were terrible hurt feelings and there were, really, some things said that, you know, the idea that, you know, places like NOW were suddenly calling any woman who volunteered for a community organization as sort of a sucker or a slave because men should ask for money, women should ask for money. It got very weird there for a while. And I think part of it was that, and part of it was also that the change had happened so thoroughly that most – almost all of the laws that women imagined would be eliminated by that Equal Rights Amendment had already been fixed…

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

COLLINS: …by the courts, by the legislatures in the states, by Congress, and so there wasn’t a whole lot specific that you could point to that an Equal Rights Amendment would do. People thought, well, you need to protect for the future, it would be a great symbol, maybe you could do some test cases on – but it was vague…

CAVANAUGH: Well…

COLLINS: …and suddenly you had Phyllis Schlafly…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

COLLINS: …and the women of the right, the conservative right, running around saying it’ll lead to – you’ll have to get rid of the Girl Scouts because they’ll have to be only one kind of scout. You’ll have to get rid of child support, men will be able to leave their families and they won’t be able to – you know, they won’t have to pay – women will be forced to work. It’ll be against the law for a woman not to work. None of these things were true but it was all – you know, you can’t really prove it. It was a very vague amendment, you know, it was just general, so people got confused and everybody was irritable and everybody was frightened because the economy was changing then. You didn’t have all the money that you had in the ‘80s and the ninety – I’m sorry, in the ‘50s and the ‘60s when suddenly the – back then, the economy was booming and people thought it would go on forever. In the ‘70s, everything really fell apart and people were scared about their jobs. Women were scared because divorce was becoming more frequent and there was always this vision that your husband might leave you and you’d have, you know, no resources at all. And people felt everything was changing and for the worse and they didn’t know what to do about it and it just sort of all kind of coalesced around the poor Equal Rights Amendment.

CAVANAUGH: And if the ERA had been ratified, do you think that things would have been different for women? You’ve already mentioned that most of the things that the ERA would address had been fixed in other ways.

COLLINS: Yeah, I don’t. And I know there are a lot of people who, you know, really believe passionately we should go back, you know, and resuscitate the Equal Rights Amendment. Whenever I’ve heard that argued, there’s usually someone who’s a veteran of those battles…

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

COLLINS: …sitting around who I suddenly see roll her eyes, you know, and look horrified. But it’s not one of my own top priorities in the world but I certainly respect the people who think that they’d like to still make that fight.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s hear from one of our callers. Amy is calling from San Diego. Good morning, Amy, and welcome to These Days.

AMY (Caller, San Diego): Good morning. Thank you for taking my call.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, thanks for calling.

AMY: I wanted to thank all the women who came before me who made my choices something I could take for granted, and I say that in the best possible spirit. I’m a 33 year old woman, currently 2 children, stay at home mom by choice. My take on it, though, is not so much women these days are pretty encouraging. I used to read articles, stay at home mom versus career mom, and I don’t hear that so much anymore. What I have seen, women are pretty supportive of each other’s choices but – and some men are, too, but there’s a lot of men out there who seem to think that women who stay at home are not to be respected. Maybe women feel that way sometimes but it feels like maybe some men have come along with women’s rights but not all the minds have come along as far as the rules. I don’t know if I’m reading that right but that seems to be my experience…

CAVANAUGH: Well, Amy, let’s…

AMY: …that stay at home moms don’t get a lot of respect for that.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s get a reaction to that. Thank you for the call. Gail, what do you think?

COLLINS: That’s a very – I’m glad Amy brought that up. It’s sort of the interesting issue of the day. I think if you broaden up the question, it seems very reasonable that women who have the opportunity to stay home with their kids and who think that whatever careers they’re pursing they could continue to pursue later, that that’s a wonderful option if you can afford it. I would be willing to bet that there are a bunch of men out there who, if they were given that option, would be happy to take it, too. The problem is that most families can’t afford it whether – whoever – most families need two paychecks coming in and it – To me, the argument about stay at home moms, which comes up quite a bit, at my newspaper, whenever we write anything about young women saying that they plan to stay home when they have children, we get enormous numbers of letters and complaints from people. I must say, it’s usually women rather than men, but women saying that, you know, this is bad, that, you know, you women will stop getting places in law schools if the law schools think that they’re going to stay home once they have children. And take – You know, I think it’s a false issue. You know, if you look at the economy right now, ever since the 1970s, it’s been increasingly difficult to support a middle class family lifestyle with one paycheck. There are very few families, relatively speaking, who can do it. Young men and young women all go into the world now knowing that they have a responsibility to support their families. If they get lucky enough that there’s the opportunity for one of them to stay home with the kids when the kids are young or when, you know, in order to raise a family, I think that’s fine. No one has an obligation to go to work if they can afford not to work. There’s so many things to do in the community, there are so many things to do with your family. There – I know so many wonderful women who are out working on schools, who are just, you know, recreating their neighborhoods who don’t work. So it’s – But I do remember when we had – Speaking to the men issue, when we had a story like that in the paper about young women at Yale who were saying they didn’t intend to work after they married, and I was editorial page editor at the time, and we were looking for someone to write an editorial about this because it was such a huge controversy. And the youngest guy on our board, who was about 30, volunteered to do it and he wrote a signed piece and it said something like, dear women of Yale, who aren’t planning on working… Well, that’s really interesting but have you talked to the young men of Yale about this…

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

COLLINS: …because, speaking for your generation, I can’t afford to raise a family by myself. And I would’ve made a whole different life choice if I had thought that you were going to reassert your right to be a stay at home mom. And I think that’s true for a lot of people. It’s just – it’s a nice thought but I, you know, for our own purposes, it’s not the central issue that we have to deal with.

CAVANAUGH: Gail, in the minutes that we have remaining, I do want to talk a little bit about the incredible tickets in last year’s presidential campaign and also the woman who didn’t get on the ticket, Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, two very different women who have kind of dominated a lot of our political talk in the last couple of years. First off, Hillary Clinton and her run for the presidency last year, do you see her run as a victim of sexism or bad timing?

COLLINS: She was – you know, the – Many people come up to me and say, you know, it really was terrible. I heard this thing said. I was at a rally and somebody said why don’t you go home and iron your husband’s shirts?

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

COLLINS: That stuff did happen. And I have to remind them all that approximately 5% of the population is completely nuts and another 5% is really irritating and you just have to let that work on itself. But the voters seemed fine about a woman as a candidate and by the end of the campaign, she was a terrific candidate. She didn’t win because she didn’t organize the early caucus states, which is not really a feminist issue.

CAVANAUGH: No, it’s not.

COLLINS: I guarantee you, the next woman who runs will definitely organize the early caucus states. But what she did do, and I always – you know, it’s so important to remind everybody of this, is that she made it seem normal for a woman to run for president and she figured out by the end how to do it really effectively so that you didn’t have this sense that you sometimes do with women candidates that she’s coming in and parachuting in to make everybody behave and toe the line.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

COLLINS: And you guys, in particular, get very nervous when that comes up. But she was great at the end and she made it the next woman who runs for president is going to know so much more about how to do it because of her. And she just made a terrific, terrific, terrific achievement there.

CAVANAUGH: And Sarah Palin, I know a lot of women who are reflexively liberal and pro-feminist find her just almost impossible to talk about, they get so upset. But she’s a woman and she’s making big changes at least in the celebrity status of Republican politicians.

COLLINS: That’s true. She is particularly popular with Republican guys, young guys. I mean, that’s sort of her core audience, which has never before been one. I must have to say as someone who thinks that she really turned out to be an awful candidate, by the end that I found it really encouraging that when, you know, it turned out she really was not grounded in the issues at all and was really incapable of discussing many of the critical things you need to be able to deal with if you’re a president, that nobody ran around saying, well, look at that, see, typical woman, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about. I mean, nobody’s blamed the gender, nobody who doesn’t like Sarah Palin that I know of has blamed her gender for the problems and…

CAVANAUGH: Now why is that?

COLLINS: …she is…

CAVANAUGH: Why is that, do you think, Gail?

COLLINS: Well, because, you know, we’ve kind of gone past that. I think the idea of a candidate is the candidate and not the sex. And I have to say of Sarah Palin that she is totally unconstrained by her gender as far as I can see and, in that sense, she really is a product of the women’s movement. I said that once on TV and the next day Gloria Steinem called me and said, okay, I’m shooting myself now this very minute.

CAVANAUGH: It is true, though. I mean, the fact that Sarah Palin, for all her lack perhaps of knowledge about certain areas of politics, is being taken seriously, is in a way a validation of your book.

COLLINS: Well, she’s – it’s also the fact that she takes herself seriously. She – from a – I’ve gone through her background 97 times and she’s never, as far as I know, ever not done something because she didn’t think she could do it because she was a woman.

CAVANAUGH: Right, Gail…

COLLINS: I mean, she’s never felt constrained by that.

CAVANAUGH: Gail, we’re going to have to end it there. I want to thank you so much for talking with us today.

COLLINS: It was a pleasure.

CAVANAUGH: Gail Collins is – her new book is “When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present. If we didn’t get to your phone call, post your comments at KPBS.org/TheseDays. And These Days will continue its second hour in just a few minutes.

Comments

Avatar for user 'Looski'

Looski | December 1, 2009 at 8:29 p.m. ― 5 years ago

What a wonderful article. The Taliban is really not that far behind white American men - trying to keep women in their place, telling women what to wear, the careers they may have, the money they can earn, the abuse suffered, the inability to participate in sports, the complete control men had over every aspect of women's lives. And, only 40 years ago. Women still are held on a lower rung than white men. I say white men because they still largely control everything. Who can blame them for wanting to maintain control, but I do. Even now I hear people say that white men are discriminated against in hiring and promotions - what an excellent PR job they're doing, it is about time other sexes & races get a break. Yes, you must have the qualifications, and probably better qualifications and work ethic, but you should be able to have the opportunity to prove yourself. Yep, I'm a feminist!

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