Talking with Gail Collins About the Women’s Rights Movement

by MARTHA ROSENBERG

New York Times columnist Gail Collins’ new history of the women’s rights movement in the 1960s, When Everything Changed, has just been published by Little Brown. I interviewed her about her book last week.

Rosenberg: Your new book, When Everything Changed (Little, Brown) covers the cascade of rights women won between 1964 and 1972 from equal pay and the right to their own credit rating to the right to wear pants and to be called by the honorific "MS." Why was this second women’s rights movement necessary fifty years after women won the right to vote?

Gail Collins: While the suffragists succeeded in getting the Nineteenth Amendment ratified in 1920, they also believed that women’s role should be at home as mothers and wives. Without the economic power of participating in the workplace and positions of influence in society, women’s status after getting the vote could really not change much.

Here in Chicago, suffragist Frances Willard is remembered for becoming the first Dean of Women of the Women’s College at Northwestern University in 1886. Yet her feminism and temperance stances sometimes put her on the wrong side of abolitionism.

Gail Collins: Certainly when women’s right to vote was not forthcoming after the Fourteenth Amendment some feminists were embittered. My book recounts the story of the women’s rights parade in Washington in 1913 in which the feminist leader Alice Paul, not wanting to alienate Southern sympathizers, ordered black suffragists to march at the back of the parade. Ida Wells-Barnett, the Chicago suffragist, waited on the side of the parade and when the white Illinois delegation passed by, joined and integrated it.

Recently Nona Willis Aronowitz, daughter of feminist writer Ellen Willis and Emma Bee Bernstein took the pulse of feminism on college campuses in their book, Girl drive: Criss-Crossing America, Redefining Feminism. They found that many young women were hostile to the term.

Gail Collins: That is no surprise. There have only been about three seconds in history when women weren’t hostile to the term, which was always linked to images of unattractive man-hating women in ugly shoes, though its precepts–equal rights and opportunities–were widely accepted. Even in the days of Sarah and Angelina Grimké, who were feminists and abolitionists in the 1830s, people were shocked when Angelina married the good looking abolitionist Theodore Weld. Even then the attitude was: you mean you can work for women’s rights and still land a handsome hunk?

College women and even women born since 1980 seem to lack appreciation for the rights that were won for them–and even awareness of what it was like for their mothers and grandmothers.

Gail Collins: I get uncomfortable with the idea of needing to be thanked. Working for an issue that you knew was right and knew was going to win was a lot of fun! The lives of women today are more complicated and lack those clearly marked lines. As far as not remembering what it was like, young people are not particularly comfortable focusing on a time when their rights or freedoms were not there.

You’ve shared in your columns in the New York Times about the experience of having breast cancer. In light of what seems an epidemic and the hormones women were encouraged to take which are now known to cause cancer, do you think it is another example of discrimination against women? That if men got breast cancer more would be done?

Gail Collins: You certainly can’t say that breast cancer doesn’t get its share of attention. Look how adamantly Congress took up the mammogram debate recently. The entry of women into the medical professions has also been remarkable. I don’t know much about the science or medicine involved though taking a lot of drugs can have its harmful side.

Recently, we’ve seen two governor’s wives engulfed in infidelity scandals, former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer’s wife Silda and South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford’s wife Jenny. Did these women handle the situation differently than they would have before everything changed?

Gail Collins: I think the Spitzer case marked the end of the days when the wife would stand next to her straying husband, looking brave. Mrs. Spitzer is a pretty formidable woman and if her disaster had happened about six months down the line we probably wouldn’t have seen her standing there either. But the bottom line in any marital crisis is always the question of whether you think your life would be better with or without him. From what Jenny Sanford has said, it’s pretty clear she’s decided happiness is going on her own and leaving her ex-husband to pick up the pieces of his mess. Silda Spitzer seems to feel she and her daughters are better off with Eliot in their lives, and I’m not prepared to second guess that decision.

When Everything Changed and America’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines, published in 2003, are playful but they are still history books– a subject that makes many eyes glaze over. How did you transform from editor of the Times Op-Ed page to history writer?

Gail Collins: As the year 2000 approached, the Times asked me to write an introduction for their Millennium issue and as I did the research I was astonished to realize the breadth of changes US women had undergone. In less than ten years, over 1000 years of dogma about women was reversed! Writing When Everything Changed gave me a chance to interview some of these women who did amazing things that are still having effects today.

MARTHA ROSENBERG can be reached at: martharosenberg@sbcglobal.net

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