Gail Collins’ 5 Most Significant Yet Overlooked Moments For Womankind

Here at The Frisky, we spend an awful lot of time reflecting on, pontificating about, and debating the state of things for women of the world today. How would things be different without feminism? Did it even work? Are we better or worse off than our grandmothers? Mothers? But no dialogue can be complete if not placed within the context of history. That’s why I am so excited about journalist Gail Collins’ new book, When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, which is currently on the bestseller list. Not only was Gail the first woman to be an editor at The New York Times, where she continues today as a columnist, but now she has penned the new must-have text for modern feminists. Her simple message to our generation: We must not take our astounding journey for granted. While we all know the big moments in women’s history—getting the right to vote, appointing the first woman to the Supreme Court, etc.—I’ve wondered what smaller moments Gail thinks had a huge pull on who we are today. After the jump, Gail breaks down for us the five most historically significant moments for women that no one knew were huge at the time. It’s an inspiring herstory lesson. 1868. The window screen is invented. While the concept of cleanliness was rather foreign to colonial housekeepers, by the 19th century women were struggling not only against the dirt from unpaved streets and the grit from deeply non-green heating systems, but also all the insects that came through open windows in the hot weather. It would take almost another century before the basic tasks of housekeeping, not including childcare, could be regarded as less than a full-time job.

1890s. The bicycle arrives. Women who had spent their entire lives weighted down by layers of floor-length skirts and encased in heavy corsets were suddenly able to go flying down the street on two wheels. And once “wheeling” became a respectable middle class activity, it was only a matter of time before the corsets got less restrictive and the skirts got shorter.

1960. Chubby Checker performs “The Twist.” Women love to dance. Men, frequently not so much. Until The Twist came along, girls had to wait for a boy to ask them to dance, and then they were frequently stuck following the leads of some pretty inept partners. Twisting in the 1960s still involved having a guy around somewhere, but he was doing his own thing, and leaving you alone to do yours. It was the first step toward the moment when women assumed the right to take to dance whenever they felt like it, whether there was a willing male or not.

1961. “The Dick Van Dyke Show” arrives on television. Dick’s spouse, a full-time housewife played by Mary Tyler Moore, does the housework wearing slacks—or actually, Capri pants. This was a huge break from the TV norm, in which women were shown wearing dresses, heels and pearls while they stirred a pot of something-or-other in the kitchen. It was also the start of a whole new era for a nation where women had seldom appeared in public wearing anything but skirts, nylon stockings and a girdle. That whole getup, in turn, was a signal that the country didn’t expect to see women moving around much, and it was reflected in everything from the absence of girls’ sports in schools to the difficulty women had in finding jobs (besides flight attendants) that would allow them to travel.

1968. The New York Times runs a feature story announcing a new trend called “cohabitation” in which unmarried college students of the opposite sex are living together without being married. This is a pretty good marker for the moment when the sexual revolution hit the mainstream. It was a sweeping change to the national sense of morality and, obviously, it had its pros and its cons. But the most important part of this “revolution” was the end to the old double standard in which men were expected to seek out sex whenever they liked but women had to maintain their chastity until marriage.

Thanks, Gail! We’ll all be reading the book.