Gail Collins joined the New York Times in 1995 as a member of the editorial board and later as an "Op-Ed" columnist. In 2001, she became the first woman to be appointed editor of the Times’s editorial page. At the beginning of 2007, she stepped down in order to finish her new book, When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present. She returned to the Times as a columnist in 2007.
ROSENBERG: Your book When Everything Changed covers the cascade of rights women won between 1964 and 1972—equal pay, the right to their own credit rating, the right to wear pants, and be called Ms. Why was this second women’s rights movement necessary 50 years after women won the right to vote?
COLLINS: While the suffragists succeeded in getting the Nineteenth Amendment ratified in 1920, they also believed that women’s roles should be at home as mothers and wives. Without the economic power of participating in the workplace and positions of influence in society, women’s status after getting the vote could not really change much.
Here in Chicago, suffragist Frances Willard is remembered for becoming the first Dean of Women of the Women’s College at Northwestern University in 1871. Yet her feminism and temperance stances sometimes put her at odds with the earlier abolition movement.
Certainly, when women’s right to vote was not forthcoming after the Fourteenth Amendment, some feminists were embittered. My book recounts the story of the women’s rights parade in Washington in 1913 in which the feminist leader Alice Paul, not wanting to alienate Southern sympathizers, ordered black suffragists to march at the back of the parade. Ida Wells-Barnett, the Chicago suffragist, waited on the side of the parade and, when the white Illinois delegation passed by, joined and integrated it.
Recently Nona Willis Aronowitz, daughter of feminist writer Ellen Willis, and Emma Bee Bernstein took the pulse of feminism on college campuses in their book, Girl Drive: Criss-Crossing America, Redefining Feminism. They found that many young women were hostile to the term feminism.
That is no surprise. There have only been about three seconds in history when women weren’t hostile to the term, which was always linked to images of unattractive man-hating women in ugly shoes, though its precepts—equal rights and opportunities—were widely accepted. Even in the days of Sarah and Angelina Grimké, who were feminists and abolitionists in the 1830s, people were shocked when Angelina married the good looking abolitionist Theodore Weld. Even then the attitude was: you mean you can work for women’s rights and still land a "handsome hunk?"
Working for an issue that you knew was right and knew was going to win was a lot of fun. The lives of women today are more complicated and lack those clearly marked lines. As far as not remembering what it was like, young people are not particularly comfortable focusing on a time when their rights or freedoms were not there.
Recently, we’ve seen two governor’s wives engulfed in infidelity scandals, former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer’s wife Silda and South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford’s wife Jenny. Did these women handle the situation differently than they would have before everything changed?
I think the Spitzer case marked the end of the days when the wife would stand next to her straying husband, looking brave. Silda Spitzer is a pretty formidable woman and if her disaster had happened about six months down the line, we probably wouldn’t have seen her standing there either. But the bottom line in any marital crisis is always the question of whether you think your life would be better with or without him. From what Jenny Sanford has said, it’s pretty clear she’s decided happiness is going on her own and leaving her ex-husband to pick up the pieces of his mess. Silda Spitzer seems to feel she and her daughters are better off with Eliot in their lives, and I’m not prepared to second guess that decision.
How did you transform from editor of the TimesOp-Ed page to history writer?
As the year 2000 approached, the Times asked me to write an introduction for their millennium issue and I was astonished to realize the breadth of changes U.S. women had undergone as I did the research. In less than ten years, over 1,000 years of dogma about women was reversed. Writing When Everything Changed gave me a chance to interview some of these women who did amazing things that are still having effects today.