Donning a purple pant suit, Gail Collins seems quirky and laid-back—a far cry from the intimidating personality one would expect of a journalist of her stature. She babbles, or so she claims, whirling her hands around and every so often releasing a big, booming laugh that fills the small office with its volume. On October 22, the celebrated New York Times columnist visited the Radcliffe Institute to discuss her 2009 book on the modern feminist movement, “When Everything Changed.” FM chatted with her before she entered the Knafel Center’s main hall for her lecture.
1. Fifteen Minutes: How did you get the idea to write “When Everything Changed,” and how long did it take you to compile and write the book?
Gail Collins: I had written a book called “America’s Women” before that. I had a deal with a publisher to do the story of what happened with women in America. I thought I was going to go all the way to the end, but it’s one of those things where you’re taking an American history course, and it’s June and you’re on World War II, and you just know that it’s not going to end. I was in 1950, and it was five hundred pages, so I just kind of wrapped it up. I knew I would do another book, and this is the other book. So this is the book that I meant the first book to be.
2. FM: How did it all change for women so quickly? How did it happen so fast?
GC: It really is a bunch of things, but out of all of them I really think the economy, it’s always the economy for these things. After World War II there was this monstrous surge in the economy, and for the first time in history anywhere in the world, an average family could have this stupendous lifestyle. Then when the 70s hit, and all these other economic forces came in, you couldn’t do it on one salary anymore. Suddenly, that was when middle class women began to go to work. Once you think of your life in terms of, “Okay, I’m going to school, and when I get out, I will get married, I will have children, I will work to support my family,” as a matter of course, your whole vision of yourself changes, and society’s vision of you changes, because this is not a country where you’ll have any power whatsoever without an economic role.
3. FM: Have you ever felt like your gender has held you back, professionally or otherwise? If so, what made you feel that way?
GC: People always ask me that, they always want the story of my great struggle. But it’s always been a huge help to me, if anything. The reason is that the women who came approximately one second ahead of me historically were the ones who filed all the suits, and did all the petitions, and got in the face of their employers, and they didn’t get the rewards. People like me, who were just coming through the door right after them, got all the good stuff, so if anything I’ve gotten a lot of things because it was that moment when they were looking for a woman columnist. So it’s been a help, I think.
4. FM: What hasn’t changed for women?
GC: There was a point during the women’s liberation movement in which there was a theory that as part of their liberation, women would be wearing sensible, comfortable shoes wherever they went. This did not happen, and it’s never going to happen. We will always wear really silly shoes that look good; it’s part of life.
5. FM: Tell us about one of the more interesting or surprising interviews you’ve done.
GC: One of my favorite ones—it was over the phone, I never did get to meet her—was a woman from Georgia named Lorena Weeks, who was one of the first critical plaintiffs in the cases that really broke all the loopholes that business had used to keep from promoting women. You know, that women shouldn’t have to lift heavy things, or women shouldn’t have to work more than forty hours, all that. She was just this normal woman who was trying to get a good life for her husband and herself and her kids, and nothing she did was planned. It was just a natural response. She was just so sweet, such a pistol, and she had lived her entire life in this small part of Georgia. She just really knocked me out.
6. FM: Tell us something funny.
GC: The kids at Columbia, where I live in New York, are really nice, they’re just lovely. But the people here are just wildly polite, I mean stunningly polite! Maybe it’s just that I looked pathetic, but I’ve just never met so many really, really, really, really polite young people.
7. FM: You’ve collaborated a lot with other writers throughout your career—you’ve co-written a book with your husband, and you collaborate with David Brooks on a blog for The New York Times. What has made these co-writing relationships effective?
GC: You have to have two people who are really prepared to work together, because there’s sacrifice involved. You can never control, you can never have things your own way, and if you’re working on it, trying to figure a way to make sure you really do secretly have your own way, it becomes a disaster. But working with David is so much fun, and I think we’ve perfected it by now. He’s on book leave now until the end of the year, and I really miss him.
8. FM: How do you feel about writing op-eds?GC: The thing that I’ve done with my life is to write eight hundred words, twice a week. It’s almost a dead art, because nobody coming up now is going to have to write eight hundred words, twice a week. There’s so much more flexibility. I think in some ways it makes things…not better, but crisper, or clearer, and being restricted in some way is useful when you’re writing.
9. FM: Do you have any role models?
GC: Ellen Goodman was writing a column, and I thought that was just amazing, before I started writing them. Maureen Dowd was writing a column before me, Anna Quindlen. So every woman who was writing a column before I was, basically.
10. FM: How has journalism changed since you’ve been a writer?
GC: Well, the biggest change from when I started is the interaction with the public. We thought we were very responsive to the public before the massive Internet influx, but we were not responsive at all. We had no idea. We were just babies, typing away and thinking that everybody liked it because there was no way they could [comment]. So now it’s much more of a conversation, which is really cool. But I came to realize that the readers like talking amongst themselves, and when you come in, it’s sort of like your father coming in and turning out the light, or something. So I appreciate more that a lot of what we do is opening up the conversation so that people can come in and talk.