Holy smokin moley. Please, please, pretty please with freedom on top, read When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, by Gail Collins. Read it and remember your foremothers—your great-grandmother, your grandmother, your mother. Read it and weep. Read it and sing. And then tell your friends to read it. This book will make you want to finish history, because it will tell you what history is—and remind you, in the skin of your own life, why history needs now: so she can finish herself, and rest. If you were alive for the women’s rights movement, When Everything Changed will stand as a testimony to your experience; if you weren’t, you will be able to place your own life in context like never before.
The book is divided into three parts: 1960, When Everything Changed, and Following Through. Ms. Collins does a wonderful job of interweaving the many social factors at play—the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, key pieces of legislation, the legal battles that made the laws stick, and the gaps in equality that still exist. Each chapter is divided into brief sections headed by a quotation from a particular woman’s experience, which provides a rich context for the astounding social changes that were occurring. Sometimes, the quotations are from women who are widely recognized for their accomplishments—women who have shaped history. The book includes the stories of all the major players, including Margaret Sanger, Alice Paul, Ella Baker, Rosa Parks, Betty Friedan, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Gloria Steinem. In telling the story of Loretta Weeks, who spent years fighting workplace discrimination after civil rights legislation had been passed, Ms. Collins quotes Ms. Weeks as saying, “…I knew women worked and needed a place in the world.”
But this isn’t just the story of well-known women fighting public battles for equality. Just as often, Ms. Collins quotes women whose trials and accomplishments were behind the scenes, women whose lives were affected by social change but didn’t necessarily become a catalyst for it. This narrative technique allows the reader to place herself in history; oh, you think. Here is where my story would fit.
I found this book extremely enlightening, as I was born in 1971, smack in the middle of the movement. By the time I was old enough to understand a bit of the world, I took for granted freedoms that were mere fantasies in the two decades before my birth, including a college education, an ability to see myself as a career woman first and a mother second, and the luxury of choosing any career I set my sights on.
The struggles of my generation, and those who have come after me, are charted in the last part of the book: the difficulty of balancing work and childcare for mothers, the continued, and expanded, emphasis on beauty as a woman’s most important asset. After reading this book, I understand both the blessings and the difficulties of my own time in a new way. Ms. Collins describes the legislation that changed women’s lives as well as the legislation, such as the Child and Family Services Bill of 1975, that never went anywhere. In doing so, she fills in the blanks for those of us who are familiar with the broad strokes of women’s history but fuzzy on the details.
Because women’s history isn’t taught as—well, you know, history—most of the women who fought to change our lives aren’t household names. When Everything Changed, by chronicling these lives, begins to right that wrong. This book should be required reading in high school and college history courses—it is both accessible and straightforward, and provides a window into our own lives. This book, in short, is essential; by reading it, we gain a deeper understanding of where we have been, and a fuller understanding of where we need to go.