#22 – When Everything Changed by Gail Collins

This book begins with the story of a young woman getting kicked out of traffic courts because she is wearing pants and it ends with the story of a female Pentecostal bus driver being told she can’t wear a skirt on the job.

It's hard not to think about Mad Men as you read some of the early scenes.

In between, Collins interviewed heaps and heaps of American women from as many living generations as she can get her hands on, so the book ends up being a thorough, story-driven, well-reported account of women’s lives over the last 50 years. I’d call When Everything Changed an oral history, but she switches back and forth between broad historical brushstrokes and individual women’s stories who make up those brushstrokes.

I especially appreciated how she reported on the beginning of the women’s movement. NOW was quite small when it started, in Betty Friedan’s hotel room at a conference in 1966. But as soon as it started it swelled — it seems like the country was really ready for a change.

Collins kind of portrays the women’s movement as riding the coattails of the Civil Rights movement whose positions were so well-articulated and clear (her treatment of the underrecognized role of women in the Civil Rights movement is excellent). Yet even very early on in the feminist movement there were differences about what women really wanted. Ending discrimination in the workplace, obviously (wouldn’t that be awesome!). But beyond that — you start to see that feminism has always meant different things to different people.

But this book isn’t just about feminism – it’s about American women. A whole bunch of them. There are some big gaps (religion as a topic is hardly touched on at all). But there’s a lot of fascinating stories here.

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