Review: When Everything Changed
It’s been a long time since I wrote a book review here, mostly because I’ve moved the bulk of my book commentary to Twitter. But I just finished a book I need more than 140, 280, or even 560 characters to talk about.
Over the last three days I’ve been devouring When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to Present, by Gail Collins (Little, Brown; just released). And I think it might have changed my life.
Let’s get something clear at the outset: I am, in almost every way, the grateful heir of the hard work of generations of American women who imagined a better life for their daughters and granddaughters. I was raised with flat-footed real-proportioned fake Barbies, and a subscription to New Moon magazine, and a healthy appreciation for women’s history, both in general and in my personal genealogy. In my senior year of college, asked to produce a utopia, dystopia or manifesto for a political science class, I wrote “A Womb of One’s Own: The Muliebrity Manifesto,” complete with grrrl power soundtrack. (Yes, really!)
And so I approached When Everything Changed with excitement, because I have the utmost respect for Gail Collins, but did not expect to be surprised by it. I certainly did not expect it to make me cry.
But I was, and it did.
What Collins has done is taken things that we all know—women used to need their husband’s permission to buy a car, and the Pill was revolutionary, and fifty years ago for a woman to go in front of a judge wearing slacks was completely impermissible, and the story of the Equal Rights Amendment, and so on—and created out of them a narrative above and beyond the typical history-book regurgitation. By weaving the experiences of average women into her chronology of the social and political upheavals, Collins molds the changes of the last five decades into an entirely new creation. God, I found myself thinking over and over, my great-grandmothers and grandmothers really put up with this nonsense? And didn’t snap once? Suddenly, the story of women’s liberation, which had always intellectually resonated with me as a woman, began to feel like a part of me down to my very bones.
I found myself welling up at the oddest places in the book. Sometimes I would be moved by the story of a woman Collins interviewed. When reading the section about Billie Jean King defeating Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes, I remembered my mom telling me when I was younger about how she had been riveted to the TV set for the match, and how proud she’d been when Billie Jean won. Shuttling between soccer, basketball, and softball practices, I had just thought she was a weirdo. Now I realize an entire generation of women (and men!) had been perched in front of the TV that day as well. When reading about the increase of women attending college and looking at the years in which it became allowed for women to attend various graduate programs, I suddenly realized that there was more behind my Nana and Yia-Yia’s incessant harping about my grades than maternal concern. They were also trying to make sure I could take advantage of the opportunities they’d been denied. Both of them would have made very good lawyers. And each time I felt like I would cry—from sadness, from guilt, from the sheer amount of wasted opportunity on display—underneath it all like a heartbeat I could hear my brain: you are so lucky, you are so lucky, you are so, so, so lucky.
I knew many of these things before I started the book, but Collins has taken them and infused them with a passion and an importance that cannot be ignored. The book is perfectly paced, so it’s easy to get a sense of both the slowness and the speed at which many issues of the last few decades have unfolded. And because her aim is to tell a story, rather than to try to make a larger point, the point makes itself: things aren’t perfect, but my God, how they’ve gotten better.
Collins addresses my generation’s blessed amnesia about the gains of women since the 1960s at the end of the book, and the ways in which it’s both proof that the women’s movement has made true gains, and also problematic for the concerns of women that are still unaddressed. It’s my hope that this book can be a partial corrective for that. It can act as a reminder for women my age of what, if not for the tireless and in many cases unrewarded work of thousands of American women before us, could have been.
For me, it certainly has. Reading the book has put my life and its possibilities into sharp relief. I have woken up the last two mornings feeling luckier than I ever have, determined to do something good with my life simply because I can. I hope to feel that way tomorrow morning and again the day after that—and if the feeling ever fades, I will return to this incredible volume to be re-inspired.