Gail Collins: "The Revolution Will Be Achieved When No One Has To Do The Ironing"

New York Times columnist Gail Collins—the paper's first female editorial page editor—has written a chronicle of the last 40 50 years of American women's history, When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present.

She spoke to me from a hotel room in Philadelphia, where she was in the midst of her book tour. We discussed everything from ironing to why only 17 percent of U.S. Senators and Representatives are female.

Hi, Gail. Is this still a good time?
It's a great time. Let me just go turn off the oven.

[A minute later]

Did I say oven? I meant iron.

I was confused as to why you had an oven in your hotel room. But that actually reminds me of something I wanted to ask you—in a recent interview with Forbes, you said you didn't know any men who ironed.
I'm sure this has something to do with being in New York and class—men send their shirts out, unless their wives iron them for them.

My boyfriend usually sends his shirts out, but I did recently show him how to iron.
That is something my husband would never let me teach him, under the theory that someone is imprisoned by doing ironing—the revolution will be achieved when no one has to do ironing. Yet here I am ironing a shirt.

Maybe the revolution will be achieved when we can wear wrinkled shirts.
Maybe!

Anyway. In your book, in the section on the '60s, you write about two books, The Feminine Mystique and Sex and the Single Girl, that both had a major impact on women's consciousness. I wonder if it would be possible for a single book to make such an impact today.
Both of those books were partly the huge things that they were because they just caught a moment. Especially Sex and the Single Girl—she caught that exact moment and expressed it in a really dramatic way. It's harder to do that now because once a thought gets out there gets devoured so much faster, by so many.

Is that why there hasn't been a clear successor to Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem and these other big names of the feminist movement?
No, it's the same reason there's not a clear successor to Martin Luther King. There are these crystal moments in history when something that's so obviously wrong gets tackled in the context of a society that's ready to hear it, and it happens very fast and it's very dramatic. Everyone who's part of it remembers it for the rest of their lives.

What was your mother like?
She wanted to be a journalist. She left college after her first year to work for the war effort.

Was she supportive of your career choices?
Yes. My parents were the kind of parents who would say, "Look at that, what a good sentence!" They were just wildly supportive, and not in a terrifying or bad way. It was very easy to feel wildly empowered.

Did you encounter discrimination?
The truth is I didn't. I came in at just the exact second when the windows were all thrown open by women who were like three seconds older than I was. They did all the suffering, the filing of the suits, the protests, the challenging of employers. I got all the benefits. I stand completely on their shoulders.

Did they ever feel any resentment toward you and the women of your generation—since like you said, you were born at that exact moment three seconds after them when things got a lot easier?
They never felt any resentment at the women who got to do the things. They felt resentment at the people who didn't let them do the things they wanted to do. They were a very generous group of women who celebrated all the good things that happened to all the women in their fields.

Do you think women are willing to mentor young women in journalism?
To the degree that people have time to mentor anybody. It's way way better than when I was starting out. Mentoring was not heard of. Early on, I remember we had a meeting of women. This was at one of the tabloids. A woman said that she would go in and say to her editor, "I want to know what I'm doing wrong." And he would never say anything. Finally, he said, "You're about where we thought you'd be at this point." I think guys were more comfortable with each other back then. My particular profession was not known for its mentoring. Now I think people are dying to mentor, but they're overworked. There's not enough time.

Did you read Joanne Lipman's op-ed in the Times on Sunday? She claims that in her entire career, a woman never asked her for a raise or a promotion.
I was only an editor for five years but that was not my experience. I just had lunch the other day with a young woman who used to be one of my researchers. She now has a really good job in the outside world, and she appears to ask for a raise on a weekly basis. It did used to certainly be true that women were not as good as men at asking for stuff. You did run into women who wanted their bosses to offer them promotions because it would be a validation. It was not a validation if they just demanded it. I really think that period is behind us. Then again, because of the economy, nobody is asking for raises now. They're just hoping they won't be noticed.

You don't get to the '80s until almost 300 pages into the book, and then you only spend 100 pages talking about the '80s to the present. Why did you decide to pay more attention to the '60s and '70s?
The '60s I thought were really important. I really wanted to go back and try to drench the reader in what it was like. Even people who were there don't actually remember what it was like. They just tend to gloss over it. It's not that everyone was suffering—women thought they were doing very well. But they weren't comparing themselves to the guys. They were compared to other women or their mothers. The change part happened so wicked fast, it's sort of amazing. That period from '64 to '72, '73. It was less than a decade, but all this stuff was legally changed. It was one law after another. Suddenly women's applications to law school and medical school shot up. The actual change in the mindset of the country happened really really fast. After that it's a story about how you digest all that and what you do with it, like what to do with kids. I just love the fact that the very second the women started to postpone marriage until later you start getting all these stories in the media that they've waited too long! The famous Valentine's Day story [the original is no longer online].

You were the first female editorial page editor at The New York Times. I was looking at the paper's masthead and there are still only seven women on the masthead, out of 25 people total. And in your book you mention the writer Laura Sessions Stepp, who decided not to become an editor and stay a writer at The Washington Post. Why is it still so difficult for women to advance to the top in journalism?
I think there's a bunch of things. Ideally you want to move forward into an industry where there's lots of room to grow, and this is a shrinking industry. There are not as many opportunities as you might have in another industry. But every single question goes back to the question of family-work tensions. There are a lot of issues, of course, but that is the big huge marker. I think that laps over into everything. There are still less than 20 percent women in the House and the Senate. There are corporate glass ceilings. Why aren't there more women partners in law firms? I'm sure part of it is discrimination lingering. But tons of it to me is the question of work-family tensions.

How can that be remedied?
When I was in college, we all thought there was going to be a revolution. Afterwards, I don't think I was surprised that we didn't have one, but in college—and I wasn't a big huge feminist at the time—if you had told me that jobs wouldn't be automatically structured to take in family issues, that guys wouldn't as often as women take two years off to take care of their families, that there would be no national access to quality childcare at every age—it never occurred to me that those things weren't going to be taken care of. And they're not.

Are things better in other countries that have better family leave policies and childcare?
I'm not a person who gets all bent out of shape about Sweden. Sweden's a lovely country but we're never going to be Sweden. Russell Shorto did a piece on Italy and Greece and Spain and their incredibly low birth rates. These are countries in which women are expected to work, but men maintain their old patriarchal values. That's the recipe for a zero birthrate. Then there are other countries in which guys are incredibly helpful and even then if there are no social supports then women have more children. Then there are places where there are social supports and the guys are helpful, like France. We're a mixture of all those things. Russell thought our companies were more flexible than companies in other countries. Clearly guys here, for whatever their failure to live up to 50-50 thing, especially when it comes to childcare, they're still shouldering quite a bit of the load. Still, it's always the women who seem to be the final person in charge. When somebody's sick, and people have big meetings, who stays home with the kid? Who keeps track of the birthday parties? Who keeps minimum quality cleanliness standards? All that stuff tends to be women.

You mention a Times article from last year by Lisa Belkin, where she wrote about households that split the chores 50-50, and how difficult that was.
It's really hard. Half of the world believes it's because guys genuinely do not have as high a standard about making sure you get invited to dinner every once in awhile, or having matching socks. It's possible that guys, if they don't care, then it's very hard to impose those standards. Others argue that this is all a plot and the guys are just waiting out the women. I would go for 50-50. Clearly guys enjoy the higher standards—they just don't want to be in charge of them.

Right now, 76 out of 435 House members, or 17 percent, are women, and it's the same percentage in the Senate. You also mention a statistic about female law firm partners—in 2005 it was also at 17 percent. Why are we still stuck at around 20 percent?
It's a mixture of things. Certainly the work-child tensions is an issue. It's also reapportionment. Once they figured out how to reapportion districts by computer to protect all the incumbent, it became really hard for women to get elected. That big year of women getting elected happened after reapportionment. In a lot of places, in any kind of hidebound, old traditional culture of doing something, it's really hard to get any place anyway because everybody stays so long. And it's so depressing at the lower levels. Kids ask me, "I'd like to run for office. What should I do?" Well, it takes 27 years to qualify. And then you're in the State Senate and if you're in New York then you just want to shoot yourself.

You didn't have much discussion of women choosing, or not, to take their husband's name. Among my friends this has been rather controversial—women finding out that their fiances actually feel strongly about it, for example.
Keeping your own name has dropped down again. There's much more inclination to do it the other way. It's never knocked me out. If you're planning on having children, it does get kind of complicated. I changed my name when I got married because the mailman said he wouldn't deliver the mail if I had a different name. But once you've created a career with a name, you're very unlikely to want to change it. I can see how it's important to people. I was surprised at how much it's become unpopular again to not change, after it became such a thing that you wouldn't do it. I do feel sorry for little kids who have these really long names.

Why are there no late-night female hosts?
I presume there will be eventually. All those kinds of things are matters of what people are used to and what seems normal to people. There was a long time when we were sure we wouldn't put up with women being anchors or radio announcers. Now no one thinks about it. That's what Hillary Clinton did for women running for president. It's never going to seem weird again. So you just need one to be there, and then it'll be a normal thing. I can see it happening with someone like Ellen DeGeneres.

The Times ran a story this weekend about how the White House is kind of like a frat house. Should Obama be making more of an effort to have women in positions of power?
I don't know if the basketball game is a prominent role, but clearly the basketball game is really important to him. Part of me thinks the poor man's tired, let him just have five minutes to himself. But it's a little weird to think that the time he wants to spend by himself is with guys only. I think it's fair game to discuss it.

Anything else?
You know what comes up a lot? It always comes from an older woman. They ask me, "Why don't younger women want to hear these stories? Aren't you concerned about that?" It's often phrased in a way that I have such sympathy for the younger woman. Like, we walked 50 miles and we couldn't wear slacks. And you just don't care! And partly, given the transformation that the world has made, the idea that right now a generation of young women has come into the world without thinking that they can be constrained by their gender—it's such a neat idea I'm perfectly happy to celebrate it. I know they have problems of their own, more complicated in some ways than ones my generation faced. I'm not inclined to beat my breast about whether young women know these stories. But they are really neat stories. When I did the book before this one, it was all sort of part of me and I had new thoughts about the way I did things. Because I had that larger sense, the more stuff like that you know, the more reasonable behavior seems—things that your sex does that seem strange or outlandish make much more sense if you can just put yourself in their shoes and live through their past. It's one of the very few stories that has a happy ending. It just knocks me out that throughout recorded history people believed that women couldn't do stuff and women were inferior. And this ended in my lifetime!

When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present

Related: Gail Collins Columnist Page [NY Times]
Gail Collins on "When Everything Changed" [Forbes]
The Mismeasure of Women [NYT]
Newsweek: OK, Singles, Now You Can Worry About Terrorism [Salon]
When Mom and Dad Share It All [NYT]
No Babies? [NYT]