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Women's Lib, From Bedroom To Boardroom

In 1964, Rep. Howard W. Smith of Virginia, an 80-year-old ardent segregationist, tried to torpedo the Civil Rights Act then moving through Congress. To render the legislation absolutely absurd, the Democrat proposed an amendment adding women to the groups to be protected from discrimination.

The joke was on him. The amendment passed — and so did the bill. To make sure the ban on sex discrimination was enforced, the National Organization for Women (NOW) was founded and, in the blink of an eye, a women's liberation movement began attacking the traditional social roles assigned to the sexes.

In When Everything Changed, Gail Collins traces the transformation of the lives of women in the United States — in boardrooms and bedrooms — that ensued. It was, she argues, imperfect, incomplete and astonishing.

The first editorial page editor of The New York Times and the author of America's Women (2003), Collins is a masterful storyteller. Supplementing archival research with well over 100 interviews, she uses the memories "of regular women who lived through it all" to illuminate the public dramas of the last half century. Although she's clearly pleased with the progress women have made, Collins engages highly charged subjects, from "The Pill" to Palin, without grinding axioms.

She suggests, for instance, that the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was not ratified by the requisite number of state legislatures because supporters had "only vague explanations" for the actual good it would do. Nor did they effectively refute conservative Phyllis Schlafly's claims that it would result in unisex bathrooms, a merger of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and inclusion of females in the military draft.

Collins makes a compelling case, however, that although many women these days shy away from the label "feminist," the big story is not backlash. In 1960, women accounted for 6 percent of doctors, 3 percent of lawyers and less than 1 percent of engineers. Today, about one-third of the physicians, thirty percent of the lawyers and 9 percent of the engineers in the United States are women. College women now think about the work they want to do, not the men they want to catch.

Although women have come a long way, baby, Collins acknowledges that — in 21st century America — they haven't figured out how to raise children and hold down a job at the same time, or to keep marriages from cascading into divorce. Nonetheless, her splendid book reminds us that their moms created a world their grandmas "did not even have the opportunity to imagine."

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Glenn C. Altschuler