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

What is Work? Gail Collins: When Everything Changed

Interviewing a journalist is like operating on a surgeon, I worried, as I picked up the phone.

I was calling New York Times columnist and author Gail Collins, who had been spending the day at the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders in Austin, TX.

My professional goal: uncover the "Why" of her new book, When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, (Little, Brown).

My personal goal: Don't screw up.

Luckily, Collins sees individual women's struggles as part of a shared story. And that includes neurotic interlocutors.

At the risk of sounding all Women's Studies-ish, you could describe When Everything Changed as a her-story as opposed to a traditional his-story.

First-and-secondhand interviews with women who conquered social, economic and personal challenges are the book's building blocks. This structure was inspired by Collins's day-job, in part.

"I'm in love with 800 words. My mind is an 800-word mind in many ways," she says.

For readers, the Big Moments, Succinctly Told-format can impart the happy feeling of attending a cross-generational cocktail party attended by several hundred of the Coolest American Women, Ever. (You can read an except here.)

On page 121, you can hear Ella Baker, the "Gandhi" of civil rights opining with courageous grace about the fight ahead. ("People have to be made to understand that they cannot look for salvation anywhere but to themselves," she told her followers at the SNCC).

Fifty pages later, Nora Ephron is waxing hilarious about a cervix-viewing party ("It is hard not to long for the days when an evening with the girls meant bridge," she says).

Work is a crux issue of the book.

"In 1960, a middle-class woman's job description was a management role: full-time housewife," Collins notes. Washing, ironing and dusting their homes offered women more decision-making power that factory work or "wifing" a stranger's home.

Today, most women are free (and financially obligated) to work outside the home. If there's a thru-line in our stories, it's our ongoing search for personal fulfillment with our paychecks.

Collins's personal story (which doesn't appear in the book) offers an inspiring example of a woman working on her own terms.

The first woman op-ed page editor of The New York Times wanted to be a creative writer as a girl. A publisher in Boston accepted a book of monologues from her at 16 called, "Strictly for Laughs," (a title she confides with a laugh and a groan).

Her desire to be a novelist trumped her talent, Collins believed. So she applied to be an editor at her school magazine.

"The tradition was that you had a guy and a girl," she recalls.

A male classmate suggested they apply as a team. Then the other top boy in the class asked to work with Collins as well.

"Which one do you want?" Collins remembers being asked.

At which point, she experienced what she calls, "a moment of cosmic revelation."

"Neither," she said. "I would just like to have it all myself."

If you hear "radical feminist" between these last few lines, it may be time to retune thine ears.

The classmates Collins rejected became her articles editor and her arts editor. She went on to write and edit stories her way. Which leads us back to her book.

"'Feminist' simply means someone who supports equal rights and opportunities for women," Collins writes. "But there have been very few periods in American history when it didn't wind up being linked to images of cranky man-haters in unfashionable footwear."

Could this be one of those positive times?

The women in When Everything Changed are gutsy, goal-setting, game-changing, God-chatting, family-loving individuals who share a belief in Change - and an enduring, if irrational love of sexy shoes.

The book ends in a Happy Place, with women running for President and Vice-President of the country that heralded Madeline Kunin and friends by saying, "they're legislators and they're lovely!"

But boy, girls, do we have work to do.

"The huge gigantic thumping issue is one-half of the workforce is female and we haven't agreed who takes cares of the kids," Collins says.

Solo-preneurship has replaced the domestic manager model for women under 30, Collins points out. And that leaves a lot of women facing Big Issues on their own.

But perhaps this is where a little common history can help.

"I hope they see it as something that will make them feel good - that's it's preparing their platform and they leap off," Collins says of young women, in general.

We end our chat, indirectly, with the idea of history - and work - as forms of gratitude.

To fight for issues - and win - was a gift of great luck, Collins tells me. "I feel so lucky," she says.

"I loved everybody," she notes about her book's subjects. "They were just so wonderful."

Color me her-storical.

But when was the last time Herodotus said something like that?