Thursday, October 31, 2013

When Everything Changed: Gail Collins on the State of Women in America

When I heard that Gail Collins, the New York Times op-ed columnist, would be speaking at my college, I was really excited. Although I don’t read the Times (my family boycotted it because of its anti-Israel tendencies years ago), I had used Collins’ book When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present as part of my research for a paper I wrote a couple years ago. I loved reading the book, and was so glad I could get the chance to hear its author speak about the same topic. You can find my notes on her speech here.

As someone who only has clear memories of the years after 2000, some of the stories that Collins shared about how women were treated in the 1950s and earlier just seem like relics of a different millennium. Like the story of the woman who was thrown out of court for attempting to pay a traffic ticket while wearing slacks. Or the one about the high school in Iowa where the boys’ tennis team played on the courts, but the girls’ team was relegated to the school’s driveway. Or the flight attendant whose marriage had been kept a secret, but the airline found out mid-flight and removed her from the plane at a rest stop. To the modern listener, these stories are so ridiculous that they’re amusing, since they’re so far removed from anything that we deal with nowadays.

“Why someone would want to put women on a pedestal in a skirt is beyond me,” she said in relation to the judge who threw the trousers-wearing woman out of court. This is only one example of the many humorous lines Collins wove throughout her speech. I genuinely don’t understand why the stereotype of feminists not being funny arose, since, to quote Eve Ensler, “most women I know are really fucking funny.”

Because I wrote a paper about Second Wave Feminism a couple years ago in high school and used When Everything Changed for research, I knew a lot about many of the historical phenomena Collins discussed, like the flight attendants’ fight for fairness. However, I still learned many new things from her presentation, like the controversy that was sparked over a Barnard student who was living off-campus with her boyfriend.

During the Q&A session after the speech, Collins began discussing the ill-fated Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Since feminists’ interest in the ERA has been renewed in the past couple of years, I was surprised when Collins dismissed it. The ERA has the potential to completely revolutionize women’s status in the US, and got extremely close to doing so in the 1970s. Certainly Collins has every right to think that it’s not worth trying to get the ERA passed now, but I’m going to have to disagree with her.

Collins ended by acknowledging that there are a lot of challenges being made to women’s hard-earned status, but that we should rejoice in all of the gains we’ve made in the past 50 years. “We’ve created a platform for the younger generation to jump off of and fly wherever they want,” she said. “Think about it and enjoy it for a minute. Luxuriate in the things that we’ve achieved.” This is the absolute best advice I’ve heard in a while. We must be realistic about the political and social situation, but we must also celebrate the changes that have enabled us to have our current situation.

1 comment:

  1. It's too bad that a search on doesn't include comments, because I can't remember whether I ever commented here regarding sexual harassment. Your generation is very fortunate never to have experienced "unprotected sexual harassment." When I first entered the job market some 40 years ago, having a male co-worker make sexual advances at you was considered just a hazard of employment. Not only did we not have legal protection against sexual harassment, the term "sexual harassment" didn't even exist! When a male co-worker tried repeatedly to persuade me (and later, another female co-worker) to sleep with him, I considered his actions so normal that it actually didn't occur to me to complain to my boss. We can both thank the Second Generation feminist activists for changing that.