Gossip, Celebrity and Politics

New York Times columnist Gail Collins offers a unique view on women having it all

Mar 17, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Being a drinker, having black ancestry or being a secret Catholic were more likely to end a political career in the early years of this country than being a cannibal or caught with a stripper in a compromising position. Gail Collins, New York Times columnist and Cincinnati native, provided the proof of this historical anomaly March 12 at the Woman's Club of Greater Cincinnati 16th annual National Speaker’s Forum.

“As immigrants started coming into the country, the early immigrants in particular were from Ireland, from Germany, from Italy, many of them were Catholics,” Collins said to the crowd of more than 500. “The native-born Protestants were very nervous about this huge wave of new comers and there was a real anti-Catholic sentiment for a while. There were a lot of rumors that any given politician was secretly Catholic.”

A case in point: John Charles Freemont, a famous explorer, ran against James Buchanan in the 1856 presidential election. Rumor had it that he participated in cannibalism when one of his great treks encountered a snow storm trapping the party and forcing them to survive any way they could, according to Collins.

“None of which worried him because he was very worried people thought he was a Catholic, a very big deal in this election,” she said.

The Woman’s Club sponsors a speaker each year “to collaborate with other organizations to bring a speaker with fresh and meaningful ideas to the people of Greater Cincinnati and to stimulate further action.”

The new idea that Collins brought was a different perspective on the past that provides a backdrop for current political controversies and challenges. Unearthing humor and little-known-facts as she researched, she helped readers reconsider their firmly held views about politicians, women politicians in particular.

To get to that point, Collins’ first step was understanding the lives of women in the United States, as she explained in an interview before her talk.

“The most fun book I did was … the first one, on America’s women,” Collins said. “I got the chance to read all these spectacular books out there about women’s history, all these great collections of letter by women from everywhere — pioneer women, New England midwives, southern plantations. I got to read it all and turn it into one story.”

That book, America’s Women: 400 years of Doll, Drudges, Helpmates and Heroines, tells the story of women beginning with the founding of the country and ending in the 1960s. The sequel, When Everything Changed, will be out this fall.

“We have interviews with about 300 women that my researchers and I did, most of them average women, just about how they lived and what their lives were like,” Collins said. “How they dressed, what dating their rules were, what their dreams and hope were, what they watched on TV, everything. And then we turned it all into part of the story … it drove the story in ways that really surprised me.”

“The great, dramatic, never-resolved story” that Collins unearthed might surprise many people who believe women now have it all.

“Not a very large proportion of (women) go on to be able to really combine families and careers,” she said. “A larger portion than I expected never have children, and a much larger portion than I expected never have careers. They work off and on during their lives, but they never have a continual work experience that leads to the kind of increases and salary and job gratification and prestige … that you hope to get when you have an actual career. It’s almost all because of family issues. I had no idea that it’s as unresolved as it is right now.”

The women’s movement spurred on by Baby Boomers created new opportunities for women to move into the world of public service and politics, but it hasn’t exactly worked out the way many of Collins’ generation expected.

“Women start in politics much later, in general, than men do because they tend to start after their kids are older,” she said. “That’s why Sarah Paling interests me so much. She’s a very interesting model of a person who didn’t do that. This is a woman who ran for vice president with a breast pump.

“A lot of people find it very upsetting that I regard her as an interesting model for the way women are moving forward. I wrote a column once and said she is that heir to all the things that women fought for. She started out her career very young. She never seems constrained by her gender at all and she’s never been constrained by her family obligations. She’s managed to combine them both in an amazing way.”

For those who believe the message matters as much as the messenger, this perspective on Palin doesn’t sit well.

“Gloria Steinem called me up and said, ‘If that’s what I fought for, then I’m shooting myself right now,’ ” Collins said. “I understand both visions about this, and I do think a lot of the Sarah Palin model has to do with the fact that she’s from Alaska. Alaska has a very frontier mentality.

“A lot of the constraints of gender that you normally have tend to evaporate. She mixes work and family in a way that I have never seen another female politician get away with.”

What comes next for women is the story of all humanity, Collins said, and it’s going to be driven by the economy. Women will soon make up for than 50 percent of the workforce, which will impact their lives as much as the families they have.

Collins predicts that more change is coming to address the lingering inequities. A conversation with a colleague during the war in Kosovo in the late 1990s sums it up well.

“He just looked like a dead person,” she said. “I said, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ and he said, ‘My wife’s in Albania and the hamster’s missing.’ I thought: This is the story of the new American man.”