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Culture Watch

Book Review by Nichola D. Gutgold

The Amazing Journey of American Women From 1960 to the Present
By Gail Collins
Published by Little, Brown and Co; Hardcover; 471 pp., illustrated

A woman is turned away from paying her boss’s fine in traffic court because she is wearing slacks; upon her law school graduation a future Supreme Court judge is offered a job as a secretary. These experiences may have today's young woman who is free to make personal choices, including choice of wardrobe, and work in any field, checking the citations for verification. But what the reader — man or woman — soon realizes is that it isn’t that long ago, a little more than forty years, when women were treated as second class citizens just about everywhere in the United States.

Through engaging narrative, fashioned from an impressive number of interviews, Gail Collins’s rigorous survey of the progress of American women is at times tear-jerking (the son shouting ‘way to go, Mom’ at her medical school graduation), and accessible to all levels of readers from academics who study women to the older woman who lived through most of it. The author, Gail Collins, is a New York Times Op-Ed columnist, and the first woman to serve as editor of the Opinion Pages. She brings a steady, folksy persona to the writing and opens the book with an outstanding account of women’s political, cultural and social history.

Collins writes that, “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.” This optimistic, exciting premise sets up the three parts of the book.

Part I offers a brief history that begins in 1960 and describes the experience of people like Jo Freeman, who spent four years at Berkeley, realizing later that she “never even saw” let alone had, or “worse yet “even noticed the absence of female professors. Collins describes how women who expressed interest in careers outside the norm for women: teacher, secretary or nurse, were gently steered back into the realm of the possible by career counselors and well-meaning family members. When women did work, it was expected that they would quit upon marriage. They served mainly as well coiffed and dressed window dressing until a man would provide for them.

With stunning regularity women were turned away from every kind of public participation. There is no doubt, that the sixties in the United States was a stagnant place for women when they attempted to exercise a wide range of roles. The rhythms of a life focused on marriage and housework round out Part I and made clear: women stayed married no matter what and they performed a lot of housework.

In Part II, Collins describes “when everything changed.” She makes clear to the reader, however, that while women began to experience more opportunities at work; their lives became more complicated, not less. While feminism ushered in more opportunities for women, it didn’t solve what to do with the children when they were away at work or how to manage the household in the absence of a full time maid and cook. The burning question was did feminism fail? rings through Part II with richly mined stories from women who lived through this transformational period. She described the ad-hoc creation of the National Organization for Women, with quickly scribbled notes on napkins and $5.00 donations.

It is these stories, brought to life with interviews and exceptional detail that serve not only to entertain and keep the reader engaged, but to caution the next generation of women to keep pressing on, and to be appreciative of the hard won progress of women who have gone before. She points out that young women may consider many of these scenarios quaint, after all, they now make up approximately fifty percent of the students in law schools, but until they trace the steps of the women in the book, they cannot know the humiliation and difficulty that prior women endured before “everything changed.”

In Part III of the book, Collins urges the reader to consider the follow through of feminism. Tongue in cheek she describes the fashion trends of the 1980’s heavily shoulder-padded “super woman,” the “Mommy Track” and the emerging trend of men pitching in to share housework with their wives. She chronicles the Hillary-Sarah fascination of the American public and the late night television seam-bursting portrayals. Sympathetically she writes about Hillary Clinton’s significant contribution of getting the nation “used to the idea of a woman as a presidential candidate — of a woman as president.”

She ends the book where she began, with a story of a woman repudiated for her fashion choice — this time a New York City bus driver who refuses to wear slacks. And she sums up the progress of women from 1960 through today by noting that women have indeed changed their world and the world around them.

Nichola D. Gutgold is author of Almost Madam President: Why Hillary Clinton ‘won’ in 2008 (Lexington Books, 2009) as well as Seen and Heard: The Women of Television News and Paving the Way for Madam President.

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