Who’s Wearing the Pants?

When Everything Changed

The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 To the Present

By Gail Collins

New York: Little, Brown, 2009, 452 pp., $27.99, hardcover

Reviewed by Emily Toth

It’s easy to sound like a liar, or at least a whiner, when you try to tell younger women how bad it was in 1960.

They’re stunned that we couldn’t wear trousers to work, open checking accounts without hubby’s permission, go to Harvard, anchor a TV news show, or play professional basketball. We couldn’t take refuge at a battered women’s shelter (there weren’t any) or get birth control if we lived in Connecticut. There was no Pill to keep us from getting pregnant. We couldn’t be astronauts or firefighters or editorial-page editors at the New York Times—the job Gail Collins held from 2001 through 2007. She was, of course, the First Woman to do that, and her book is a celebration of The First Women Who did a lot of things that needed doing—and changed our world.

Collins doesn’t reveal much about her own life in When Everything Changed. But she was born in 1945, so she must know that Rip-Van-Winkle feeling: if you’d gone to sleep a half-century ago and awakened now, you’d think you were on another planet. Women have gained a lot of equality in the past fifty years, as well as visibility, money, and power over our own lives and sometimes, other people’s, too.

Collins’s story starts with who wears the pants. A secretary, sent to pay a traffic ticket for her boss in 1960, finds herself up against a furious judge who won’t take the money—because the secretary is wearing slacks. There wasn’t any law against them, but there didn’t need to be. A judge’s fashion sense was law.

Many a woman lawyer today remembers when trousers weren’t allowed in the courtroom. Many more women remember having to wear skirts or dresses to school, even on the iciest days. There were fights over skirt length, and one of my seventh-grade students was sent home for showing too much leg. Everywhere, women were being controlled by laws, customs, and “what will people think you are?”

Judging women by their clothes isn’t new. Mary Wollstonecraft in the 1790s was called a “hyena in petticoats,” and Hillary Rodham Clinton is known for her pantsuits. In 2007, in Collins’s last chapter, a woman wears skirts to work, for religious reasons. She’s a bus driver, a job no woman could have gotten in 1960, when ads specified, “Help Wanted Female” or even, “Help Wanted Female—White.”  But the bus company says skirts aren’t safe. The driver refuses to wear pants, and she’s fired.

Collins has a wonderful eye for irony, and a superb ability to organize material that’s chronological, thematic, and personality-centered all at once. She weaves together large surveys and short quotes, pungent details and chilling facts. The battles she describes are silly, profound, and riveting. You’re not always sure who’ll win.

Airline stewardessing, for instance, used to be a glamour job: travel and adventure were rare for young women in 1960, when flying was fairly new and women hardly ever traveled alone. For every stewardess opening, there were more than a hundred applicants. They had to have slim, well-proportioned figures and “soft and white hands,” says Collins, and they were weighed and measured repeatedly, like jockeys or hamburger. They were fired if they got married, and supervisors combed through wedding announcements to ferret out and punish secret marriages.

Even when all went well, flight attendants (the job title once men got hired) were treated so rudely and crudely that when the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission opened for business in 1964, stewardesses were the first in line to file suit.

Among their issues were male-passenger-only “executive flights,” on which the stewardesses were expected to lean over provocatively as they lit the passengers’ cigars. Under legal siege, the airlines claimed that businessmen might not fly if they weren’t catered to by attractive young women—to which Martha Griffiths, a Michigan Democrat and one of a dozen women in Congress, asked, “What are you running, an airline or a whorehouse?”

Griffiths, a tough cookie, is one of Collins’s heroes, and one of mine. She helped slide the word “sex” into the antidiscrimination Civil Rights Act of 1964—the first women’s equality law since the vote in 1920. From that flowed the National Organization for Women in 1966, Title IX in 1972, women’s sports, women’s studies, and the fact that women are now 58 percent of US college students.

Collins tells the story dramatically, through the lives of about a dozen women who reappear at different stages. There’s a Wyoming farm wife, a Baltimore activist who pioneered in communal childcare, a Native American chief. There are women who sued for equal pay or who were the first in nontraditional jobs. Suddenly it’s not odd to see women drive tanks, sit on the Supreme Court, run for President, or marry other women.

If you’re of a certain age, you’ll enjoy reliving things with Gail Collins. I fondly remember Helen Gurley Brown’s sinfully delicious Sex and the Single Girl (1962), which encouraged women to make their own money, be dashing, and have sex whenever and with whomever they wanted. Brown was out in the open, but there were also secrets. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) cracked open the emptiness of fulltime housewifery. Countless women thought no one else had ever been raped or had an illegal abortion, until public speakouts and private consciousness-raising groups showed them they were not alone.

Gloria Steinem, later a founder of Ms. magazine, was one of the first to say publicly that she had had an illegal abortion. Steinem was always considered the beautiful face of the women’s movement, but Collins also praises Steinem’s unfailing generosity toward other women.

One of the big discoveries of the 1970s was that “sisterhood is powerful,” and that women can have deep and intimate friendships with each other. Collins’s appreciation for women fills the book and makes it a joyous read, even though some of the changes it documents were wrenching. Most marriages I knew in the 1970s broke up, for instance. Today’s women grew up handling change, being resilient, and not expecting men to define their lives.

I wish Collins had the space to tell more stories.

Her most moving chapter is about the civil rights movement, which grew out of degrading customs that are hard to believe now. In Maryland and further south, African Americans couldn’t legally be served at lunch counters and restaurants; they had to use “colored” bathrooms or find somewhere out in the fields. They couldn’t try on clothes in white department stores or attend movies (except in the balcony). At demonstrations on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where white “outside agitators” like me tried to help out, we were shot at for trying to integrate a bowling alley.

Since rape, beatings, and lynchings were routine forms of enforcement, it’s easy to see why most blacks didn’t attempt to vote in states like Mississippi.  What’s astonishing is the courage and fearlessness of young women who were going against everything they’d been brought up to do. They were confronting their elders and risking their lives. During Mississippi Freedom Summer (1964), when civil rights workers sought to register voters, at least sixteen people were killed. Only two, both white men from the North, were publicized.

Now there are more black elected officials in Mississippi than in New York—and a lot of them are women.

It was in the fall of 1964 that one of the white civil rights organizers, Sandra “Casey” Hayden, wrote a memo about “sexism” (a word not in use yet) in the movement. She objected to men’s sense of superiority, comparing it to white racism—whereupon Stokely Carmichael, one of the leaders, famously responded that the only proper place for women in his organization was “prone.”

The achievements of women in the civil rights movement are still often ignored. There was a Baton Rouge bus boycott, run mostly by women, two years before Montgomery’s, where Rosa Parks was more important than Martin Luther King. So many brave, radical women volunteers were pushed into the background. Collins justly remembers Ella Baker, known as “Gandhi” to the fledgling black student movement—but too many people dissed her then and have forgotten her now.

The most poignant figure to me in Collins’s civil rights narrative is Diane Nash. She started as the fearless leader of the student sit-ins at historically black Fisk University in Nashville in 1960. In subsequent struggles, she arrived in hostile towns with her pockets full of dimes so that, in those days before cell phones, anyone arrested could call out. Students went to jail by the busload, arrested for trying to get served at lunch counters. They were polite, well-dressed, and nonviolent, and no one was stronger and more beautiful than Diane Nash. The men pushed her aside, but she stayed put, and you can see her in all the footage, praising the work for justice in a way that gives you “a raw feeling of goodness,” says Collins.

And then she was derailed by marriage. Her husband, the Reverend James Bevel, practiced “compulsive infidelity,” Collins says tactfully. In fact, before his death last year, he had been convicted of incest with at least one daughter—he had children by seven women. (I met him once, and he greeted me as “that cracker bitch.”)

Nash is a survivor, as are most of the women who created, witnessed, and lived through the frightening, glorious events Collins describes. We never burned bras, because we’ve always known that clothes don’t really make the woman.

Every generation thinks it was braver and smarter than the previous one, but the women of the 1960s and early 1970s did have unique advantages. Those were good economic times, and Baby Boomers were coming into their own. With the Pill and legal abortion, we were the first generation of American women who did not have to have children we did not want. As Collins shows, reproductive freedom opened the door to everything else and let women have careers and dreams that had been impossible before.

Even as the economy slowed and a backlash grew, we developed a body of knowledge and new words for things that used to be considered inevitable parts of life, which we now refused to accept: “sexual harassment” and “date rape” and “domestic violence.” Women’s wisdom is now social wisdom.

When we name things, we remember them, and Gail Collins’s When Everything Changed enables us to see starkly and gladly what’s happened in the lifetimes of millions of women. In the early 1960s, a typical American woman married at twenty, had three children, and was through with childbearing—considered her main purpose in life—by age thirty. Now, at thirty, we’ve only just begun. Collins’s epilogue, about the feisty women who began the movements of the 1960s, is inspiring. When Everything Changed supports Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s idea that “the heyday of woman’s life is the shady side of fifty.”

That has a nice ring.


Emily Toth (rhymes with both), teaches English and Women’s Studies at Louisiana State University. She writes the Ms. Mentor online academic advice column and has published two Ms. Mentor books and biographies of Kate Chopin and Grace Metalious. She made her feminist debut at age five, playing a child in her mother’s guerrilla theater skit to demonstrate that local traffic lights changed too fast for children and other living things.

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