STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The newspaper columnist Gail Collins says she worked some years ago on a project for the New York Times. It examined the lives of women over the last thousand years.
Ms. GAIL COLLINS (Author): I suddenly realized the vision that the world had of women in year 1000 and in 1960 was not in its real basis much different, and that I live in that one tiny sliver of time where everything changed. And that just knocked me out.
INSKEEP: Now Collins has written a book she titles "When Everything Changed." She offers a history of the last five decades, when millions of women moved into the workplace and demanded equal rights and took a larger role in American life. Collins begins with a story of something women could not easily do in 1960.
Ms. COLLINS: In the summer of 1960 a woman named Lois Rabinowitz(ph) is in Manhattan, she's a secretary and she's on her way to the traffic court to pay a ticket for her boss, a parking ticket, and she becomes the central story of the day in the courthouse because she's evicted from the traffic court for attempting to pay a traffic parking ticket while wearing slacks. And the magistrate was outraged. He was just - you're defaming my court, you don't have any respect for the traffic court and its dignity.
And she got her husband, Irving, to come, he was a chauffer, and he paid the ticket and then the magistrate yelled at him and said you better clamp down on this young woman before it's too late. And that was very typical at that time. A lot of women that I talked to for the book said that even if it was winter time, it was just inconceivable that she would run around in pants.
INSKEEP: So you tell this story about the way life was in 1960 and then you tell a different story about pants in this decade.
Ms. COLLINS: Yeah, and I just sort of stumbled upon this as I was finishing the book. There was a young woman who applied for a job as a bus driver in New York and she got the job, but then she was fired because she refused to wear pants. Her religion required that she wear a skirt and they tried to do culottes, you know, we'll work out this, that, nothing worked out.
And so much of the story that I was trying to write was a story about progress and change, and one person's progress is always another person's loss. You never have a win, win, win, win, win story in this world, I think.
INSKEEP: Is part of the conflict, or conflicted feelings, driven by the fact that women over these five decades that you chronicle here, that women are being - they're not just reaching for new roles, but they're also in your story being pressed into new roles by necessity.
Ms. COLLINS: Yeah, when I've written about women before, about older periods in American history, you see how sort of scrunched up women were, what limits there were to their possibilities, there's a tendency to think, well, thank heavens we came along and we were so much smarter and braver and stronger and we took care of everything. But it's so not about that. It's so much about women responding to whatever circumstances they're thrust into.
Right now, over the last 50 years, women have taken equal responsibility in many cases for supporting their families. Forty percent of new births are to single women. Women are 50 percent of the workforce now, and that's not going to change, no matter how many theories you have, how much discussion you have about what women's roles should be - that's the way it is. That's what the economy is dictating and women just step up to the plate and deal with it.
INSKEEP: What is thrusting, or what has been thrusting women into the workplace these last few decades?
Ms. COLLINS: It was such an amazing set of perfect storm kinds of things. For one thing, in the 1960s you had this booming economy and you didn't really have enough men around to fill all the jobs, so there was this sudden demand that women come back and perform a lot of the white collar or pink collar roles that men had done before or that hadn't existed before.
INSKEEP: I'm flipping to a Time magazine headline that you found: "A Good Man is Hard to Find, So they Hire Women" - from 1966.
Ms. COLLINS: Yeah, we ran through everybody else and now we're going for the women. That's always been true in our history, you know?
INSKEEP: Nobody else laughed. President Johnson here is quoted encouraging companies to hire women, teenagers, the handicapped, and immigrants.
Ms. COLLINS: If nobody will come over the border, then we will hire the women. It does sound a little desperate, doesn't it, when you put it that way. But all of our history, it's always been true, whenever the economy has changed and said, wow, we need a whole lot of people doing office work, suddenly the idea of a woman working before she got married for a while was regarded as a good wholesome way to prepare yourself for married life somehow. It's always that way. The economy decides something's necessary and then our thinking kind of fits around it.
INSKEEP: I feel like reading this, that you do get a sense of women not necessarily grasping an opportunity, but assuming an economic obligation.
Ms. COLLINS: Yeah, well, for some women it's both. When you open up things like this, for some women it's breaking open the doors and opening the windows and just say, okay, fly. But for many, many, many women, it's a question of what you need to do to take care of yourself, to take care of your family.
Before World War II, we lived very simple lives. We didn't have cars. Most people didn't own homes. Most people didn't have great aspirations. Then the war changed, the post-war economy came in. Everything boomed and suddenly on one person's salary, because of the GI bill and the loans, the home loans, you were able to have a house, to have a car, to have a TV, to expect to send your kids to college. All this stuff became things that people really felt they needed to have. And they got it on one person's salary often in those early years.
But then the '70s came and the economy just no longer could support families like this on one person's salary. But that was really the point at which people realized that if you wanted to have a middle-class lifestyle, you needed to have two people working. And it - now I believe women grow up with the same expectations men do for the most part, that it's their job.
INSKEEP: When you look at some of the statistics from recent times, particularly when you look at things like college admittance or college graduation and the way that young women now outnumber young men at institution after institution, does that make you feel that the story you try to tell of women's rights changing over the last half century, do you feel like that story is over, it's done?
Ms. COLLINS: It's a different story now for sure, and I find that it's so ironic. The very second that you suddenly got girls going through school and doing better than boys on every level, you instantly started getting all these magazine stories about what's wrong with our boys? We've only got two sexes.
INSKEEP: Somebody has to be in second…
Ms. COLLINS: Society really can't win on this one. You know, somebody is not going to have the majority of college students. But…
INSKEEP: So men should be proud to be in the top two, is what you're saying?
Ms. COLLINS: Yeah, I think men do not need to worry on this front. Once women get out of college, when it comes to moving up career ladders, men tend to still outstrip them, and the one humongous, immense thing that we didn't change, that we didn't figure out how to deal with is if men and women are both going to work throughout their lives, who's going to take care of the kids?
INSKEEP: Hmm. And what are the issues that people are still struggling with there?
Ms. COLLINS: It's a function of time. There's just this - we have not restructured the society at all to reflect the fact that most kids don't have a parent who's available to be with them all day long.
INSKEEP: Gail Collins is the author of "When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women From 1960 to the Present." You can find an excerpt from the book and find a review by going to npr.org.
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