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When Everything Changed

American women have traveled a long road since the 1960s.

By Elizabeth Toohey / October 29, 2009



In a year in which audiences have been captivated by Mad Men’s exploration of the early 1960s and Julia Child’s foray into the male-dominated world of Le Cordon Bleu, it seems Americans can’t get enough of postwar culture and its constraints, especially as they apply to gender. What better time, then, to look at American women’s progress since the ’60s, now that the dust has settled on the 2008 presidential election when so much was won (and lost) by women?

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Women have traveled a remarkable road from the days when Lois Rabinowitz was scolded and sent home by a New York judge for wearing pants to pay her boss’s traffic ticket at a hearing in 1960.  This story opens and sets the tone for Gail Collins’ near epic history When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present.

The question of pants, who can wear them and what they represent, is a motif that runs throughout the book.

Collins tells of female fighter pilots who were arrested for wearing slacks in Georgia during World War II; of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s rejection for a clerkship with Felix Frankfurter, who asked, “Does she wear skirts?  I can’t stand girls in pants;” and more wryly, of Nixon’s comment to wire service reporter Helen Thomas at a bill signing, “Every time I see girls in slacks it reminds me of China.”

A New York Times columnist and former editor, Collins weaves together anecdotes from the lives of everyday women, as well as famous ones, to paint a picture of the period. From the Harvard dinner where the few female students, including Ginsburg, were asked why they were taking spots from men, to Betty Friedan’s ejection from the bar of the Ritz-Carleton (she was ushered off to drink her whiskey sour by the women’s restroom) women were riding the back of the bus, socially and professionally.

Yet these incidents pale in comparison to the open hostility many lesser-known women faced in the workplace, the schoolroom, and the courtroom.

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