'When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women From 1960 to the Present' by Gail Collins

When Everything Changed

The Amazing Journey of American Women From 1960 to the Present

Gail Collins

Little, Brown: 472 pp., $27.99

I don't think I've ever finished a Gail Collins-penned editorial in the New York Times, and now I know why. Collins, the paper's editorial page editor from 2001 to 2007 and now op-ed columnist, has elevated dull writing into a rhetoric all her own such that, in more than 400 pages of this wholesomely instructive tract on American feminism, she never turns a phrase, sallies a wit or takes a nibble from the peach of humor. "When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women From 1960 to the Present" is written in the competent style of a textbook, and my weekend spent reading it felt exactly like homework.

And yet I suppose sympathetic readers could forgive Collins -- even commend her -- for stepping aside and letting the story tell itself. It is a hell of a thing. In 1960, American women were oppressed in ways that scarcely seem plausible today, denied access to education and career opportunity, sexual autonomy and financial independence, and their lives were proscribed by no less than an American sharia that routinized discrimination in myriad ways. Women were literally hemmed in by a code of bourgeois costume: no skirts above the knees, gloves and hats and stockings and heels and girdles and bouffant hair and belted sanitary napkins that were less feminine than veterinary.

Women couldn't get a credit card without a male co-signer, couldn't wear slacks in decent company, and the few independent women there were drew deep suspicion upon themselves: slut, troublemaker, lesbian, communist (after all, the Soviets had female astronauts). You were not a good girl, not a good girl at all.

Collins quotes a college-educated, stay-at-home mom from Santa Barbara who remembers standing at the clothesline hanging out diapers with tears streaming down her face. That would have been me except I'd have had a gun in my mouth.

And then, Collins says, "suddenly, everything changed." The "revolution" of gender equality happened so fast that it "seemed to be over before either side could really find its way to the barricades." Well, I don't know about that, and if I were Collins I might have avoided the malice-toward-none tone of her conclusion that suggests the war has been won. One only needs to spend a couple of hours watching "The Girls Next Door" or "The Real Housewives of Atlanta" to register how far offshore is any semblance of gender equality. Our pop culture is essentially built on misogyny.

"So there you are," she actually writes in the final paragraph. "American women had shattered the ancient traditions that deprived them of independence and power and the right to have adventures of their own and had done it so thoroughly that few women under 30 had any real concept that things had ever been different. . . . [T]hey had created a world their female ancestors did not even have the opportunity to imagine. And they still wore silly, impractical shoes."

Ladies, you can go home now.

Collins recites the movement's chronology through the interwoven stories of dozens of witnesses and participants, beginning in summer 1960 with Lois Rabinowitz, who was tossed out of a New York City traffic court for wearing slacks (she was there to pay her boss' speeding ticket). And there are indeed some terrific narratives, some about women we know: suffragette Alice Paul, who was an early champion of the Equal Rights Amendment; Gloria Steinem, feminist activist and co-founder of Ms. magazine; Betty Friedan, a founder of the National Organization for Women and author of the (seminal, ovarian?) book "The Feminine Mystique"; and Phyllis Schlafly, the crusading anti-feminist and GOP pinup girl.

And many more we're unlikely to know -- stewardesses, desperate housewives, frustrated women entrepreneurs, unwed mothers, sexually liberated coeds and women who took on the system, such as Lorena Weeks, who won a sex discrimination case against Southern Bell based on Title VII (prohibiting discrimination in employment) of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and Lilly Ledbetter, who sued Goodyear and whose case inspired the recent Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.

Roe vs. Wade, the free love of "The Harrad Experiment," "Our Bodies, Ourselves," the Pill, the work-family divide, Title IX, sexuality, AIDS, the Mommy Track, workplace harassment, rape in the military, post-feminism, Hillary and Sarah and Michelle. It's all here, and it's all very nutritious. I must say until I read this book I didn't fully appreciate the mutually reinforcing synergy between the civil rights and women's rights movements in the 1960s. It's a lovely irony that the sex discrimination amendment added to Title VII as a poison pill by Rep. Howard Smith, the Virginia Democrat and powerful chairman of the House Rules Committee, became the legal battering ram that toppled so many barriers for women.

Collins is content as chronicler and rarely offers much in the way of insight and analysis. And strangely, she barely mentions academic feminism, the patriarchal power structure or the intellectual underpinnings of women's liberation. Simone de Beauvoir gets no love here, and her omission seems awkwardly related to Collins' starting the clock at 1960. And yet, Collins' book is very much an academic product, perfect for an intro to sociology class. Comprehensible if not comprehensive, wide if not deep, "When Everything Changed" reminds us just how far women have come while they were coming a long way, baby.

Neil is a columnist for The Times.