Open Book/Open Mind: Gail Collins on older women
Gail Collins will speak at MPL on Sunday, March 1. COURTESY NINA SUBIN
Open Book/Open Mind
Gail Collins with Dale Russakof
“No Stopping Us Now: A History of Older Women in America”
Sunday, March 1, 4 p.m.
Montclair Public Library, 50 South Fullerton Ave.
*Registration is full; waiting list tickets open at 3:45 the day of the event.
By GWEN OREL
Talk to any woman who’s been in a legislature and she’s got a bathroom story, says Gail Collins.
She covered Connecticut legislatures when she was starting out as a journalist in the 1970s. “Almost no women were covering the state legislature while I was there,” Collins said. “I had a partner, Trish Hall, who became the op-ed editor of the New York Times. We were stuck in a backup press room in the attic, and the only bathroom on that floor was the men’s room. The guys had a drinking room in the back for lobbyists, and women were not allowed in.”
She and Hall began using the men’s room in the middle of the night, rather than going down three flights of stairs in the dark.
She went to the legislature and asked, “What about disabled people?”
A sign went up: “This bathroom is for men and handicapped women only.”
She and Hall continued to use it.
“We liberated the goddamn bathroom,” Collins said with a laugh.
She will be in Montclair this Sunday, March 1, to talk about her new book, “No Stopping Us Now: A History of Older Women in America,” with Dale Russakoff in the latest Montclair Public Library Open Book/Open Mind event.
Her columns at NYT blend humor and politics. Writing humorously about serious subjects goes back to her days in the 1970s writing about the Connecticut legislature. People hadn’t seen the humor in legislatures before, she said.
She founded a news service called the Connecticut State News Bureau, providing coverage of state capital and Connecticut politics, when she moved to Connecticut with her husband, Dan Collins. In the 1980s she worked for United Press International, then moved to the New York Daily News, Newsday, and finally the Times in 1995, where she became the first female editorial page editor from 2001 to 2007. She is on the Pulitzer Prize board, and is reading the nominated material right now.
She began writing humorously because when she was covering local politics, she said, “I was going crazy about how bad things were. I didn’t want to write a column that makes people want to throw themselves out of the window.”
ODES TO MENOPAUSE
American women have interested Collins for a long time. She has written several other books about them, including “America’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates and Heroines” (2003) and “When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present” (2009).
Her new book examines how the concept of an “older woman” has changed over the centuries.
Collins, who is 74, said that naturally getting older has made it interesting. As she’s written her books about women, she would discover nuggets of information that she kept in the back of her mind.
For example, when the first colonists came from England and sent home for wives, they asked for women who were “civil and 50 years of age or under.”
Later, she ran into an ad for hair coloring which said “You’re not getting older, you’re getting better.” She read the copy, and it spoke about a woman being over 25. “Holy Moly,” she thought.
She got to work.
Of course, she did not really think any woman ever really felt old at 25. But she wanted to understand what made people judge women’s age, and how they felt about it.
“It’s all about economic power. In colonial days, when a colonial farm wife was creating an enormous amount of wealth, keeping chickens, making butter, spinning, sewing, trading with other women, the family really depends upon you — not to keep the house clean but to create the wealth family lives on.
“You did not get out of style when older if you were a colonial farm wife. Younger women wanted to hang around them to learn to do all this stuff,” she said.
When the colonial age ended and people moved to cities, all a middle class woman had to do was be a mother. Once her children left, she literally was left to sit on a rocking chair.
There were exceptions: “One of my favorite periods is the run-up to the Civil War. Abolition was really important for white women, and black women, in the North. But women weren’t allowed to speak in public. It was considered totally immoral.”
Elizabeth Cady Stanton figured it out. She said, naturally those are the rules, but now that she’s raised her children and is old, she could speak out, saying: “look at my grey hair.”
“People bought into that! She ran around the country playing cards with soldiers on the train,” Collins said, chuckling. Cady Stanton spoke about the home, the family, women’s rights… and divorce reform.
Other women copied her. Odes were written to menopause as a great liberator.
What about today? Is misogyny still a factor in daily life? Are older women invisible?
In many ways, it’s better than it’s ever been, Collins said.
“Nancy Pelosi, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, there are a lot of role models out there.”
She pointed out that the number of people over 65 tripled in the 20th century, and their number is continuing to increase.
“In 1980, 720,000 Americans were aged 90 or over. In 2010, there were two million. Two thirds of them are women. There is going to be a nonagenarian boom out there.”
Misogyny still exists, but the #MeToo movement has been helpful, she said. When she began this book five years ago, that movement had not even started.
While it’s no coincidence there has never been a woman president, she said, the number of young women recently elected to Congress is inspiring.
“I cannot help but think these women will be expected to run for president and governor and move into the executive side of things,” she said.
“I’ve lived in the period in the history of Western Civilization where the role of women in society has been transformed and equalized. A father who has a little baby, when told it’s a girl, doesn’t say, ‘Oh no, I wanted someone to help run the business.’ All of that changed in my lifetime. It knocks me out.
“When I look at what’s happened in my life, it’s hard to be depressed or despondent.”
from "No Stopping Us Now"
One mid-nineteenth-century reformer announced that the end of fertility was a time for “super-exaltation.” On the other hand, that was also a time when some doctors were beginning to theorize that postmenopausal women who engaged in sex were risking their lives and their sanity. There are no periods in American history when all the news is good.
During the period between the Civil War and the end of World War I, female entertainment celebrities tended to be older. You could be a glamorous singer at 50 and a famous beauty on the stage at 60 or 70. That was the age when “popular entertainment” meant lectures and theater. Then came the movies, with their unforgiving close-ups, at the same time that an enormous economic boom put outrageous new consuming power into the hands of the young.
Older women were no longer in vogue or in view. In popular films of the day, they were usually busty dowagers sternly disapproving of their male counterparts, who swanned around speakeasies with showgirls.