The Real Secret of Feminism

Gail Collins reveals who actually made change happen.

Do you have a daughter who thinks feminists are dowdy man-haters who don’t shave their legs? A single friend who blames the women’s movement for her lack of a husband or children—or a married one who thinks it’s Gloria Steinem’s fault that she has to earn a living? I’m guessing that, unlike me, you don’t know any radical feminist activists from the 1970s who feel they’ve made virtually no difference in American women’s lives—but you may well know women like a writer acquaintance of mine who confessed, a few years ago, that she’d rather not fly in a plane with a female pilot.

All of these women—and comparable men—need very much for you to make them a holiday gift of Gail Collins’ exhilarating, accessible, and inspiring saga of women’s progress to equality over the last 50 years. Part social history, part reportage based on wide-ranging interviews conducted by Collins and a busy team of researchers, When Everything Changed fills a major gap on the big shelf of books about modern feminism. Crammed with works for specialists, scholars, activists, and enthusiasts, that shelf has lacked, up until now, one book that captures the sweep of the whole story for the general reader.

If there’s one word to sum up the startling changes Collins recounts, it may well be “pants.” “Do you appreciate you’re in a courtroom in slacks,” magistrate Edward di Caiazzo thundered at Lois Rabinowitz, an 18-year-old secretary who showed up before him in Manhattan traffic court to pay a ticket in the summer of 1960. The judge sent her home to put on a skirt and told the press, “I get excited about this because I hold womanhood on a high plane and it hurts my sensibilities to see women tearing themselves down from this pedestal.” (To Lois’ husband he was more forthright: “[S]tart now and clamp down a little or it will be too late.”)

Respectability, subservience, and rigidly enforced gender differences—to say nothing of the discomfort of girdles and garter belts and the general difficulty of moving about in full ladylike regalia—were all bound up together in a way that, in 1960, seemed immutable. In 1960, women were treated like children in many more crucial ways than being told what to wear by officious men. Job discrimination was both legal and rampant, and so were the tiny quotas—or outright bans—on women in law and medical schools. Unless they happened to be congressmen’s widows, women played almost no role in government. Women needed their husbands’ permission to start a business, get a credit card, or even rent an apartment as a separated spouse. In some states, women were barred from serving on juries. (After all, as Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren was advised in a memo from his clerk, letting women serve “may encourage lax performance of their domestic duties.”) Marital rape? Legal. Sports for girls? Forget it. That women were the weaker, dumber, more boring sex was a given.

This elaborate structure of law and custom had been in place seemingly forever. And yet within a few decades it was shattered so completely that young women today can be forgiven for thinking it sounds like some science-fiction dystopia. Collins does a very good job of presenting the underlying economic and social conditions that let the women’s movement take off—rising prosperity, home appliances, the influx of women into the workforce during the 1950s and ‘60s, the pill, the civil rights and anti-war movements. She reminds us of the frustrations that bubbled just under the surface: “I was hanging clothes on the line with tears just streaming down my face,” recalled a rancher’s wife and mother of three.

But what really excites Collins, and what will give many readers a jolt, is the collective and individual heroism of the women who made it happen. When Everything Changed captures better than any other book I’ve read the daring, the brio, the intoxicating release of powerful creative energies that began in the 1960s and exploded in the early 1970s. “We were totally confident we were making history,” said Muriel Fox of the early days of NOW, and Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem, Robin Morgan, and other famous activists get their predictable dues. But so do forgotten figures like Esther Peterson, the much-thwarted head of the Women’s Bureau in JFK’s Department of Labor, who organized the president’s Commission on the Status of Women.

Peterson, who believed in protective laws for women workers, intended to use the commission to muffle supporters of the ERA; instead, it produced a network of proto-feminists that would have lasting impact. In another of history’s little jokes, Rep. Martha Griffiths, the only lawyer among the very small female contingent in Congress, shrewdly managed to keep women in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, where they had been inserted as a poison pill, to much hilarity, by the racist Rep. Howard Smith of Virginia.

The best stories, though, are those of ordinary women. The stereotype of feminism is that it was only of interest to educated middle-class whites, but Collins shows that some of the most important battles were fought by, and benefited, working-class women. Lorena Weeks, a Georgia phone-company clerk, battled Southern Bell for years to get a much higher-paying and more interesting job testing equipment. (“The man is the breadwinner in the family and women just don’t need this type of job,” the head of her union told her.) Her victory in Weeks v. Southern Bell is why there are women in good blue-collar jobs today.

Collins skillfully conveys how wide, and how deep, the women’s movement and its ripple effects have been. She makes important connections, for instance, between the women’s movement and major civil rights figures like Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, and Ella Baker, who are not usually discussed in this light. But as the book goes into the 1980s, the arc of the narrative takes a downward turn. The movement culture dissipates, the ERA is defeated (Collins gives Phyllis Schlafly all the credit for that dubious achievement), the sour economy pushes into the workforce women who don’t want to be there. Soon feminism is popularly understood as professional women trying to “have it all”—and, before you know it, it’s the 1990s and women are, maybe, resigned to “settling for less.” And that is where many still are today.

So what happened? Why didn’t the women’s revolution more completely remake the way we live? Collins’ focus on individual women as agents of change makes it hard for her to grapple with this question in an analytical way. She points to the difficulties of combining paid work with motherhood, the inflexibility of the work place, the resistance of many men to genuine equality in the home. The backlash in the media gets a mention—remember the famous 1986 Newsweek story warning educated women that their chances of marrying after 35 were comparable to being killed by a terrorist?—and probably should have gotten more space, when you consider how many times the press has announced the death of feminism and the swamp of misogyny that is talk radio and pop culture.

But there’s another way to look at the sputtering progress of women. As the 1960s faded, feminism came up against the aggressive rise of the right, in which anti-feminist Christianity united with a broader hostility to “big government.” By appealing to American principles of fair play and individual merit at a historical moment of unusual openness to liberationist ideals, feminists were able to knock down formal, legal barriers in a very short period of time. But what they couldn’t do—and it wasn’t for lack of trying—was to enlarge the social-welfare state.

American women, alone among those in Western industrialized nations, have no paid maternity leave (let alone parental leave) or (as of yet) national health care. Care of dependent family members—children, the elderly, the sick—is women’s unpaid labor. Workers have few rights. Aid to poor families—including mothers and children temporarily poor due to divorce—is humiliating and stingy. Feminists have not even been able to eliminate the sexism embedded in the minimal welfare state we have: Unemployment insurance, the income tax, and social security are all structured around dated ideas about gender and work that disadvantage women. Moreover, as Republicans strengthened their hold on government, the legal gains women had made were undermined by judicial decisions, bureaucratic fiat, and simple lack of enforcement. Under George W. Bush, for example, the EEOC switched its focus from race and gender to religion.

Americans, including many women, might recoil from “government spending” and “bureaucracy” and scorn as anti-meritocratic proposals to use quotas to increase the number of women political candidates or corporate board members. Such measures, though, go far to explain why Scandinavia always comes out on top of those international surveys of women’s equality and why the United States is stuck in the middle of the pack. The struggle over health care reform, with or without the Stupak amendment banning federally funded abortion coverage, shows how difficult it will be to move up on the list.

The hidden hinge of Collins’ narrative might well have been the Comprehensive Child Development Act, which was, amazingly, passed by both houses in 1971 and established a federally funded system of quality child care. Nixon appeared to be undecided about whether to sign it—he actually had two speeches drawn up, one for acceptance, the other for rejection. But in the end, possibly to placate conservative critics of his trip to China, he vetoed it, slamming it as “radical” and “communal.” Subsequent attempts went nowhere, done in by the price tag and by furious rightwing and fundamentalist-Christian opposition. That was as close as American women ever got to affordable, accessible, quality childcare, a measure that would have greatly reduced the tensions, conflicts, and guilt that vex feminism today.

To end on a note that chimes with Collins’ can-do, optimistic spirit, you could say it’s amazing women have come as far as they have.