The Common Good

When Everything Changed: 50 Years of Women's Progress

091124-when-everything-changedIn the first year of Gail Collins's survey of "the amazing journey of American women from 1960 to the present," I turned 12. Not long after that, I told my father I was thinking of becoming a lawyer. "That's not a good job for a woman," he said.

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Some 25 years later, when my daughter Molly was a teenager, she told my father she was thinking of going to law school. "Good idea," he said. "You would make a fine lawyer."

"Dad!" I howled, reminding him of what he had told me. He smiled benignly. "Times have changed," he said.

I didn't know how much until I read When Everything Changed. "In 1960 women accounted for ... 3 percent of lawyers," Collins writes. Sylvia Roberts, a law-school grad in the late 50s, could not find "any firms in New Orleans that would allow a woman to apply." She finally found a secretarial job with a small law firm. A few years earlier, Sandra Day O'Connor, though third in her class at Stanford University's law school, could find only one California law firm willing to hire her -- as a legal secretary. By the time Molly was thinking of law school, however, Ms O'Connor was a Supreme Court justice.

I was eager to read When Everything Changed because I love Collins's witty op-ed pieces in The New York Times. This book, though, is straight journalism -- well researched, well written, intended to inform rather than entertain. Collins, who turned 15 in 1960, became "the first woman ever appointed editor of the Times's editorial page" in 2001, a job she held until 2007. When the book was published last month, Forbes interviewed Collins and introduced the book thus:

In the course of the five decades that Collins charts, Nora Ephron applies to a job at Newsweek, is told that "women don't become writers here" and becomes, well, Nora Ephron. A postwar survey that finds fewer than 10% of those interviewed believe an unmarried woman could be happy evolves into the era of Sex and the City, which sculpted single women into enviable icons. A 1961 medical school dean who says, "We do keep women out, when we can. We don't want them here" is relegated to history's trash heap: Female students now claim 50% of the spots in medical schools.

When Everything Changed also includes a long, informative chapter about African-American women in the civil rights movement, as well as fascinating information about women in politics, changes in abortion and divorce law, feminism and the backlash against it, the political careers of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, and the personal journeys of a variety of women from all ethnicities and social classes.

Having lived through those tumultuous 50 years, I was at least dimly aware of most of the people and events and circumstances Collins describes. At the same time, I was continually surprised to realize how much societal change I've experienced. Five decades of daily life look so different when the bits and pieces are gathered into one place and viewed as a whole. I would like my daughters to read this book and tell me how it strikes them, though I expect they will tell me they don't have time. Heidi is immersed in her career as an artist and college professor. Molly, who decided to get an MBA instead of a law degree, discovered that her husband could, more easily than she, find an adequately paid, family-friendly job. So she spends her days supervising their three kids, cooking, volunteering at church and school, handling family financial and travel arrangements ...

Hey, wait. That sounds a lot like what I did. Before everything changed. And yet there is a difference, and it's huge. American women may not have achieved equality yet, and a lot of changes remain to be made. But my daughters and granddaughters have choices that were not even considered 50 years ago, and we enjoy a lot more respect. If ever you doubt that, listen to the lyrics of popular songs from the 50s and 60s, or watch a few old movies. Or read When Everything Changed.

portrait-lavonne-neffLaVonne Neff is an amateur theologian and cook; lover of language and travel; wife, mother, grandmother, godmother, dogmother; perpetual student, constant reader, and Christian contrarian. She blogs at Lively Dust.

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