Midweek @ Musings: “Everything Changed” During my Lifetime

Several years ago my parents gave me a box of stuff from my childhood, including my baby book.  I came across my birth announcement, clipped from the local newspaper in 1962.  All the announcements that day read something like this:

Smith, John, Anytown, January 1, daughter

Notice anything unusual?  I was stunned.  Who carried that baby for 9 months, and went through hours of labor — John Smith?  I don’t think so!  When I had my children in the 1990s, I got credit for it.

“Everything changed” during my lifetime.

I’ve been struck by this thought ever since reading Gail Collins’ book, When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present.  The book description reads:

When Everything Changed begins in 1960, when most American women had to get their husbands’ permission to apply for a credit card. It ends in 2008 with Hillary Clinton’s historic presidential campaign. This was a time of cataclysmic change, when, after four hundred years, expectations about the lives of American women were smashed in just a generation.

Apparently in 1962, most American women also had to allow their husbands to take sole credit for producing offspring.  Sheesh.  But in describing women of my generation Collins wrote, “The first generation of American women who had not been told that their only place was in the home had come of age.” (p. 330)  And she’s right. Growing up, there was never any question that I would get a university degree and have a career.  Thanks to Title IX, girls enjoyed increasing opportunity in both academics and sports.

The entire world was changing all around me, but it’s difficult to see history happening when you live right in the midst of it.  When I entered the work force in 1984, I dutifully followed the dress code bible, John T. Malloy’s Dress for Success.  I owned a tailored gray suit (with shoulder pads of course), and blouses with bows at the neck.  I never wore slacks to work; that is, until around 1990 when the first woman was appointed to head my department.  The first time she wore a pantsuit to work, she sparked a revolution.  All of the women felt a bit liberated, and the unwritten dress code relaxed.  Today I can’t think of the last time I wore a skirt or dress to the office!

In fact, little things happen every day that remind me of how “everything changed.” Last week I took a short business trip to Washington, D.C.  I traveled alone by train, and found myself sitting next to another professional woman.  That’s commonplace today, but it would have been rare in the 1980s and unheard-of in the 1960s.  The next day’s business meeting included just as many women as men.  And the women weren’t serving coffee, or sitting silently; we were active participants in the discussion and decisions.  We even had a business conversation in the ladies room, and laughed about how the balance of power is moving away from the men’s room.  I took the opportunity to recommend Collins’ book to them (if you haven’t seen it yet, you might want to read my review of When Everything Changed).

Reflecting on the changes that have taken place in the last 50 years, I wonder what the future holds for my teenage daughters.  When they are in their 40s, will they look back on the women of 2010 and think about how far they’ve come?

What has changed for women during your lifetime?

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10 thoughts on “Midweek @ Musings: “Everything Changed” During my Lifetime

  1. When you were arriving on the planet, I was entering high school. My generation had the luxury of a booming economy, no war (at least we Canadians didn’t…no Vietnam or Korea here, unless by choice), post-war technological advances, no hysterical fear of Communism, etc. In other words, we had a climate in which to question and challenge. And in 1962 we got The Pill. That was monumental: getting pregnant became a choice.

    When I was an undergrad, women faculty were more poorly paid than men and, in fact, had a hard time breaking into the world of academia. beyond the level of lecturer. When I retired from the uni, we had a woman President, a woman Dean, and Vice-President, with easily half of the faculty women. Women are now published on a par with men. Yes, we wear what we like and feel comfortable in (and I thought the death of the garter belt was liberating!). We own homes in our own names, buy cars and have credit cards without a man’s name having to be on the papers. Our voices have credibility as newscasters (although the male eminence gris is still in force).

    One of the biggest changes I’ve seen is that cutting edge feminism has evolved to become an inclusive humanism, which embraces all genders, all sexualities, as well an ecological sense of the planet as an interconnected organism (eco-feminism).

    Yes, we have miles to go before we can sleep but I have great hope when I see bright young women coming along who are more than up for the challenge. The fact that they will be allowed to explore fully who they are is the biggest change of all. I have worked all my life for this (didn’t get to do it fully myself) and gladly hand the baton on to them.

  2. We’re about the same age, so my reaction to the book, and the changes it chronicles, was much like yours. I think it’s especially important for our generation- and the ones after ours – to realize how far we’ve come.

  3. In the mid-1950s, my mother attended the Martha Van Renssalaer School of Home Economics at Cornell University because her father didn’t believe women needed a liberal arts education. (She had been accepted to Smith College, but he refused to pay for her to go there.) In 2010, her oldest son (me) is a “homemaker” married to a professor (and former associate dean) at a liberal arts college.

    • Rob, my personal story is somewhat similar: my mother’s ambitions were thwarted during that same decade. And today, my husband’s role is similar to yours. Thanks for sharing.

  4. I LOVE this question you asked and have been thinking about how to answer… I am always shocked when I hear about things being a certain way ’20 years ago’ but being only 11 at the time, I have no memory of whatever it was.

    I can think of a LOT of generational differences between myself and my mother, of course, though we would both identify as feminists.

    I think I should find and read the Collins book.

    • Marieke, I also come from feminist stock and am surely a product of those views. But my mother lived in a very different kind of world than we do today, in terms of opportunities (see Rob’s comment above).

      I think you’d enjoy the book! It was really quite thought-provoking.

  5. This sounds like a lovely book that really makes you think. I think we all too often forget what women had to deal with 50 years ago.

    • Iris, yes, I think a sign of a good book is when it remains in your consciousness for a long time after you’ve finished. And that is definitely the case with this book.

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