No Slacks in the Office: Gail Collins and Lesley Stahl Relive the Birth of Feminism

With the release of When Everything Changed, Gail Collins’s new book, Lesley and Gail recount the amazing revolution of American women from 1960 to the present … from female-free airplane routes to Gloria Steinem’s reaction to Sarah Palin’s brand of feminism.

LESLEY: So, Gail Collins, thank you very much for joining us today to talk about your new book When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, which I have to say I loved and read and learned, because it’s about really the Women’s Movement from 1960 to today, which I obviously lived through; but there’s so much I didn’t know. Let me start by asking you a big question. This is the Women’s Movement – the movement for women’s equality. First question: Did we win? Have we achieved equality?

GAIL: We definitely won. I’m not quite sure I know exactly what equality is, so I’m not sure that I would be willing to go that far. But to look back, which it’s hard to do, I was talking to the people who’ve been there. You forget what it was actually like. And, for perspective, you really have to go back and look at, say, 1960. And it’s such a stunner on every possible level.

LESLEY: Give us some examples.

GAIL: My very favorite one, and it is not the most profound by any means, is the one that I start the book with: Lois Rabinowitz was a secretary in Manhattan and in the summer of 1960 made history, or at least headlines, when she was expelled from traffic court in Manhattan for attempting to pay a parking ticket while wearing slacks. And the judge went nuts. She was defaming the honor of the traffic court. And this was true, and so many women I’ve talked to who remembered back on those days, how awful it was. If you worked in the Post Office you had to wear a skirt. And it was extremely uncomfortable; extremely cold for some women. And just the right to wear sensible clothes was completely withheld.

LESLEY: Oh, right.

GAIL: And then there is the executive express, the plane flight United used to have from New York to Chicago every day, and it was men only; a woman could not buy a seat on the executive express – too bad if you wanted to go to Chicago at that point in time. And they would serve the men these big, huge steaks and cigars and the stewardesses were taught how to lean over and light the cigars and so on. And whenever I tell that story somebody says, “Well wasn’t that illegal?” Nothing was illegal back then. It was perfectly legal to say, “Well we don’t hire women for those jobs,” or as Newsweek used to say, “Women don’t write. They only research.”

LESLEY: I can remember being on a flight and the pilot came on, and it was a woman, and a bunch of men stood up and walked off the flight. And I know stories about people going to doctors, and if the doctor was a woman they turned around and walked out. And this isn’t just men walking out either. But when you say “we won,” you’re just saying that some of these things that you got people to remember seem ridiculous? Is that what you mean by “we won”?

GAIL: No, I mean that in 1960 the vision of women’s limitations of the proper role for women in society was not at bottom much different than it was, say, in 1200 or 1600, but there was the same vision of what women were, and what women could do, that existed throughout Western civilization. And it changed in my lifetime and your lifetime, Lesley, in this tiny sliver of time that we live in. And that knocks me out every time I think about it. Women being born today are going to have all kinds of problems, many of them having to do with trying to balance family and career, I will tell you, but that kind of sense of limitations that existed throughout civilization and society just is not there for them. And that’s so huge.

LESLEY: And is it irreversible?

GAIL: I think it is. I think it is, in part, because of the way the economy has changed. You know, young women now presume that they will work their entire lives, and they will probably work their entire lives, and even if they don’t want to they will work their entire lives, because it’s almost impossible to have a family, a middle-class lifestyle, on one paycheck anymore.

LESLEY: As I said, I learned so many things and some of them were big, and some of them were small. Here’s a small one. You write about the famous bra-burning rally at the Miss America contest in 1968, and then you tell us that no bras were burned?

GAIL: No bras were burned.

LESLEY: No! Is that really … I circled and starred that when I read it.

GAIL: Oh, and it was a bitter thing for the women when they went over that again and again and again and again and again. But it was actually …I think there was actually a spot that they might burn foundation undergarments that were constricting. But there was a fire law in Atlantic City that made that impossible. So nothing was burned. But one of the women who was very sympathetic to the cause, who worked at the Post, was under the impression that there was going to be some kind of a burning thing and she wrote a story saying, “Well we’ve heard about draft-card burning, how about a bra burning?” And that just sort of took off and could not be stopped no matter how many women, how many times, said nothing was burned. But nothing was burned.

LESLEY: But here’s the part of the book where I learned the most, and as you say, I lived through this, but didn’t know about how much women had spearheaded the Civil Rights movement in the South. How many black women put themselves on the line, and as you recount, over and over with many different women. Because you talk about them as individuals (which is what’s so delicious about the book), we get to know so many individual women, how brave and fearless they were – so much more than the men.

GAIL: And no one really … there was a presumption that this was because the men were in more danger, since it was much more likely that men would be shot or beaten or whatever if they stood up, than women. But the people who have studied the movement say that never really came up when you asked the women, that there were some theories it was because women were more in touch with the community and had a stronger sense of community. But nobody really knows. That just knocks me out. It’s always knocked me out in our history when you read about women who just stand up against ridiculous odds, often with nobody thinking it’s a good idea. Nobody’s saying, “You go, girl. What a great thing.” Just stand up and say, “No, I’m not going to go there anymore.”

LESLEY: Well, you write that the women were beaten.

GAIL: Yes. The women were beaten and had their houses burned down, and had their living room windows shot out, and had their sons arrested and beaten, had their property lost, their businesses ruined, were expelled from their homes if they were sharecroppers. They suffered greatly, and they had a lot to lose on every front.

LESLEY: And then you tell us that after the women spearheaded and started the Civil Rights movement and put themselves out there to face enormous danger, as you just said, for themselves and their families, when it came time to take the bows, the men took over and didn’t acknowledge the women, they never acknowledged the part the women had played.

GAIL: It’s true, and there is a famous moment when Rosa Parks gets out of jail and there’s a huge, huge rally and people waiting for her at the church, and the whole community is there, and she walks in and the ministers who are running the meeting say to her, “You’ve already done enough. We’ll do all the talking. You sit down.” And she never said a word.

LESLEY: And when Martin Luther King had his huge Civil Rights march in 1968 – was it ‘68?

GAIL: Rosa Parks walked with the wives. All the women walked with the wives.

LESLEY: And none of the women were invited to speak.

GAIL: No. Not a single woman was allowed to speak. They kept saying, “Well we’re letting Marian Anderson sing.”

LESLEY: But this part of the book is eye-opening, and it reminded me of a story I think I read in your newspaper, in The New York Times, about how the women in Iran are the ones who are out front taking all the most courageous steps, right now, or at least in this recent – what did you call it?

GAIL:
A mini-revolution that may or may not have fizzled.

LESLEY: Right.

GAIL: Yes, and that’s part of the great irony, the idea that Western civilization always had that women were these shy creatures, who have to be protected all the time. And yet you see them all over the world just standing up. I mean, the things that women do just boggle my mind; just standing up to everybody facing terrible consequences. In the third world, women who have been beaten and raped are just standing up and going to court and demanding their rights – stuff guys would never do. It’s just so inspiring.

LESLEY: Now, did you decide to write the book because of the attitudes of young women today – which seem to be a little bit dismissive of feminism – and what all the women you write about went through?

GAIL: There’s something about that word “feminism,” I must say, that’s always been a problem. This is not just our generation. Even back in the ’20s women were writing that there was something about the word “feminism” that suggested bad shoes or something. So I’m not totally convinced that just because young women don’t want to be called feminist that that means they’re not sympathetic to female solidarity, or interested in their own history. But it is true that everybody in America’s sense of history is not what it might be. But they have their own stories and the fact that they grow into the world, that they come into the world, thinking that, just as a matter of fact, “Well of course I’m going to go to work, and of course I’m going to do whatever I think I want to do, and of course if I want to be a doctor I’m going to be a doctor, and of course if I want to be an astronaut I’ll be an astronaut.” The fact that they’re so confident that these things will happen, or can happen, for them is not entirely a bad thing. I know it’s hard not to think that they’re understanding what everybody went through to get them there. But I think it’s sort of neat.

LESLEY: Yes it is. It’s wonderful, particularly given what you and I went through. But you never tell in your book your own story, and so let’s find out. Did you start at The New York Times, and did you have a difficult time as a woman, whether it was at the Times or wherever it was?

GAIL: No. You know, off and on when I do events people get up and basically ask me some version of, “Tell us what you went through.” The truth is, I came into a window that was opened up by women who were about three minutes older than me, about three minutes more veteran than me, women who never got rewards for the things that they did, for the suits that they filed, and for the fights that they took on. And they did it and I got to take advantage of it, and I totally stood on their shoulders and, you know, if I could spend the rest of my life telling their stories I would be really thrilled.

LESLEY: Now, I know that there was a suit brought against The New York Times.

GAIL: The women who brought that suit were in general not the women who benefited from it. When the suit was filed and there was a sense on the part of the Times that they really did need to have a lot more women editors, they tended to hire them from outside.

LESLEY: Oh, you’re kidding. This was around 1972?

GAIL: Yes, right. And I think that’s not unusual that you do these things and you fight these fights. I remember one of my first jobs was in Connecticut, and I started a news service that was in the capital. And in the capital in Connecticut there was this dreadful room called the Hawaiian Room, which was in the attic, and it had steam pipes and there were these horrible plastic leis draped over the steam pipes, which was the Hawaiian end of the whole thing. But it was where the lobbyists and the legislators went to drink, and reporters could go in, too; but it was men only. And one of the radio reporters, a woman radio reporter, filed some kind of complaint and the legislators’ response was instantly to bar all reporters from the Hawaiian Room. And the male reporters just really were so angry at her for doing that. You look back and say, “Why didn’t I embrace her,” and I just sort of thought, “Wow, who would want to go to a Hawaiian Room?” I totally did not get it at all. I just didn’t get it. You know, when I went to college we weren’t allowed to wear slacks out of the dormitory, except if you were going bowling. And later on, the younger women had demonstrations and they all went out in slacks and a lot of them had picket signs, and they got rid of the law. But when I was there I just signed out to go bowling every night. I was absolutely not one of the great cultural heroines of my time, I guarantee you.

LESLEY: Well when did you start? What year was your first job at a newspaper?

GAIL: Well, 1970 I got out of college and I was —

LESLEY: That was right in the throes of everything.

GAIL: Yes, yes.

LESLEY: Well, I’ll tell you my little story, which I always say that even though I was working through the Women’s Liberation movement, I was hired at CBS in 1972, which was the year that The New York Times women filed their suit against discrimination.

There was a little incident, and it happened two years later, in ‘74. I was going to anchor on election night, the first time a woman was going to do that, and I was very nervous. My boss brought me around when they were building the set to show me that it was cozy and wonderful, and he said, “You shouldn’t be nervous because you’ll be in a little circle.” And he said, “Walter will be sitting right there.” And in front of his place it said “Cronkite.” And he said, “Roger will be there,” and it said “Mudd.” And, “Mike will be there.” It said “Wallace.” And he said, “You’ll be there.” And it said “Female.”

GAIL: Oh, my gosh.

LESLEY: It said “Female.” And my boss almost had a heart attack, he was so mortified and embarrassed. But my reaction in those days was to laugh, because the truth is – and I think all my friends my age who came in to work, and it’s not just journalism, I would say this anywhere – we were just so thrilled that they let us in the door, and that we were allowed to cover politics, or allowed to do an operation, or allowed to try a case in a courtroom. In those first early days it was just so exciting that they let us in the door – and that was the feeling then.

GAIL: Some men and women did say that. Yes. Absolutely.

LESLEY: And as you say, the women today just walk in the door and expect that they have an even shot with anybody.

GAIL: Yes. And that’s not something to be irritated by. We should be really happy about that.

LESLEY: Yes.

GAIL: We could be secretly, slightly irritated if they don’t think, “Wow. What wonderful things the last did.” But it’s really great. It’s fantastic.

LESLEY: It is. Now, you say at one point in the book – and I love this, I underlined it – you say that the pill defined the 20th Century. Not the computer; not television; but the pill. Explain that.

GAIL: Well, you know, women always used birth control. They were never un-smart about attempting to limit pregnancies. But before the pill all the methods of birth control were great if your goal was to have, say, three kids rather than 12 kids. But not at all great if your goal was to not be pregnant at all at this point in time. Women were more defined by the fact that they became pregnant without being able to control it, that the idea that biology was destiny, that women were the victims and the captives of their bodies – all that stuff had to do with their inability to control pregnancy. And once that went away, once again, everything changed. Once you knew that you could be sure you weren’t going to get pregnant, you could go to law school, you could go to medical school, you could plan out a career that would involve some kind of ten-year commitment to your work, before you wanted to think about family. You could get married and do all these things; or you could have an active sex life and do all these things. None of that was possible before – it changed women’s perspective entirely.

LESLEY: And do you think we would have had the Women’s Revolution without the pill?

GAIL: I find it hard to imagine. You’d have to be taking the veil, for heaven’s sake. You know without any more reliable means of birth control than those that went before, boy it would be hard. We’d certainly be in a difference place than we were in 1960, but it wouldn’t be like today at all.

LESLEY: You know, when I was in college I took a seminar in history and the question for the whole seminar was, what’s more important historically? Individuals – do they make the biggest difference? Or technological change? And when you think about the pill, you might be inclined to think technological change, because the heroes come after the technology.

GAIL: Well, you know, to think that it’s the heroes is such a diss to the women who went before. If it was only a matter of having great leaders, don’t you think that Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton would have managed this thing? And all the women who went out in pioneer wagons, and had snakes falling from the ceilings of their cabins, and were climbing up mountains with their babies on their backs – all this stuff women have done in our history – to think that those women could not have managed this if it was just a matter of having brave souls and good leaders is just ridiculous.

LESLEY: You write, after we learn all these wonderful stories about individuals who were the pioneers, or the ones whose shoulders we stand on, as you say, about both Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, both of whom you say are heirs to the Women’s Movement. Now, I’m sure Hillary would embrace that idea.

GAIL: I wrote that once. You know, I wrote that about Sarah Palin, that she was an heir to the Women’s Movement.

LESLEY: And?

GAIL: And Gloria Steinem called me and said, “All right, if that’s true I’m shooting myself right now.”

LESLEY: But you make a wonderful case for it.

GAIL: I think she’s a woman who, as far as I can tell, has never been constrained by her gender. She has been constrained by a lot of other things, has some really weird ideas, has done things that I find kind of horrific, but she went right out and went after what she wanted. And I never got a sense that she had any sense of, “Oh, I can’t do that because I’m a girl,” ever.

LESLEY: Do you think that she would come on television and say, “Look, I owe it all to the Women’s Movement”?

GAIL: I don’t know, if you put it that way.

LESLEY: Should she recognize that?

GAIL: But I do think she has said, and expressed some kind of solidarity with the Women’s Movement mostly, interestingly, in terms of Title IX, in terms of her ability to play sports when she was in school, which is a huge and important thing. And she certainly has acknowledged that many times.

LESLEY: There have been a couple of studies, or polls, or surveys recently that really strike me as it relates to the so-called gains women have made. And one was a survey saying women are not happy, women are less happy than they used to be. Have you seen that one?

GAIL: Yes. You know, whenever I hear that I remember Ellen Goodman wrote a column back in the ’70s, and I remember reading it when I was, I think, in college, and really thinking it was amazing, saying, “You know, it’s really interesting, all of my women friends are happy and all my men friends are unhappy.

I think the reason is that all my men friends grew up thinking they were going to be president of the United States, but now they’re, like, teaching college. And all my women friends grew up thinking they were going to be a wife and maybe work part time at a store. And now they’re all teaching college. So they’re really happy and the men are really unhappy.” And I think that really actually does say something. You know, I don’t think women are unhappy in the sense of grief and misery, and a sense of deprivation. They’re unhappy in the sense of feeling kind of stressed all the time, and are feeling that they haven’t achieved all the things they wanted to achieve. It’s because they have such high expectations, in part, and because their lives are so completely overfilled, that they’re dissatisfied. I don’t think it’s a matter that they feel … I’ve often heard, in fact, that women who clock in as being the unhappiest are the women with children. Now, women with children aren’t unhappy about having children. They wouldn’t say, “Oh, my gosh, I wish I didn’t have these children.” But it’s just that because they have children their lives are so completely jammed that every day they feel they haven’t done as many things as they should have.

LESLEY: So now we’re being raised, we girls are being raised to think we can be president, and when we’re only teaching high school, then we’re having the same —

GAIL: Or teaching college.

LESLEY: Right – the same feelings that Ellen Goodman wrote about. I love that. I think that’s right. I do.

GAIL: I think that’s really the case. She’s so smart.

LESLEY: She is so smart. There’s still a wage gap.

GAIL: Yes.

LESLEY: I know that there have been some articles recently about how women are actually doing better in the recession than men, and so forth. But there is still a wage gap. Women still earn 70 cents on the dollar compared to men.

GAIL: There is. You know, I’m sure part of it has to do with discrimination, although what part I have no idea. And part of it probably has to do with gender things, like women being less willing to ask for raises than men, which would call out for some kind of continual training or something. But the big, humongous, whopping, overwhelming reason, I believe, that women make so much less than men is because women have to go in and out of the workforce to take care of children. It’s basically because society has never answered the question of: If everybody is going to work, who takes care of the kids? And that’s the reason, to me, the main reason that women make less money than men do.

LESLEY: Yes, I’m sure that’s right. I’m almost done, but I want everyone who’s listening and reading to know how much fun this book is. I loved reading it.

GAIL: Thank you.

LESLEY: I know we talked about bra burning, but you talk about girdles. It’s fun to read, but you’re serious about this – the changes that have been made.

GAIL: I’m serious, totally. And I’m serious about the other stuff, too. I’m always a person who, when I see the signing of the Magna Carta or something like that, I want to know, besides the great moment, what kind of shoes were they wearing? Were they comfortable? Where do they go to the bathroom? Stuff like that. And I think if you can grab on to all those things, if you can see pieces of society as a whole like that, it gives you a much richer vision of history, and it’s more fun.

LESLEY: Well, I love that we went from spike heels to comfortable heels, and we’re back. And the spike heels today are absolutely impossible to walk on. But they’re back.

GAIL: And, you know, we’ll never get around that. There are just some things that became clear to me as I was doing the research, that are walls you are never going to climb over, and separating women from really ridiculous but incredibly sexy shoes is one of those.

LESLEY: What is the most important thing that you learned in researching the book, because it really, at heart, is a history book. What’s the most important thing that we should know?

GAIL: It goes back a little bit to what you said before, you know, we’re so conscious now of the defects of our society, the things that we haven’t gotten right, the problems that we have – and certainly there are a lot of them. But it’s OK once in a while to say, “Hey, we’ve won. We did good. This is good. This is so neat.” And that’s part of it for me. That was why I started this entire venture.

LESLEY: It’s interesting that that would be your answer to that question because when I finished the book – and maybe you meant for us, the reader, to feel this – when I finished the book I thought, “Wow, I’m one lucky kid to be living now. To be living now.”

GAIL: Yes. Exactly. What a great gift. This particular time. This all happened in our time, and wow.

LESLEY: Wow. Yes. When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, by Gail Collins. Gail, thank you so much for your time and insights – and a great book.

GAIL: It was great talking to you, Lesley.

When Everything Changed jacket.<span class="caps">JPG</span>

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