Monday, January 18, 2010

Review: When Everything Changed by Gail Collins

I loved Collins' previous book, America's Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines. It's a great look at all sorts of women who helped form America. Collins has a great narrative style: the big changes are illustrated through the stories of individuals. When Everything Changed picks up where America's Women left off - covering the last half of the 20th century, and is quite current, as not only are Hillary Clinton's and Sarah Palin's historic campaigns covered, but also the signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act at the beginning of President Obama's term.

For covering a much shorter period of time, When Everything Changed is a much longer book, exhaustively covering a dizzying variety of women's lives. In some ways, the society Collins describes at the outset of the book feels like an alien world - women were chastised in traffic court for wearing slacks and married women couldn't be in control of family finances. Women were fired for getting married or having children and patronizing limits on how long a woman could work crippled women's abilities to provide for their families.

I'll admit, I knew a lot of those stories. But it's one thing to know that our country used to be so outwardly sexist, and another to read the first hand accounts of women who suffered under such indignities.

In light of today being a celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King's work, I also want to highlight that there is an extended section on the civil rights movement, and the great efforts women put in to ensure equality not just for their race, but for their gender as well. Some of our country's best known equal rights activists have been men, but Collins highlights how that was, at least in part, because the women in the movement were still expected to be subservient, just as women throughout America were expected to be subservient to men in general. However despite the lack of public recognition, women insisted on being part of the civil rights process at every turn, from planning rallies to participating in sit-ins that always carried the risk of violent attacks, helping to create the model that future generations of civil rights activists would follow.

Women Unbound Challenge

Also important to note today: over the weekend it popped up on the blogosphere that Bloomsbury, the publisher that infamously whitewashed the cover of Liar, has done it again with Magic Under Glass. I wrote about it in the early hours of yesterday, and Ari at Reading in Color is collecting links related to this latest incident of racefail. Please check it out and think about what you can do to encourage publishers to accurately portray their characters of color on their covers.
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