Thursday, January 1, 2015

When Everything Changed

The title: When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present
The author: Gail Collins
Publication: Little, Brown and Company, 2009
Got it from: Seneca Falls Women's Rights Museum, 2014

Happy 2015!  What a great book to be starting the new year with.  I bought When Everything Changed last fall on a trip to Seneca Falls and could hardly put it down.  

There's so much women of my generation and younger take for granted.  Yet when this story opens in 1960, women weren't much further along than they had been in the nineteenth century. (Once upon a time, I used to think that 1960 was ancient history but - paradoxically - the older I get the closer in time it seems.)  Which is why I think every girl and woman from 8 to 80 should read this book: to learn about a time when women weren't allowed in certain bars, on certain planes and in a lot of workplaces.  There was once a time when women couldn't get their own credit cards without their husband's signature, or buy a house for themselves, or (gasp!) wear pants in public.  And then Women's Liberation happened, and everything changed.  As the author herself says, "Even people who were there don't actually remember what it was like."

What makes this book so engrossing is that Collins is able to seamlessly move from from describing the really big stories about landmark legal victories and big-name feminists like Betty Friedan to stories about ordinary women and their day-to-day lives, in their own words.  There is honestly never a dry or superfluous passage. It all feels important and fascinating.  Nor do white women hog all the limelight.  A sizeable portion of the book is devoted to the Civil Rights movement and how it helped pave the way for the Women's Liberation movement.  The profiles of the courageous African-American women who fought for both movements are some of the best parts of the book.  Out of all the women in the book, Ella Baker is by far my biggest hero.

Most of the book is devoted to what happened between 1964-1973.  As the author later admitted in an interview, everything after that has been an attempt to come to grips with the seismic shift of that short decade.  Some of the ways that things haven't changed are infuriating (as is the section on Phyllis Schlafly, who has arguably done more to destroy feminism than any woman in history).  Still, the story ends on a positive note: the U.S. has recently come close to having a female candidate run for president, and may very well soon have a woman in the White House.  Now that would be amazing.

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