Posted: September 2, 2010
he good news is that Gail Collins's popular history of modern American women is a surprisingly pleasant read—surprising, at least, to anyone expecting instead the reflexive ideological japery of the contemporary New York Times, where Ms. Collins served from 2001 to 2007 as the first female editorial-page editor, and where her columns have appeared regularly since. Mercifully, and unlike some of those columns, When Everything Changed is bouncy and sometimes even boosterish, its pages full of absorbing personal stories of women succeeding in one way or another from the '60s onward—that is to say, succeeding in the highly specific sense of making their way into the paid marketplace.
Given its sweep, its relative gentility of tone, and the feel-good way it tells plucky individual success stories from recent times, When Everything Changed plainly has "big commercial book" written all over it, a publishing judgment fully vindicated by the many positive reviews and notices it has garnered in all the best mainstream venues. None of which is to say that the book gets the big story of what has happened with American women right; it doesn't. But it is a work both interesting intrinsically, on account of the personal stories it tells, and also interesting inadvertently for what it reveals, however unknowingly, about the real social fault lines of our time.
Like the feminist movement itself, When Everything Changed is an offbeat, sometimes unintentionally droll mix of the high and low, celebrating all aspects of the commercial advance of American women during the last several decades—from the relatively straightforward right to equal pay for equal work, to the not-so-obvious importance of being called "women" instead of "girls," say, or to the so-called rights of airline workers to get older and fatter without losing their jobs. The first Native American woman to serve as head of a tribe, the first female lobbyist for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, the first half-Norwegian half-Eskimo lesbian who entered the military police (we think): say what you want about the ideological bean-counting on display here, the personal stories do make for fascinating reading.
Moreover, they are stories that Collins relates with an enthusiasm that is almost contagious, despite the outrageous, nay, flamboyant ideological bias she often indulges. Readers may be surprised to learn, for example, that apart from the indomitable Phyllis Shlafly and the easily mocked Sarah Palin, female conservatives have apparently not existed since 1960-which must be why Jeane Kirkpatrick, Clare Booth Luce, Ann Coulter, and a few thousand others don't appear in this very long book. Similarly, Collins does herself a favor—and her public a gross disservice—in not so much as mentioning the name, let alone the formidable work, of the single most important and penetrating critic of the women's movement across all the decades covered by this book: Midge Decter.
Such annoying if unsurprising omissions aside, though, the larger problem is that the record of what has actually happened in America during the past 50 years, not only to women but to certain other human beings too, roundly contradicts all the happy talk. Moreover, it is a problem not merely for Collins's book, but for the feminist doctrine it obviously incarnates. After all, the same decades that witnessed the entry of so many women into fields once reserved for men played host to certain other trends: skyrocketing illegitimacy, divorce, and the other varieties of family breakdown. And those trends, as a veritable army of sociologists and other experts have been patiently documenting also for nearly 50 years now, have been deleterious to catastrophic—most notably from the point of view of certain other human beings who make almost no appearance in this nearly 500-page book about women: namely, children.
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Of course it is impossible to claim that these two sets of events—the acceleration of family breakdown on the one hand, and the movement en masse out of the home and into the paid marketplace on the other—are unconnected. To her credit, Collins doesn't even try. Her strategy instead is to focus on the happy tales of individual accomplishment, to the near-total exclusion of all else. The result is often jarring, as if someone had stretched a smiley Horatio Alger mask too tightly over a rough frowning visage that keeps poking through beneath.
Consider, for example, Collins's principled unconcern for the fact that so many children now grow up in a home without a biological father. "The world has seen a lot of different family models come and go over the centuries," she writes breezily, "and there is no real way to demonstrate that a nuclear family like Ozzie and Harriet's is better than a small interknit tribe or a vast extended family." Really? No way at all? Nearly 50 years after the Moynihan report, some people still haven't read it—to say nothing of the libraries of related evidence written after it. Is there a moratorium on invincible ignorance?
Collins does note at least the incontrovertible fact that fatherless homes are more likely to be poor, limiting herself to the observation that it "really was not all that great for the children, who were far more likely than the offspring of two-adult families to be born poor, to be raised poor, and to grow up to be poor adults." (Note that politically correct deployment of "two-adult" rather than "two-parent," by the way.) True enough; but the focus on money and only money obscures what is most important about a child deprived of both parents—just how hard family breakup falls on the smallest and weakest shoulders. Never mind the dollar count. Don't children's feelings about what liberation has wrought have a claim to the public record, too?
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These are just some of the questions that Collins—like everyone else who toes the feminist party line—resolutely refuses to face about what really happened once American homes became emptier of adults than ever before. Such denial extends even into areas where it comes off as shockingly callous. Are today's young girls sexualized—in their clothes, their attitudes, their behavior—as never before? Most people would say yes, and that there's cause for concern there; but not feminist Collins. Gloria Steinem, she reports, is "philosophical" on the subject of the sexualization of today's young girls; and besides, shrugs Collins, "There is never going to be a straight narrative when it comes to what women choose to wear and how they want to look."
The same deep need to see no evil about anything committed in the name of feminism reaches its sad nadir in Collins's telling of the story of Lori Piestewa, the first female soldier killed in Iraq, whose photo appears among those of 16 other supposed feminist poster women in the book's middle. A mother, Piestewa left behind a 5-year-old son and a 3-year-old daughter—no spouse or father mentioned, incidentally, only her parents. Yet in Collins's rendition, Piestewa's is not at all a cautionary tale about sending mothers into war, or a tragic case showing the limits of just how interchangeable men and women really are. She is instead, in a way that we evidently are meant to applaud, one more Norma Rae-style feminist heroine, a poster soldier for the long-wished full integration of women into the military.
And it is here that the Horatio Alger mask stretched across this book splits apart once and for all—over the desperate need to dragoon into the feminist cause even a dead single mother who in a better society would not have been sent to war in the first place. "I think people have come to the sensible conclusion," Collins approvingly quotes retired air force general Wilma Vaught as observing, "that you can't say a woman's life is more valuable than a man's life." Who can't? From the point of view of those two children, no one's life was more valuable than their mother's. But in this book, as in our post-feminist world, the nonstop attention to grown women and what they want and need has long drowned those small voices out.
The feminist problem that supposedly had no name has always had a name: children. Women and children remain today as they have from the beginning of time—joined permanently at the root in a way that many Western women today want to deny. Collins, like other feminists, cites the women's movement itself as the fulcrum of the world wrought since 1960. But she and they are wrong. The women's movement was always a mere handmaiden to the real agent of social revolution: the Pill.
It was the Pill that simultaneously made it easier than ever before for women to behave like predatory men—and easier than ever before for predatory men to behave like themselves. Together, those men and their feminist women's auxiliary movement helped burn down many an American home. The sad truth beneath the happy stories of commercial success is that so many women, depriving themselves for generations now of the trials and consolations of family and home, have come to identify themselves first and foremost as women—rather than as wives, mothers, sisters, aunts, cousins, and the rest of the familial connections that have hitherto defined both women and men throughout human history. The way in which the sexual revolution changed that elemental vocabulary for many millions is the real story of how everything changed—and despite well—meaning but misguided tellings of the tale like this one, we are nowhere near fully understanding it yet.