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Gail Collins’ latest book, <i>When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present</i>, chronicles the progress of women over the last 50 years. Collins spoke at Kellogg on Jan. 19 as part of the Kellogg Distinguished Lecture Series.

Gail Collins

Kellogg Distinguished Lecture Series: Gail Collins

The <i>New York Times</i> columnist and author illuminates the journey toward women’s rights

By Amy Trang

1/22/2010 - When Gail Collins attended college in the 1960s, there was just one exception to the rule barring her and her female classmates from leaving the dorm in pants — bowling night.

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  Gail Collins, New York Times Columnist
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 “Back then, women did not move around much. They stayed inside,” said the New York Times op-ed columnist, who wore black pants during her Jan. 19 talk at the Kellogg School at Northwestern University. “We went bowling a lot.”

Collins has been a reporter for more than 20 years and was the first woman to be appointed editor of the New York Times’ editorial page. Her latest book, When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, chronicles the progress of women over the last 50 years.

Collins regaled the audience with anecdotes about the women she interviewed for her book — from one who was sent home from traffic court to put on a skirt after she initially appeared in pants, to another who was unable to get credit unless her husband, who was housed in a mental institution, served as her co-signer.

She noted that the women’s suffrage movement in the early part of the 20th century was a potential watershed in the larger fight for equal rights — a fight that lost momentum after women won the vote in 1920. “The reason women had no traction to (keep) the movement going then was that (they) were sleeping with the enemy — in a very literal way,” Collins said, to audience laughter.

It wasn’t until the years between 1964 and1972 that several bills supporting women’s rights in the workplace were passed. This short period sped the drive toward equality thanks to the confluence of three historic turning points: the introduction of the birth control pill, the sexual revolution, and the civil rights movement. The last in particular encouraged citizens and authority figures to express “real doubts about (existing) laws and start to have a strong sense of fairness,” she said.

Prompted by a sharp rise in energy costs and unemployment, women entered the workplace in massive numbers in the 1970s. Collins noted that the middle class lifestyle had become difficult to sustain in households without two incomes.

“Everything changed when women had an economic responsibility,” Collins said. Now, she added, “there is no developed country in the world that depends more on women in the workforce than in the U.S.”

But as women and men strive for equal footing in the workplace, Collins said there is one demographic that seems to have been forgotten — children.

“Who takes care of the kids?” Collins asked, noting that early childhood education is a topic that politicians seem to ignore. “It’s a loser politically. There is no political traction; there are no votes for it. To do something about it is incredibly expensive.”

Nonetheless, Collins urged her audience to continue moving forward in the march toward true equality.

“In my lifetime, it all changed and (the traditional view of women) was shattered,” Collins said. “It was a platform for you to spring off of. Go out and enjoy it all. It’s a great, great thing we’ve experienced.”

Collins is the latest speaker in the Kellogg Distinguished Lecture Series, which features preeminent thought leaders from the worlds of academia, journalism and business. Speakers in the 2009-2010 series include Donald Kohn, vice chairman of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors; New York Times reporter and columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin; author, professor and Pentagon consultant Bruce Bueno de Mesquita; Promod Haque ’83, managing partner at Norwest Venture Partners; and Jean-Claude Trichet, president of the European Central Bank.