Q. So men’s roles changed as well?
A. Young men now are so different in their attitude toward women than 50 years ago. Women and men weren’t friends in the 1960s. Now they are. Middle-class guys now envision two paychecks and sharing in the home, although they’re still not doing it. I like to tell the story of Steve Weisman when he was a member of my editorial board at the Times. One day he came in to my office. He looked exhausted. When I asked him what was wrong, he said, “My wife’s in Albania and the hamster’s missing.”
Q. What does the push-pull of the work-family divide do to our collective psyches?
A. It’s nothing but good, even with the bad family tensions. There is no way in this world that people who don’t have a real place in the economy are treated with respect. They are never given a real say in their futures. So women having a place in the working world is only good news.
Q. Only good news?
A. Well, now women’s lives are more fraught with options—work, family, education, personal pursuits—and no one wants to give up anything. It’s all really hard. Choice sucks!
Q. What would you say to all the pioneering women if you could talk to them now?
A. The fantasy I’ve always had is that somehow I could move back in time. I would like to be there when Susan B. Anthony was dying, or someone like that. I would say to her, “You won’t believe what’s going to happen.” And then I would tell her.
Q. Did your mother influence your career path?
A. My mother always wanted to be a journalist, but her parents pulled her out of college after her first year. She went to work in the defense industry and became a young war bride. She always told me to write stuff. I even wrote a little book in high school that was published after my mother sent it to a publisher in Boston. My Cincinnati relatives bought a million copies! That made me think I could do anything I wanted to do.
Q. What was your biggest shock as you did your research?
A. Child care is still such a big issue in America. One of the things that stunned me in writing the book was the veto of a national child care entitlement in 1971. I talked to Pat Buchanan, who was working for President Nixon at the time, and he said that he convinced Nixon to veto the bill because it was terrible social policy. They believed the government shouldn’t have anything to do with families. But after that veto Democrats moved further left and Republicans moved further right. The idea of such an ambitious social agenda is unthinkable now, and women suffer because of it.
Q. In addition to Lorena Weeks, who you call your favorite story, what are some of your other favorite parts of the book? What was your favorite part of writing the book?
A. I also loved asking about Barbies. Everybody had Barbie stories, and everybody’s Barbie was having sex under washcloths.
And the breast cancer stories! No one would tell these women with breast cancer if they were going to have a breast or not after surgery. They didn’t find out until they woke up. One woman told me that her doctor asked her husband if he should remove his wife’s breast. Overhearing them, the woman said, “Ask me.”
Q. What’s the next stage in the transformation of women’s lives?
A. Women in America will have to find an answer for the pressures of work and family, but if you really care about women’s issues you have to think about women in the world, especially Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Their problems are different. One of the great issues for Third World women, for instance, is the tearing during childbirth that leaves them in permanent discomfort. And they’re not able to get the medical care to fix this.
Q. Why isn’t your story in the book?
A. People often ask me to tell them what I’ve endured. It’s embarrassing to say I have so little to tell. I came along at just the right time. I think of myself as standing on the shoulders of these women I wrote about. I’m sure part of the reasonI got the Times editor job was because they wanted a woman. I’m a big believer in deciding what you want and making it clear to everybody. I loved uncovering the history and talking to the women. I find it liberating and exciting to have gotten this incredible present.
Robin Gerber is a lawyer and the author of Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World’s Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her.