Book talk: *When Everything Changed*, by Gail Collins

Disclosures: I purchased this as an e-book to read on my Amazon Kindle. *Purchasing links in this review go through my Amazon Associates account.

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

Little, Brown and Company (2009), Hardcover/E-book (ISBN 0316059544 / 9780316059541)
Nonfiction (history/society), 480 pages

Opening Lines (from the Introduction): “On a steamy morning in the summer of 1960, Lois Rabinowitz, a 28-year-old secretary for an oil-company executive, unwittingly became the feature story of the day in New York City when she went down to traffic court to pay her boss’ speeding ticket. Wearing neatly pressed slacks and a blouse, Lois hitched a ride to the courthouse with her husband of two weeks, Irving.”

(from Chapter One): “In January 1960, Mademoiselle welcomed in a new decade for America’s young women by urging them to be…less boring. ‘Some of you dowear a cautious face,’ the editors admitted. ‘But are you really – cautious, unimaginative, determined to play it safe at any price?'”

Book description: When Everything Changed begins in 1960, when most American women had to get their husbands’ permission to apply for a credit card. It ends in 2008 with Hillary Clinton’s historic presidential campaign. This was a time of cataclysmic change, when, after four hundred years, expectations about the lives of American women were smashed in just a generation.

A comprehensive mix of oral history and Gail Collins’s keen research–covering politics, fashion, popular culture, economics, sex, families, and work–When Everything Changed is the definitive book on five crucial decades of progress. The enormous strides made since 1960 include the advent of the birth control pill, the end of “Help Wanted–Male” and “Help Wanted–Female” ads, and the lifting of quotas for women in admission to medical and law schools. Gail Collins describes what has happened in every realm of women’s lives, partly through the testimonies of both those who made history and those who simply made their way.

Comments: American society has changed at an amazing pace in the last fifty years, especially for women. In 1960, when Gail Collins begins the narrative of When Everything Changed, most white, middle-class women were married, stay-at-home mothers well before their thirtieth birthdays; they may have worked before they married, but their choices of acceptable careers were limited – sometimes by convention, sometimes by actual barriers to entry, including the law. It was more expected for poor women to work, even if they had children, but they were still primarily responsible for family and housekeeping as well. While the suffragists had succeeded in winning women the right to vote in 1920, progress for women in society essentially stalled after that. When it was proposed that non-discrimination on the basis of gender, as well as race, be added to the Civil Rights Act, it was essentially a joke aimed at derailing the law’s passage in the first place.

The Civil Rights Act passed anyway, and together with Title IX, the legal framework was put in place for women’s rights and opportunities to expand dramatically. And with that framework, women’s consciousness began to expand too, and they began to question and reshape the social framework as well…ultimately, by the early 21st century, bending some of it back toward where it started.

As Jill of Fizzy Thoughts noted in her review of When Everything Changed, it’s rather difficult to review this book fully, because it includes so much material. However, it’s a relatively fast and very engaging read (if I’d had more time to spend with it, I’d have finished it sooner). There are some topics and people on which I’d have liked to spend more time, but I don’t think Collins missed or shortchanged anything that really matters. The book was enlightening about so many things: the women in the civil-rights movement (whom the men wanted to keep in the background); the early triumph and ultimate defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment, and its role in the rise of modern-day conservative politics (by the way, did you know that around the same time Congress originally passed the ERA, they also approved national child-care legislation? I didn’t know it; if that had sustained some momentum, the lives of working moms could be so different); the perception of women as portrayed in popular culture, from That Girl to Mary Tyler Moore to Clair Huxtable, and reflected back as role models. Collins’ approach embodies the “personal is political” tenet of modern feminism; much of the story here is oral history, told through women’s experiences. While she spends time on plenty of prominent women – Gloria Steinem, Sandra Day O’Connor, Hillary Clinton – the stories of little-known women who also spent time in the trenches and lived out the changes are equally important here.

Collins is a reporter and columnist for The New York Times, and brings her journalist’s approach to the writing here – it’s very straightforward and direct, with plenty of references and endnotes. I read this on my Kindle, where the endnotes are actually links – it’s a much more efficient approach, and I definitely liked it better than flipping back to the end all the time.

Rating/Recommendation: 4/5

I’d highly recommend this for participants in the Women Unbound Reading Challenge – it’s an outstanding overview of the myriad changes American women have experienced over the last fifty years. I’d recommend it for women of my own generation – those of us who came of age in the late 1970s and 1980s – who may have grown up thinking that some things would be different by now, and are trying to figure out just what happened. I’d also recommend it for women of the generation after ours, who may not realize just how different a lot of things used to be. And I’d recommend it to enlightened men – and men who would like to be enlightened – as well, but only if they seemed interested in the first place.

Challenge Commitments
: Women Unbound (1 of 5), RYOB Challenge 2010 (1 of 20)

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  1. This sounds like a must read, Florinda. I was reading something the other day and noticed that it was a day in U.S. women's right to vote had been denied. I can't remember the exact date now, but it was only a few days ago. And then to think of the strides we've made in the last 50 years . . . It's mind blowing. Thank you for this great review.

  2. I'm glad you liked this one! I have the "prequel" by the same author called America's Women, so I hope it's as good as this one is!

  3. Wendy (Literary Feline) – Even though it's the first book I read and reviewed in 2010, I'd be very surprised if it's not on my Books of the Year list at the end of it. It's well worth reading.

    Aarti – I read America's Women a few years ago, pre-blog. It was good too, but it covers a lot more time than this one does, so I think I like this a little more because of the focus.

    Kathy (Bermudaonion) – I hope you get around to reading it soon!

  4. Wow! I didn't realize that wives need their husbands' permission to apply for credit cards. Sounds like a great overview. I agree. . .it's a perfect choice for the Women Unbound challenge.

  5. Amy – I actually remember that. Women couldn't get credit cards in their own names, but could use their husbands' if they signed the receipts as "Mrs. John Doe." Thank goodness that's gone away!

    Jill (Softdrink) – I absolutely agree, and I hope we can influence some more people to read it themselves :-).

  6. I bought this book for a 34 yr old friend of mine, but for one reason or another, kept it for myself. Even though I lived through this, it was a very interesting read to see how very much things have changed!

  7. Connie – I couldn't either, which is why I bought it for my Kindle :-).

    Janet – I lived through some of it, but I wasn't old enough to really get it (or to remember some of it now). I found it fascinating and enlightening.

  8. I starred this in my Google Reader way back when you published it. Your review inspired me to change my "Women Unbound" reading plans! I just finished the book myself and really enjoyed it. Thanks!

    Here's my review.