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When Everything Changed

American women have traveled a long road since the 1960s.

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In a year in which audiences have been captivated by Mad Men’s exploration of the early 1960s and Julia Child’s foray into the male-dominated world of Le Cordon Bleu, it seems Americans can’t get enough of postwar culture and its constraints, especially as they apply to gender. What better time, then, to look at American women’s progress since the ’60s, now that the dust has settled on the 2008 presidential election when so much was won (and lost) by women?

Women have traveled a remarkable road from the days when Lois Rabinowitz was scolded and sent home by a New York judge for wearing pants to pay her boss’s traffic ticket at a hearing in 1960.  This story opens and sets the tone for Gail Collins’ near epic history When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present.

The question of pants, who can wear them and what they represent, is a motif that runs throughout the book.

Collins tells of female fighter pilots who were arrested for wearing slacks in Georgia during World War II; of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s rejection for a clerkship with Felix Frankfurter, who asked, “Does she wear skirts?  I can’t stand girls in pants;” and more wryly, of Nixon’s comment to wire service reporter Helen Thomas at a bill signing, “Every time I see girls in slacks it reminds me of China.”

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