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Discussion of Gail Collins' HOW EVERYTHING CHANGED

Updated on January 20, 2015

How women's roles have changed since 1960

Do you remember when the only women who worked outside the home were those who were either unmarried, childless or widowed, and the only jobs available to females were those of teacher, secretary, or nurse? If you do, you might also remember WHEN EVERYTHING CHANGED; you definitely would be able to identify with some of the scenarios documented and many of the women mentioned (Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Helen Gurley Brown, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Shirley Chisholm, etc.) in the book of the same name. If you don’t remember much of that (in other words, if you’re under 50 or so), read the book for a sobering look at how much the role of American women has changed and the many brave souls who brought us to this point.

WHEN EVERYTHING CHANGED chronicles the historic strides made by American women from the 1960s to the present. Those of us labeled with the now- oxymoronic (since some of us turn 65 this year) moniker “Baby Boomers” may not have recognized the initial ripples of change that began when we were in high school and college, but, looking back, there is no denying that we were the generation most impacted. When I chose English as my college major, I was well aware of the unwritten but clearly understood career choices (or lack thereof) for women. Fortunately, a positive student teaching experience in 1968 convinced me that I would be ok with one of those three choices. Of course, I began my teaching career totally convinced that as soon as I had a child, that career would be replaced by the one labeled “homemaker.” Forever. By the time my child had turned five years old in 1976, however, the “handwriting on the wall” that had kept women on the home front for so long had begun to fade, and I found myself eager to return to the teaching profession.

The opportunity for women “married, with children” to return to the work force was just the beginning. Suddenly, those who had been content with one car ( or one new car and one semi-jalopy) and one TV were now questioning how their family had ever survived on one paycheck. All of a sudden, they were able to purchase larger homes and take more vacations. Some of them even were able to rise to executive-level positions, although their pay scales still were not in the same strata as those of males in comparable positions. ( Note: Teaching was and to this day remains one of the few professions where men and women are on the same pay schedule.) Some women served in Congress and, ultimately, on the Supreme Court.

Dress codes that now seem prehistoric but actually were strictly enforced even in the 1960s finally were relaxing. At the beginning of WHEN EVERYTHING CHANGED, Collins tells the story of a secretary who, in 1960, showed up in slacks to pay a speeding ticket for her boss and was sent home by the magistrate with orders to change. Indeed, when I started teaching in 1968 it was considered totally inappropriate to wear slacks to school, although miniskirts seemed to be permissible. Walk through a school building today and count the number of women wearing any kind of skirt. In fact, teacher dress codes seem to have come full circle: some schools even sponsor days when, if a teacher contributes to a designated cause, he/she may wear jeans in the class room.

Collins also mentions the Model Moms on 1950s-era sitcoms like Father Knows Best, Ozzie and Harriet, and Leave it to Beaver. Those moms wore fashionable, tiny-waisted shirtwaist dresses and high heels and were perpetually cheerful. The appearance of Wonder Woman, Claire Huxtable, and Mary of the Mary Tyler Moore Show was evidence that the role and perception of women definitely were undergoing a change.

It’s true that not all of the road blocks facing women have been removed. Just a few days ago, in fact, I heard a report that claimed that of all recent hires, 90% were men. (Actually, I find that difficult to believe.) When the book was written, only 17% of both the House of Representatives and the Senate were women. Also, there are no female late-night talk show hosts. If you read Collins’ book, however, you might be amazed at all the progress that has been made since 1960. On a personal note, my own daughter, mother of a five-year-old and a seven-year-old, is a practicing attorney. For me, that pretty much says it all.

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