Monday, June 20, 2011

Musings: When Everything Changed

When Everything Changed Gail Collins
I read and loved Gail Collins' America's Women earlier this year, so very quickly decided to follow up with its companion volume, When Everything Changed:  The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present.  The title is pretty self-explanatory, so I won't go into any more detail about the book's premise.

This book is very similar to America's Women in set-up.  A lot of information is thrown at you- names, dates, organizations, etc.  It can be overwhelming, but Collins has a natural and engaging way of writing and never made me feel like I was about to drown in a sea of feminist knowledge.  Its effect on me was similar to its predecessor, too, in that now that I've been introduced to some people so briefly in this book, I want to learn more about them!  What saddens me is that so many of the women mentioned here, the movers and shakers of the movement, were alive while I was in high school (and many are still alive now), but we never, ever learned about them.  While I had some knowledge of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Jane Addams and many of the big names in America's Women, almost everyone in this book, with the exception of a few, was unknown to me.  Perhaps because the history was too immediate back in the late 90s, but I do remember covering the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War and the Civil Rights movement, so I'm upset that there was no room in there for women's rights.

One thing that made a lot of sense to me in this book, but that I had never considered before, was that the women's movement was tied in very closely with the civil rights movement.  The most interesting chapter in this book for me was the one on the Civil Rights movement and the way African-American men treated African-American women in the struggle.  Women in the movement worked just as hard as men did, and often faced just as much brutality.  Ella Baker, for example, was a brilliant mind who didn't believe in "top-down" leadership (and so never got along well with Martin Luther King), but wanted decisions to be reached by consensus, and for the struggle to not have one leader, but many.  She organized a group around this idea, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and it was one of the first civil rights groups that openly welcomed white members.  She wasn't only fighting for civil rights of Blacks vs. whites- she wanted civil rights within the Black community.  Meaning, she wanted men to recognize women's accomplishments and for the community to rid itself of the class structure.  She was an amazing woman who worked towards her ideals and I'm so glad I learned about her in this book.  Even so, she was completely excluded from the proceedings in Washington, DC.  As was every other woman, including Rosa Parks.  There were only men invited to say or do anything.  One Black woman said, "There was always this united front in front of white America that we were supporting the brothers.  But part of my anger of racism was the anger of how black men treated black women and blamed it on racism."

Another one of my new heroes is Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine.  She was one of the first and most vocal opponents of Senator Joseph McCarthy (the one who accused everyone of being a Communist), and gave a damning speech against the man, earning her the respect of her fellow senators, one of whom said that if the speech had been made by a man, that man would be the next president.  But Smith was a woman and so she wasn't in the running.  She fought hard, and almost completely alone, for the Civil Rights act to include wording that made it illegal to discriminate against women.  She won that battle.

I also now have so much respect for women on the US Supreme Court.  Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman to win a nomination to the court, and who has been called the most important woman in American history.  I also love Ruth Ginsberg, who was so angry at the (male-dominated) court voting against a plaintiff in a discriminatory pay case (in 2007, very recently) that she wrote and shared her dissent in court, a rare occurrence.  "In our view, the Court does not comprehend, or is indifferent to, the insidious way in which women can be victims of pay discrimination."  She pointedly told the legislative branch to change the law as it currently stood, making it difficult for employees to bring action against former employers.  Congress actually complied in 2009, at her behest.  Good work, Ginsberg!

Not all powerful women were positive influences, however.  There was a woman named Anita Bryant in the 1970s who was a former Miss America runner-up and a spokesperson for the Florida Citrus Commission who suddenly decided that gay people were out to "freshen their ranks with our children" by using "money, drugs, alcohol, any means to get what they want."  Her bizarre rise to fame and disturbing ability to sway people to her side reminded me a lot of Jenny McCarthy, a former MTV host with zero scientific knowledge who has decided to tell American parents that vaccinations cause autism, regardless of evidence  (tons of evidence) to the contrary.  I have a feeling I'd hate Anita Bryant as much as I currently hate Jenny McCarthy.

Collins also describes how the women's movement and women's empowerment inevitably led to less respect for schoolteachers and housewives.  If a woman could be anything, why would she be a teacher?  And who would choose to be a housewife when the whole world was open to her?  Not surprisingly, a lot of housewives were actually against the women's movement because of the way it denounced and diminished their roles.  This part of the book was also so interesting for me to read, as I had never made that connection before between schoolteachers and the women's movement, and now I can see that part of the reason that American schooling has been on a decline is because the very intelligent women aren't motivated to go into teaching any more, with so many other career opportunities available to them.

I know this review is too long, but I was so enthralled by these women's stories, and their insistence on giving women such equality in the country now that my generation doesn't seem to even realize the glass ceiling might still exist.  Collins makes clear that the battle isn't over.  Yes, women have achieved so much in the past fifty years or so, but we still don't know how to balance work and life, and the government seems unlikely to help us figure it out.

I didn't love this book as much as America's Women, but I think that's only because I read it so soon after.  The first chapter or two were very similar to the last few chapters of America's Women.  And while I appreciated all the first-person accounts in this volume, there were just so many of them that I got confused by who was whom and why they were chosen to be included in this book.  That said, though, the book was fascinating and inspiring and I recommend reading it just as much as I did America's Women.


  1. Ohhhh: I found everything you talked about fascinating, and I enjoyed American Women, so now this is on my TBR list!

    Also, that stuff about the Civil Rights movement makes me SO mad. I've had another book on my TBR list for ages: Freedom’s Daughters: the Unsung Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement from 1830 to 1970 by Lynne Olson. I need to get to it!

  2. No such thing as too long a review if you ask me :P Especially if it's as interesting as this! I really need to read Gail Collins. Most of my reading on the history of feminism is from a European perspective, so it would be fascinating to know more about what happened in American - especially in the context of the Civil Rights movement.

  3. I like the strong women, not other women..not so much. I did not know Jenny M said that. Arghhh

  4. Eva - It's so good! I'd definitely wait a little bit if you've recently read America's Women, but it's such a fascinating book. I didn't love all the random first-person accounts, but I loved the book's entire premise.

    Ana - Yes, I want to do the opposite, switch to the European take for a bit!

    Blodeuedd - Yeah, she sucks.

  5. Brilliant review! I think this will be one of my summer real book reads. I am very curious to know more about Ella Fisher. One of my personal heroes is Sojourner Truth, the escaped slave who fought for abolition and women's suffrage alongside Fredrick Douglass and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

    Jenny McCarthy was far more likeable when she was on Singled Out. She has done so much damage and put out so much misinformation to confuse and frighten young parents on vaccination. Thanks in part to her spurious claims, vaccination levels across the country are falling and diseases like measles are regaining a foothold in the US population.

  6. This was an excellent review, Aarti, that got at all the salient points of the book. I also think I would find this one interesting, and since I didn't learn much about any of these people in high-school, it would probably be a real eye-opener and give me a much needed education.

    I think the sections on the racism dealing with African-American women would be really interesting, as well as the sections on Anita Bryant.

    I also don't like Jenny McCarthy, and think that she is so misinformed. And it's not only that she is misinformed, but that she is going around misinforming other parents and putting their children's health at risk. I know someone in real life like this, and it irritates me beyond belief. If she wants to practice ignorant behavior, that is one thing, but to preach it to other parents is just irresponsible.

  7. This sounds fascinating! I really want to read both American Women and this!

  8. Thanks - great review of what seems to be a fascinating book!

  9. Sudha - Absolutely! I think your feminist heart would love it. Ella Fisher is definitely someone I want to know more about, so I will be looking into the book Eva suggested above.
    I'm glad that the blog allows you to get out the message to even more people about the vaccine thing :-)

    Zibilee - Yes, it's a tragedy we don't learn more about these things in school. I hope that's changed now. I completely agree with you on Jenny McCarthy. She is just ridiculous, and is using her (totally undeserved) celebrity for horrible things.

    Amy - I think you'd really love it, too!

    Katherine - I'm glad you enjoyed it! Thanks for commenting.

  10. I read this review about a hour ago and practically ran to the library to get my hands on it! What a thoughtful review, Aarti! I can't wait to start reading it.

  11. Oh, I'm so glad, Vasilly! I think you'll really enjoy it, based on the discussions we've had about race and gender roles previously :-)

  12. Nah-I read American's Women in late 2008, so it's been awhile. :)

  13. It's shocking that this stuff isn't taught in schools. I did take a women's studies class in college but nothing remotely modern feminist was ever mentioned anywhere else. It's sad that people still feel the need to gloss over the injustice that goes on.

  14. This sounds like a really interesting book. So much of this happened within my lifetime, yet I'm not aware of much of it. Thanks for sharing your review!

  15. I really want to read this at some point! It sounds really interesting and this was a really good review to peek my interest further!


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