How Did We Get Here From There?
by Jo Keroes
I like to review books after they’ve been reviewed. Let me explain. Some books get reviewed a lot automatically. The authors are famous for one reason or another – their expertise or celebrity, they’ve had best sellers, or their book concerns the month’s hot topic. Anyway, they get widely reviewed when they first appear, hit the must read lists (or not) and then just hang out in bookstores or on Amazon. After they’ve been there a while, after the hype has faded or been forgotten, that’s when I like to take a look, free to make my own assessment, victim or benefactor of memory fade.
I don’t remember many details about the reviews of Gail Collins’s book, When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, other than that they were respectful and generally positive. I do remember my own reaction to its publication: Why read that? I lived it. In addition, I’d read scores of accounts of the social movements of the past 40 years. What could I learn? A lot, as it turns out.
Some relevant personal history. When I applied for my first teaching job in 1964, the principal asked me whether my husband and I used birth control, because he wouldn’t want to hire a recently married woman (the median age of marriage for women at the time was 20) who’d get pregnant and leave. He didn’t seem the slightest bit embarrassed at the question, though I was dumbstruck. Some thirty years later, as head of my university department’s hiring committee, federal law prevented us from inquiring about even a candidate’s marital status. Women like me and the times we’ve lived through are the subjects of Collins’s book.
Santayana famously warned, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But we can’t remember what we weren’t there to experience; that’s what history books are for. History itself evolves and is rewritten by those with a sharp eye for the backward glance, who reshape the story as the present casts its shadow on the past.
Which brings us to When Everything Changed, which has a great deal to tell those of us who were there and much more to those who weren’t. Did you know, for instance, that as greater numbers of women began to enter law and medical schools in the late sixties and early seventies professors often refused to call on female students except on an annual Ladies’ Day, when women were expected to answer all the questions? That a bi-partisan bill that would have made childcare available TO EVERY FAMILY THAT WANTED IT passed the House and Senate in 1971 (1971!!!) only to be vetoed by President Nixon, who claimed that the Comprehensive Child Development Act, as it was known, “would commit the vast moral authority of the National Government to communal approaches to child rearing,” undermining “the family centered approach”? The government should “not be in the business of raising America’s children.” Pat Buchanan, then a member of the Administration and, alas, still around spouting unreasonable opinions, stood ready to accuse the bill’s drafters of “the sovietizaton of American children.” You might have noticed that such a bill has never come up successfully again. Did you know that it was not until 1972 that the Boston Marathon allowed women to race or that it was Mary Tyler Moore who broke the “no pants” on TV rule (a rule, just like the one that barred double beds from view)? You might have known that Republicans used to be liberal on social issues and conservative on economic ones, while Democrats used to be socially conservative. You may not know, however, how and why they switched and what women had to do with it. Nor did many of us know even at the time how many of the Freedom Riders in the South were women, many of whom went to jail for their efforts. Black women were pushed to the background, almost invisible even when they were instrumental in the making of major events like the March on Washington.
Collins fills her book with women heroes – from Black community organizers to the first women in the House and Senate, from the NY Times reporters and writers who in the early seventies filed discrimination suits against the paper, to the founders of NOW, who looked back at photos of their early meetings and realized they were all wearing hats, to the women protestors of the Viet Nam war. But as much as this is a book of wonderful characters brought to vivid life, it’s also a tale of social movements – Civil Rights, Anti-War, the liberalization of divorce laws and the entry of women in the work force - not incidentally often reflected in what women wore.
When Everything Changed is a huge achievement, the best kind of cultural history – meticulously researched, at once sweeping and thorough, always lively and eminently readable. It tells us how we became who we are.