Women were laughing and gasping as Gail Collins reminded them of how far they have come since the 1960s — from the days when a woman could be kicked out of traffic court for wearing slacks, or barred from teaching if her pregnancy showed.
“Whenever there is a dress code, it says something about your role in society at large,” she said. “You can tell from what they were wore in the 1960s — skirts and nylons and girdles — that women weren’t expected to move all that much.”
Relishing the huge improvements in the past 50 years, the New York Times columnist applauded 500 women who had gathered in West Orange to mark the centennial year of the National Council of Jewish Women’s Essex County Section.
Collins gave the keynote speech at the event, held at the Wilshire Grand Hotel on Oct. 27.
Founded in 1912 with 37 members, the NCJW branch now has 3,400 and is the largest of the organization’s nearly 100 sections across the country.
With an amiable, round-cheeked grin that underlined the tartness of her comments, Collins, author of When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, took the crowd through a quick feminist history of the past five decades.
Prior to the women’s movement, discrimination, sexual harassment, and unequal pay were all legal. “Nothing was illegal,” she declared. But in the next decade, coinciding with the advent of the birth control pill, everything began to change. Women could embark on longer courses of study and delay marriage, and the concept of “fairness” began to gain ground.
Attitudes about women’s limitations and their weakness also began to change. “It’s an amazing story, and it makes me very happy,” Collins said.
Though emphatic that much remains to be done to end gender discrimination in the United States, Collins highlighted the extraordinary rise in the number of women enrolled in law school and medical school and making their way up in other professions.
Women, she said, have always been smart about where they placed their energies. When the jobs available to them were limited and the wages low, those who could focused on their homes, the one place where they had some autonomy, she said. When economic conditions changed and families began to need two incomes to meet their material needs, the workplace revolution gained momentum.
Asked by an audience member if that progress could be reversed by conservative political forces or economic decline, Collins shook her head emphatically. “I don’t think so,” she said. “This is something that moves in one direction.”
‘Accomplishing so much’
She expressed her gratitude to “the women who came just before me,” for the battles they waged to make a career like hers possible. “I have an incredibly wonderful job,” she declared.
Now 65, she started out professionally in Connecticut. Unable to get the kind of writing job she wanted, she and a partner established their own bureau, covering the state capital and Connecticut politics for a host of local publications. When she sold it in 1977, it was the largest news service of its kind in the country, serving more than 30 weekly and daily newspaper chains.
She went on to serve as a reporter for United Press International and then as a columnist at New York Newsday and New York Daily News. She joined The New York Times in 1995 as a member of the editorial board and later as an op-ed columnist. In 2001 she became the first woman appointed editor of the Times editorial page. She held that position for two years before taking leave to write a book, and then returned as a columnist.
Speaking later, as she signed copies of her new book, Collins said that she had enjoyed learning more about NCJW. Earlier in the program, with section president Jill Sorkin Johnson presiding, a procession of volunteers had come to the microphone to speak briefly about their service, including with programs to help seniors, shelter battered women, preventing teen date abuse, and the more recent Back to School store, which equips underprivileged kids with all the gear they need.
“There’s nothing I enjoy more than being with people who are doing things like this and accomplishing so much together,” Collins said.