When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present

Gail Collins recaps the last fifty years, giving us the greatest hits of the Second Wave, like the Ladies Home Journal overtaken by one hundred women with Shulamith Firestone jumping on the editor’s desk to demand that the next issue be turned over to the women’s movement, up through the vague disinterest of my own generation and into a world where women are actively running for the highest political office. She begins her tale in the year 1960, with a story about Lois Rabinowitz, thrown out of traffic court for (GASP!) wearing pants… “it was pretty clear that the showdown was really about women’s place in the world…” We’re all familiar with the much-told-tale that women got accustomed to more rights and working outside the home during WW2, then slowly began to simmer with rage as they were pushed back into their tiny worlds of household chores. Collins spends a big chunk of time talking about the important (and forgotten) women of the Civil Rights movement: Ella Baker, Diane Nash, Fannie Lou Hamer, and even Viola Liuzzo.

We then dive into the heady days of Women’s Liberation, consciousness-raising groups that dredged up realizations that could not be ignored. She quotes Robin Morgan:

I couldn’t believe how angry I could become from deep down and way back, something like a five-thousand year buried anger. It makes you very sensitive–raw even– this consciousness. Everything from the verbal assault on the street, to a ‘well-meant’ sexist joke your husband tells, to the lower pay you get at work (for doing the same job a man would be paid more for), to television commercials, to rock song lyrics, to the pink or blue blanket they put on your infant in the hospital nursery… everything seems to barrage your aching brain, which was fewer and fewer protective defenses to screen such things out.

Women were finding their voices all around the country, and Collins notes a group of feminists at Iowa State who claimed to cast a spell on the university football stadium, to protest the amount of money spent on men’s sports. “The stadium which was under construction, did indeed collapse and had to be restarted. We just loved that, of course,” said Irene Talbott, past president of Des Moines NOW.

On the special circumstance of being a black woman, Shirley Chisholm (1st African-American woman elected to Congress in 1968) voiced her surprise that she was attacked more for being a woman than for being black:

As a black person I am no stranger to prejudice. But the truth is that in the political world I have been far more often discriminated against because I am a woman than because I am black. I knew I would encounter both anti-black and anti-feminist sentiments. What surprised me was the greater virulence of the sex discrimination.

Shamefully, my own generation grew up completely ignorant of the fight that had gone on before, luxuriating in the rights that the Second Wave had earned for us. It took me too many decades to shake the cobwebs off my eyes but I think I’m making up for lost time with my current deep dive.