03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When Everything Changed , by Gail Collins

Reviewed for Progressive Book Club

When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present
By Gail Collins
New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009

When Betty Draper of the TV series Mad Men had her third child early this season, the blogosphere went wild. For many viewers, American suburban childbirth rituals of 1963 seemed as primitive and unfamiliar as a confinement in the Dark Ages. Twilight sleep? Shaving? Husbands smoking in the waiting room with bottles of Scotch? I was struck by the degree of shock and indignation in the online posts, and realized how distant the 1960s had become from the normative female experience of today.

In When Everything Changed, Gail Collins, the former editorial page director of the New York Times and author of the best-selling America's Women, picks up her history of women left off in the 1960s. Collins uses her great sense of revealing anecdotes, engaging personalities, representative case histories, resonant stories, and startling details to defamiliarize a decade we thought we remembered, and to show how truly far American women have come in every aspect of their lives. Whether being forbidden to wear pants in a courtroom, growing up without seeing "a woman doctor, lawyer, police officer, or bus driver," or hearing that "for a woman to make decisions... would be unpleasant, dominant, masculine," Sixties women took for granted a second-class status that would be unthinkable now. The median age of marriage was twenty, and girls might otherwise aspire to brief mini-careers as airline stewardesses or schoolteachers. Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963 (just a few months before Betty has her baby on Mad Men) put a label to the malaise of unhappy, bored, rebellious, and intellectually frustrated housewives, and the second wave of American feminism, the women's liberation movement, began.

Collins gives a lively account of the founding of NOW, the National Organization for Women, in 1966 at a conference on job discrimination in Washington. Conceived as an "NAACP for women," NOW "seems to have been a plant that required only a seed and a thimble of water before it sprouted into something terrific." Even the leaders of the women's movement were astonished at its rapid growth. "With no money, no office, no staff, it was impossible to answer all the letters and calls from women who wanted to join NOW," Betty Friedan recalled. Indeed, many historians call women's liberation an idea whose time had come, with strong feminist leaders inspired by the civil rights movement and the Left, who emerged in the 1960s to channel and mobilize women's aspirations and demands.

But Collins is writing for a mass audience, and a large part of this book's commercial appeal is its even-handedness, balance, and avoidance of an overt liberal agenda. So she plays down the role of feminist leaders and women's movement organizing, to seek "something else--or a collection of something elses-buried deep in the social fabric." These impersonal elements, she argues convincingly, came from large socioeconomic forces, especially the financial need for married women to work, which was "really the key to women's liberation." By 1970s working wives provided a third of the family income, and "the decline in men's paychecks in the 1970s, made women's participation in the workforce almost a requisite for middle-class life. The birth control pill gave young women confidence that they could pursue a career without interruption by pregnancy. The civil rights movement made women conscious of the ways they had been treated like second-class citizens and made them determined that their own status was one of the things they were going to change. It was, all in all, a benevolent version of the perfect storm."

On the other hand, Collins argues, when some things didn't change, individual women leaders in the opposition were more powerful than large social forces. True, "traditional women, working-class men and conservative churches" resisted the Equal Rights Amendment, for example; but their anger was "channeled and mobilized" by Phyllis Schlafly. In the astonishing 2008 presidential race, Hillary Clinton changed many voters mind about having a woman in high political office, but Sarah Palin's campaign transformed the entire political conversation.

I'd prefer to see the feminist leaders of the 1960s and 1970s get more credit, but Collins's message is inspiring and timely, and all the techniques she employs to make this book fun to read-and impossible to deny-deserve critical praise as well as popular success. What's really important, she concludes, is that "the feminist movement of the late twentieth century created a new United States in which women ran for president, fought for their country, argued before the Supreme Court, performed heart surgery, directed movies, and flew into space." The women's movement did not solve every problem and dilemma of women's lives, restructure romance and marriage, or resolve the issues of family and childcare versus work. But what a great start!

Elaine Showalter, a professor emerita at Princeton University, is the author of numerous books, including A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing and, most recently, A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx.