Gail Collins Talks Women’s Rights—And Wearing Slacks

One morning in the summer of 1960, Lois Rabinowitz went to traffic court to pay her boss’s speeding ticket wearing slacks and a blouse. “Do you appreciate you’re in a courtroom in slacks?” the judge screamed.

He sent her home and Lois’s husband paid the ticket, but not before the judge warned him to “clamp down a little or it’ll be too late.”

With this story, New York Times columnist Gail Collins launched a discussion of her book When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women From 1960 to the Present Thursday at the LBJ Library and Museum.

“I’ve talked to a trillion women who were around in the 1960s, and all of them had a story about slacks,” Collins said. “This is significant because when you look at history, if there’s a certain costume society demands you wear, it usually means something about the way society views your role.”

Eliciting gasps, laughs, and knowing nods from the audience of women and men, young and old, Collins told stories from the 1960s of stewardesses required to weigh in every morning and the UT dental school dean who declared that women weren’t strong enough to pull teeth.

“Since the beginning of civilization, the pervasive notion was that women were weak and meant to stay at home,” Collins said. “That basically ended in this country in a 10-year period between 1964 and 1974. I found it so fascinating that it happened so quickly, so I tried to figure out why that happened.”

Collins found that the civil rights movement was one reason because it made Americans sensitive to fairness. Another factor was the creation of the birth control pill in 1960. As soon as the pill became available, women’s applications to medical, law, and other professional schools skyrocketed.

The economy soared after World War II, and for a brief period, middle-class families could live comfortably on one salary. In the 1970s, with inflation, the recession, and the oil crisis, families couldn’t maintain their lifestyles on one income anymore, so the wives went to work.

“Then there was a moment in the 1980s when the average little girl in this country thought of her future both in terms of what guy she’d marry, but also what work she’d do to support her family,” Collins said. “That was actually the moment when everything changed because in this country, unless you have an economic role, you have no power.”

Collins, who in 2001 became the first woman editor of the New York Times editorial page, said that she’s often asked about what she’s suffered in her career.

“The truth is that I didn’t suffer,” Collins said. “There were women who came through the door one second ahead of me who filed all the petitions, went to court, made nuisances of themselves, won the battle, and they didn’t get the rewards because they were a pain in the neck. I know many of these women, and they’re not bitter. They’re so proud of what’s happened and all the achievements that came after them. To me, that’s the definition of a great heart.”

Though half the workforce is women and most college students are women today, Collins said, the question of who is taking care of the kids remains to be answered. “I’m absolutely convinced that the gender gaps we still see are mostly driven by the difficulty of figuring out how to balance a very intensive career with family.”

Collins said she doesn’t think this problem will be resolved in her lifetime, though she does believe a woman will be elected president in that time.

“I want to leave you with this thought,” Collins concluded. “This entire sex was regarded as inferior for the entire history of the world, and it changed in my lifetime and it changed for the younger women here to go out and do things that are unprecedented in the history of civilization. It is so amazing. It knocks me out every time I think about it.”

 Photo by Sasha Haagensen



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