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Authors: Gail Collins

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When Everything Changed

BOOK: When Everything Changed
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Gail Collins

America’s Women: Four Hundred Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines

Scorpion Tongues: Gossip, Celebrity, and American Politics

The Millennium Book


Copyright © 2009 by Gail Collins

All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Little, Brown and Company

Hachette Book Group

237 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10017

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First eBook Edition: October 2009

Little, Brown and Company is a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

The Little, Brown name and logo are trademarks of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

ISBN: 978-0-316-07166-6

For Danny


Gail Collins




1. Repudiating Rosie

2. The Way We Lived

3. Housework


4. The Ice Cracks

5. What Happened?

6. Civil Rights

7. The Decline of the Double Standard

8. Women’s Liberation


9. Backlash

10. “You’re Gonna Make It After All”

11. Work and Children

12. The 1980s—Having It All

13. The 1990s—Settling for Less?

14. The New Millennium

15. Hillary and Sarah… and Tahita








n 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’s speeding ticket. Wearing neatly pressed slacks and a blouse, Lois hitched a ride to the courthouse with her husband of two weeks, Irving. In traffic court, Magistrate Edward D. Caiazzo was presiding.

When Lois approached the bench, the magistrate exploded in outrage. “Do you appreciate you’re in a courtroom in slacks?” he demanded, and sent her home to put on more appropriate clothes. Instead, the secretary gave the ticket to her husband, who managed to finish the transaction and pay the $10 fine—but not before the magistrate warned the newlywed Irving to “start now and clamp down a little or it’ll be too late.” When it was all over, Lois diplomatically told the courthouse reporters that “the way the judge thinks about women is very flattering” and promised to “go home and burn all my slacks.”

Since Caiazzo had no known record of tossing out male petitioners who showed up in overalls or sweatshirts, it was pretty clear that the showdown was really about women’s place in the world, not the dignity of traffic court. “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,” the magistrate told reporters. It was a convoluted expression of the classic view of sexual differences: women did not wear the pants in the family—or anywhere else, for that matter. In return, they were allowed to stand on a pedestal.


The idea that women were the weaker sex, meant to stay at home and tend to the children while the men took care of the outside world, was as old as Western civilization. The colonists who came over on the
believed that women were morally as well as intellectually and physically inferior, and that they should be married off as early as possible so their husbands could keep them on the straight and narrow. Their ministers enjoyed quoting St. Paul, who had urged the Corinthians to “Let your women keep silence in the churches…. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home.” But it was occasionally difficult to wring the proper degree of deference out of women who had crossed the ocean in small boats, helped carve settlements out of the wilderness, and spent their days alone in isolated farmhouses surrounded by increasingly ticked-off Indians.
One early settler wrote
with some irritation that his sister was “not so humble and heavenly as is desired.”

The colonial farmwife actually enjoyed considerable status within her family, because she manufactured many of the things her husband and children needed to survive and contributed greatly to the family fortunes. (
One New England Quaker
remembered her colonial grandmother being busy with “candle making, soap making, butter and cheese making, spinning, weaving, dyeing, and of course all the knitting and sewing and dressmaking and tailoring and probably the shoemaking and the millinery” for her husband and fourteen children.) But in the nineteenth century, the industrial revolution kicked in, and families began moving to cities. The middle-class housewife stopped spinning thread and making candles, and instead focused her considerable energies on household duties that had been given short shrift in the countryside: nurturing her children like tender little sprouts, cleaning, and cooking effortful dinners. It was all very important, everyone agreed. (And very difficult, considering that making a simple cake before the invention of the eggbeater required three-quarters of an hour of hand beating.) But it did not create wealth, and America was a society that had trouble taking anyone without an economic role seriously.

To raise their stature, women were given the morality franchise. Middle-class society, with women’s eager cooperation, placed them on that pedestal. (It was a good metaphor—they got higher status but precious little room to maneuver.) If colonial women were thought to be rather lax and lascivious by nature, in need of correction by their fathers and husbands, Victorian women were elevated as the moral guardians of their families. Men, who used to have that job, could hardly afford to focus on virtue when they had to wring out a living in the dog-eat-dog marketplace. Their wives were going to have to be good enough for both of them. Women were supposed to protect that goodness by staying far away from the outside world of business and politics. “
Our men are sufficiently money-making
. Let us keep our women and children from the contagion as long as possible,” wrote Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of the hugely popular
Godey’s Lady’s Book.

This new feminine portfolio was both empowering and humiliating. A woman’s impulse toward goodness was seen as instinctual, a God-given gift in a being who was still regarded as none too bright and weak in the face of the terrors of the outside world. “
She reigns in the heart
…. The household altar is her place of worship and service,” said Dr. Charles Meigs in a famous lecture to nineteenth-century male gynecology students. “She has a head almost too small for intellect and just big enough for love.”

The central point in the Western vision of sexual differences was that a woman’s place was in the home, leaving men to run everything that went on outside the front door. Men provided and protected; women served and deferred. It was an ancient and extremely durable theory but riddled with holes. For one thing, it ignored the problem of what happened to these dependent creatures if their husbands failed to live up to their end of the bargain by dying, taking to drink, or abandoning the family. (
Ladies’ Magazine,
a popular periodical
in the early nineteenth century, helpfully recommended that if a wife felt her husband was in danger of decamping, she should win him back with “increased anxiety to please.”) And, of course, the idea that women were meant to work only within their own homes was never applied to large chunks of the population.
After the Civil War
, ex-slaves who wanted to take care of their families full-time were hounded into domestic service or fieldwork amid white denunciation of black female “loaferism.” Most rural farmwives had to labor in the fields with their husbands rather than presiding over the hearth, and many urban women, black and white, had to earn wages to help feed their families.

But for the middle class, the rule about women’s place endured. Remarkable women might, on occasion, merge marriage, motherhood, and work, or carve out a career for themselves in traditionally male occupations. But women who worked as doctors, architects, and politicians were always the rare exceptions, never the precursors of change. They were depicted in the media as strange mutations—“female physician” or “lawyer and grandmother”—whose achievements could never be mentioned except in the context of their femaleness.
A 1960 story in the
New York Times
about Peggy Keenan, a mine operator in South Dakota, was headlined “Feminine Fashion Has a Place in the Mine.”
When Betty Lou Raskin
, a member of the Society of Plastics Engineers, wrote an article for the
New York Times Magazine
on the shortage of young scientists, the editors’ subhead announced: “A Lady Chemist Argues That the Answer Is to Tap Female Brainpower.”


In 1960, when our story begins, although computers were still pretty much the stuff of science fiction, almost all the other things that make modern life feel modern—jet travel, television, nuclear terror—had arrived. But when it came to women, the age-old convictions were still intact. Everything from America’s legal system to its television programs reinforced the perception that women were, in almost every way, the weaker sex. They were not meant to compete with men, to act independently of men, to earn their own bread, or to have adventures on their own. While circumstances varied by state, many American women lived under laws that gave their husbands control of not only their property but also their earnings. They could not go into business without their husbands’ permission or get credit without male cosigners. Women were barred from serving on juries in some states. The rest made it either very difficult for women to serve or very easy for them to avoid serving. (No one questioned why a movie about a troubled jury was called
Twelve Angry Men.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren
was advised, in a memo from his clerk, that permitting women to serve “may encourage lax performance of their domestic duties.”

At work, employers routinely paid women less than men for doing the same jobs.
The National Office Managers Association
found that a third of the companies it surveyed had dual salaries as a matter of policy. Many employers cited the extremely convenient assumption that working women were either single and living with their parents or married and bringing in extra “pin money” to supplement their husbands’ earnings. Maria K., a single mother working in upstate New York, remembered objecting to the fact that men doing the same things she did “made twice as much,” and being told in response that “they had families to support.”

Given the assumption of male superiority in everything related to the world of work, the different pay scales made sense. So did simply refusing to hire women at all. (In 1961 there were 454 federal civil-service-job categories for college graduates, and more than 200 of them were restricted to male candidates.) To facilitate employers’ ability to discriminate, newspapers invariably divided their classified ads into


. Medical and law schools banned female students or limited their numbers to a handful per class. There was, for all practical purposes, a national consensus that women could not be airplane pilots, firefighters, television news anchors, carpenters, movie directors, or CEOs.

Then, suddenly, everything changed. The cherished convictions about women and what they could do were smashed in the lifetime of many of the women living today. It happened so fast that the revolution seemed to be over before either side could really find its way to the barricades. And although the transformation was imperfect and incomplete, it was still astonishing. A generation that was born into a world where women were decreed to have too many household chores to permit them to serve on juries, and where
a spokesman for NASA would say
that any “talk of an American spacewoman makes me sick to my stomach,” would come of age in a society where female astronauts and judges were routine. Parents who hoped for a child to carry on the family business, or for another doctor in the family, or for a kid to play ball with in the backyard at night, no longer drooped with disappointment when the new baby turned out to be a girl. It was the liberation that countless generations of American women had been waiting for, whether they knew it or not. And it happened in our time.

BOOK: When Everything Changed
3.61Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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