Author and New York Times columnist Gail Collins knows quite a lot about the achievements of women, and in her last several books she’s created a social history for several hundred years worth of evolving social mores and shattered glass ceilings.
Her most recent book, When Everything Changed, was critically acclaimed as both historically poignant and easy to read. Collins stops in Savannah Thursday, April 12, to discuss the book, her career and writing at Arnold Hall, as part of SCAD’s “Art of the Mind” lecture series.
We spoke with her by phone last week (on the last day of National Women’s History Month) to discuss writing, role models, how everything changed except feminism, and how excited she is to finally visit Savannah.
You write columns about any number of topics. What is it that drew you to doing this most recent book, and another previously, on the subject of women?
Gail Collins: It was the millennium that got me interested. The Times magazine asked me if I could write the introduction to an entire issue on “women over the last 1,000 years,” which is possibly the most New York Times–ian title I’ve ever heard in my life. I hadn’t done any women’s stuff at that point. As I was writing it, it struck me for the first time that the vision of women’s place in the world had basically been the same from the year 1000 on, and it was totally shattered and changed in my lifetime. I was there to see this thing happen. It knocked me out. That’s what got me going, and I thought I would write a book about it.
Is it tough to transition from columns to long form writing?
Gail Collins: No. Usually all my chapters are broken up into chunks that tell a story or make a point. That makes it more column–like to me. In that sense, it’s not as traumatic a change as you would think. 800 words is something I’m really comfortable with. I was stunned the other day when I read Bob Herbert, one of our columnists, announced he was going to leave, and in his statement he said “the limit of 800 words is starting to get to me.” I saw some of the blogs following it saying, “He thinks 800 words is too little! How could this be?” 800 words is endless by American standards now. Anything you write now, you really do have to think about the fact that the American attention span is very short.
Focusing on the last 50 years of women’s history, obviously a big part of that is the rise of popular feminism, but as the role of women changes it seems like feminism would have to as well. What is feminism now?
Gail Collins: It’s never really changed. Feminism has always been about making sure women get equal rights and equal opportunities, and that doesn’t change. A lot of young women don’t like the word feminist – they find it off–putting. But if you say, “should you fight to make sure women get equal rights and equal opportunities,” they all say yes. Young women today are very strong, it’s just that that word is one that has always freaked people out. I always thought if you could just call it Fred, we’d have no problem whatsoever.
You’re coming here to talk to college students –
Gail Collins: I’m so excited. I’ve never been to Savannah, and on my list of things that I’ve always wanted to do, it’s really high up. The very second the Times asked me, I signed on.
When you talk to college students, and particularly young women, do you sense they understand how recent some of these victories are? How recently these glass ceilings were broken?
Gail Collins: They live in a different world. Young women are often surprised by the whole story. A lot of older women come to me and say very plaintively, “they don’t understand what we went through,” which is sort of a tone I’ve always found a little worrisome. Like we struggled through the snow, sat by fires, worked and starved. It was a chance to be part of a movement that you were pretty sure was going to win, that you knew was absolutely right, and you sort of suspected that the people you were picketing knew was right. You could feel the wind of history at your back. The challenges for younger women today are much more complicated and in many ways much harder.
Along those lines – everything has changed, but at the same time, there is still inequity of pay, underrepresentation of women in executive positions, double standards regarding sexuality, etc. Even though it’s a different world, is there still a fairly significant amount progress to be made?
Gail Collins: The biggest single challenge for women, and there are many – the big, big one that comes up every single day is the challenge of both pursuing a career and having a family. That explains a lot of the other things, including the pay disparity, the difficulty women have making the top rung in business, the fact we’ve still only got 17 women in the U.S. Senate –– a lot of those things have to do with women, particularly, how they’re going to balance raising a family with having a career. It’s still really hard to pursue the kind of career that’s going to make you the CEO of a Fortune 500 company if you’re taking primary responsibility for raising children too.
The world of entertainment isn’t providing a lot of good role models for girls growing up today – Snooki, etc – who do you see as being good role models for girls now?
Gail Collins: I always used to say – and this is dating me because it’s a ‘90s answer from when I was starting the first women’s book – Buffy the Vampire Slayer was an excellent role model. There are still lots of those role models out there – women who are very strong, very tough, and fighting the good fight on behalf of the world while still maintaining their humanity. There’s no shortage of them out there. You see amazing women who are writing and reporting. Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric are both great role models and they broke one of the most perpetuated glass ceilings in the entire world. Hilary Clinton is a great role model for a woman who can always get back up when there’s a challenge that would floor any normal human being.
With today being the last day of Women’s National History Month – do campaigns like this help increase the visibility of underrepresented peoples, or do they cause a glossy, pop–culture version of history to assume too large a role for the public?
Gail Collins: Any of these –– Black History Month, Women’s History Month –– these are all good. They’re just an invitation to talk about or think about things that many people in the course of their normal activities don’t contemplate. Any time any one suggests we should spend time thinking about history, I’m signing up.
Art of the Mind Lecture Series featuring Gail Collins
When: April 12, 7 p.m.
Where: Arnold Hall Auditorium, 1810 Bull St
Cost: Free and open to the public