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The Author Speaks

Grit, Courage and Change: Women in the Last 50 Years

While writing her latest book about the progress women have made over the past 50 years, Gail Collins learned she liked the personal stories best. One of her favorite examples was Lorena Weeks.

Interview with Gail Collins

— Bettmann/Corbis

While writing her latest book about the progress women have made over the past 50 years, Gail Collins learned she liked the personal stories best. One of her favorite examples was Lorena Weeks.

In 1966, Southern Bell denied Weeks, a phone clerk, the right to apply for a switchman’s job. The company told her that women weren’t allowed to lift heavy equipment—although she lugged a hefty typewriter out from under her desk every day in order to work—and that women didn’t need the better-paying jobs. She sued, lost, appealed and, after years of hearings, eventually received a court order to go to work as a switchman. Southern Bell ceased to be a place where the lowest-paid man made more than the highest-paid woman. Her case, Weeks v. Southern Bell, was one of the first big victories to ending job discrimination against women.

Collins includes Weeks alongside hundreds of other trailblazing, door-opening women in When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, a chronicle of the grit, stubbornness and courage that triggered tremendous upheaval in the social structure of this country.

As the first woman to head the New York Times’ editorial board, Collins, 63, is no stranger to trailblazing herself. But she credits others—the famous and those considerably less so—who made her ascent possible. For every Rosa Parks, Helen Gurley Brown and Geraldine Ferraro, there are scores of other unknowns who propelled social change. Lois Rabinowitz was thrown out of traffic court in 1960 for wearing pants. Lillian Garland successfully sued her employer in the 1980s for failing to provide job protection after the birth of her child. Lenora Taitt-Magubane, a black woman, dressed up for expected trips to jail after civil rights protests, and Lori Piestewa, a soldier, was the first American woman to die in the Iraq war.

These are the women “who opened windows for me,” said Collins when she spoke to the AARP Bulletin about her book.

Q. What did the nation expect of women before 1960?

A. It used to be “who will I marry?” Life really was simpler 50 years ago. After World War II there was a huge jump in expectations of what life would be like. Nothing like in Jane Austen’s time. But women are really flexible, and we responded.

Q. You said in your earlier book, America’s Women: Four Hundred Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates and Heroines , that emergencies drove women’s lives. What is the emergency now that women have responded to?

A. You can’t get by or have a middle-class lifestyle unless women work. The emergency now is a permanent one.

Q. How did such changes in women’s lives in such a short time unsettle people?

A. It creates tremendous pressure. The work-family divide is the biggest issue for American women. But in some ways it’s amazing how adjusted society has become to it. In the 1970s, as women began to take more jobs, society was reeling. As [writer] Nora Ephron said, the guys woke up and said, what’s happening?

Q. Why did this transformation happen?

A. None of the changes happened because this generation is better than preceding generations. It’s just that women have always done the sensible thing in responding to change, like when women took over farms during the Revolutionary War because the men had left to fight. In the last 50 years, change has been all about the economy. Women are critical to the economy, so we have gone to work. The military is another emergency. Women are needed in the military because there aren’t enough soldiers, and we’re seeing more women serve.

Q. Was there was a backlash?

A. There were hostilities when women moved into the workforce. Men were losing jobs in the 1970s because of the recession and women were replacing them, although I’m surprised it wasn’t worse, given the economic tensions during the downturn. The downside is that women moved up and men were falling down. Even now, wage gaps are narrowing, but it’s because men are going downward. But we have passed the point that jobs have to be saved for the breadwinner. People are well aware that there are trillions of women who are supporting families.

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