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When Everything Changed

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

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Take Laura Kelber, one of the first women electricians, who, when she told her boss she was pregnant, “was immediately transferred from a relatively light indoor assignment to a different site where the job involved heavy lifting, working in the cold and no clean bathrooms.” Kelber stayed on the job, but miscarried. Back at Harvard, female law students were ignored by their professors who refused to call on them, resenting their presence in the classroom. In more recent days, studies report American women in the military are more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed in combat in Iraq.

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Important victories have been won in the history of women’s rights, but, Collins reminds us, often at great personal cost to women on the front lines.

Collins gives an extensive account of women’s crucial role in the Civil Rights movement; the creation and defeat of the ERA; the passage of Title IX; and the defeat of the Child Development Act, a bipartisan bill to provide federally subsidized day care that Nixon denounced as “communal approaches to child-rearing” and vetoed.

She also sheds light on the culture wars that led to a polarized debate around abortion and gay rights. In a sweeping narrative featuring women – both famous and anonymous – striving for increased rights, Phyllis Schlafly appears as a sort of arch-enemy, along with her counterpart in the gay rights movement, Anita Bryant.

Yet Collins also captures the playfulness and humor in women’s advancement through The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Billie Jean King’s defeat of Bobby Riggs (she notes its “cheesiness”), and Nora Ephron’s witticisms, which pepper the book. It’s an important reminder of the wit and success that has also marked American women’s strides forward.

Since Collins’s history concludes in the present, it’s a bit surprising that no mention is made of 9/11’s effect on the national and global discourse on women. Nonetheless, the political and social history of “When Everything Changed” make for important reading, especially for generations who can’t imagine needing a husband’s signature to obtain a mortgage or car loan.

The closing chapter circles back to pants, which a modern-day New York bus driver refused to wear, due to her religion, which in turn, led to her firing. It’s an apt metaphor for the way clothing continues to signify much more than a practical covering for women. It also signals religion’s new centrality in the on-going debates over women’s place and the extent of their freedom.

Elizabeth Toohey teaches Women’s Studies and Postwar American Literature at Principia College in Elsah, Ill.

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