Just when you’re ready to drop an F-bomb, there’s this: Lesley Stahl’s interview of New York Times columnist Gail Collins, whose new book “When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of Women from 1960 to the Present” reminds us of how far we’ve come in the past 50 years. And makes us smile along the route.
Yeah, yeah, we’ve got a ways to go. You’ve read that in this space multiple times: The institutions haven’t changed the way we wanted. There are still some Neanderthals walking among us. Work-life balance, still a pipe dream. Women are still penalized on the job for hopping on and off the career track to care for their kids. And most pressing for the undecided among us, we still can’t get the hang of dealing with all our newfound options. Still, as a reminder of the starting gate, Collins offers these two anecdotes, circa 1960. Better sit down.
…Lois Rabinowitz was a secretary in Manhattan and in the summer of 1960 made history, or at least headlines, when she was expelled from traffic court in Manhattan for attempting to pay a parking ticket while wearing slacks. And the judge went nuts. She was defaming the honor of the traffic court. And this was true, and so many women I’ve talked to who remembered back on those days, how awful it was. If you worked in the Post Office you had to wear a skirt. And it was extremely uncomfortable; extremely cold for some women. And just the right to wear sensible clothes was completely withheld.
… And then there is the executive express, the plane flight United used to have from New York to Chicago every day, and it was men only; a woman could not buy a seat on the executive express – too bad if you wanted to go to Chicago at that point in time. And they would serve the men these big, huge steaks and cigars and the stewardesses were taught how to lean over and light the cigars and so on. And whenever I tell that story somebody says, “Well wasn’t that illegal?” Nothing was illegal back then. It was perfectly legal to say, “Well we don’t hire women for those jobs,” or as Newsweek used to say, “Women don’t write. They only research.”
They only research? Lesley Stahl had a story of her own:
There was a little incident … in ‘74. I was going to anchor on election night, the first time a woman was going to do that, and I was very nervous. My boss brought me around when they were building the set to show me that it was cozy and wonderful, and he said, “You shouldn’t be nervous because you’ll be in a little circle.” And he said, “Walter will be sitting right there.” And in front of his place it said “Cronkite.” And he said, “Roger will be there,” and it said “Mudd.” And, “Mike will be there.” It said “Wallace.” And he said, “You’ll be there.” And it said “Female.”
… And my boss almost had a heart attack, he was so mortified and embarrassed. But my reaction in those days was to laugh, because the truth is – and I think all my friends my age who came in to work, and it’s not just journalism, I would say this anywhere – we were just so thrilled that they let us in the door, and that we were allowed to cover politics, or allowed to do an operation, or allowed to try a case in a courtroom. In those first early days it was just so exciting that they let us in the door …
Puts things in perspective, no? At the top of the interview, Collins said that, as far as the Women’s Movement is concerned, and despite all that’s left to do, we’ve won. Here’s her explanation:
I mean that in 1960 the vision of women’s limitations of the proper role for women in society was not at bottom much different than it was, say, in 1200 or 1600, but there was the same vision of what women were, and what women could do, that existed throughout Western civilization. And it changed in my lifetime and your lifetime, Lesley, in this tiny sliver of time that we live in. And that knocks me out every time I think about it. Women being born today are going to have all kinds of problems, many of them having to do with trying to balance family and career, I will tell you, but that kind of sense of limitations that existed throughout civilization and society just is not there for them. And that’s so huge…
At one point, Stahl asks Collins if one of the reasons she wrote the book was to familiarize younger women, who are loathe to use the F-word, with the roots of feminism.
There’s something about that word “feminism,” I must say, that’s always been a problem. This is not just our generation. Even back in the ’20s women were writing that there was something about the word “feminism” that suggested bad shoes or something. So I’m not totally convinced that just because young women don’t want to be called feminist that that means they’re not sympathetic to female solidarity, or interested in their own history. But it is true that everybody in America’s sense of history is not what it might be. But they have their own stories and the fact that they grow into the world, that they come into the world, thinking that, just as a matter of fact, “Well of course I’m going to go to work, and of course I’m going to do whatever I think I want to do, and of course if I want to be a doctor I’m going to be a doctor, and of course if I want to be an astronaut I’ll be an astronaut.” The fact that they’re so confident that these things will happen, or can happen, for them is not entirely a bad thing…
But back to those bad shoes. Stahl brings up the fact that women have gone from stilettos to sensible shoes — and now back again to spike heels. She say she loves it. Got it, says Collins:
And, you know, we’ll never get around that. There are just some things that became clear to me as I was doing the research, that are walls you are never going to climb over, and separating women from really ridiculous but incredibly sexy shoes is one of those.
I’m with ya, sister.