Author expounds on change in women's societal roles since '60s

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Gail Collins, author and New York Times columnist, spoke Thursday in the LBJ Library about the history of gender discrimination in the US. The speech was hosted by the Center for Politics and Governance as part of the center’s ongoing Perspectives@CPG series.

Photo Credit: Thomas Allison | Daily Texan Staff

Over the course of a decade, changes in social opinion, contraception and the economy led to significant advances in women’s roles in society, said author and New York Times columnist Gail Collins.

At a lecture sponsored Thursday by The New York Times and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs Center for Politics and Governance, Collins said major societal changes between 1964 and 1974 allowed women to strive to be more than homemakers.

“This entire sex for the entire history of the world was regarded as an inferior class of being with less rights, with less opportunities, with no opening to venture to choose their destiny in life,” Collins said. “All of that changed in a 10-year period.”

The idea of fairness in the civil rights era was a key factor in women’s ascension into the public sphere, she said.

“It created a sensitivity to fairness,” Collins said. “If you can convince the country that something is not fair, you can win the battle.”

After those 10 years, however, women still had a long way to advance in society; they were ridiculed, harassed and laughed at for thinking they could do jobs formerly reserved for men, she said.

Even though women were allowed to receive an education they still faced prejudice in the work place, Collins said.

“It was totally possible to discriminate in the 1960s,” Collins said. “I found a case in the ’60s where the UT Dental School would not admit women because they said women were too weak to pull teeth.”

Collins said attitudes changed in the 1970s and 1980s when economics began to require two incomes to finance modern conveniences such as a home and a car.

“There was a moment in the ’80s, when the average little girl in this country thought about her future,” Collins said. “She thought not only in terms of who she wanted to marry, but what work she wanted to do. That’s the actual moment everything changed.”

Collins said the invention of the birth control pill was another factor that helped women advance even further despite their challenges.

“As soon as the birth control pill became available, the rates of applications of women to medical school, law school and other professional schools went through the roof,” Collins said.

Doctoral human development graduate student Brittany Wright said she didn’t totally grasp the enormity of the changes in this decade until hearing about the milestones in Collins’ speech and reading her book “When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present.”

“I don’t think I really appreciated it, although I am a woman,” Wright said. “By studying it recently, I’ve become enlightened.”

Human development sophomore Tyson Shores said she appreciates the sacrifices of women who fought through the barriers in the workplace and in academia.

“I’m not entirely sure what I want to be, but I do know I want to have a positive influence on the world,” Shores said. “It’s amazing to think what those women went through for me to have the right.”

Joanne Richards, a former member of UT staff, said she lived through the era Collins described.

“I went through everything Gail described,” Richards said. “It was real. It was worth it.”  

Printed on Friday, October 14, 2011 as: Columnist traces advances of women's rights