American society has changed at an amazing pace in the last fifty years, especially for women. In 1960, when Gail Collins begins the narrative of When Everything Changed, most white, middle-class women were married, stay-at-home mothers well before their thirtieth birthdays; they may have worked before they married, but their choices of acceptable careers were limited - sometimes by convention, sometimes by actual barriers to entry, including the law. It was more expected for poor women to work, even if they had children, but they were still primarily responsible for family and housekeeping as well. While the suffragists had succeeded in winning women the right to vote in 1920, progress for women in society essentially stalled after that. When it was proposed that non-discrimination on the basis of gender, as well as race, be added to the Civil Rights Act, it was essentially a joke aimed at derailing the law's passage in the first place.
The Civil Rights Act passed anyway, and together with Title IX, the legal framework was put in place for women's rights and opportunities to expand dramatically. And with that framework, women's consciousness began to expand too, and they began to question and reshape the social framework as well...ultimately, by the early 21st century, bending some of it back toward where it started.
It's rather difficult to review this book fully, because it includes so much material. However, it's a relatively fast and very engaging read (if I'd had more time to spend with it, I'd have finished it sooner). There are some topics and people on which I'd have liked to spend more time, but I don't think Collins missed or shortchanged anything that really matters. The book was enlightening about so many things: the women in the civil-rights movement (whom the men wanted to keep in the background); the early triumph and ultimate defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment, and its role in the rise of modern-day conservative politics (by the way, did you know that around the same time Congress originally passed the ERA, they also approved national child-care legislation? I didn't know it; if that had sustained some momentum, the lives of working moms could be so different); the perception of women as portrayed in popular culture, from That Girl to Mary Tyler Moore to Clair Huxtable, and reflected back as role models. Collins' approach embodies the "personal is political" tenet of modern feminism; much of the story here is oral history, told through women's experiences. While she spends time on plenty of prominent women - Gloria Steinem, Sandra Day O'Connor, Hillary Clinton - the stories of little-known women who also spent time in the trenches and lived out the changes are equally important here.
Collins is a reporter and columnist for The New York Times, and brings her journalist's approach to the writing here - it's very straightforward and direct, with plenty of references and endnotes. I read this on my Kindle, where the endnotes are actually links - it's a much more efficient approach, and I definitely liked it better than flipping back to the end all the time.