Fiona's Blog: Q & A With New York Times Columnist Gail Collins
Gail Collins is a New York Times Columnist and bestselling author, who has written two books about the history of women in the United States. In addition to writing about groundbreaking women, Ms. Collins is one herself. She became the first woman ever appointed editor of the Times editorial page in 2001 and writes her own column, where she takes on issues in the political, cultural, and educational arena.
Recently, I heard Gail Collins speak about her latest book, When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present. I asked her if she would answer some questions about her book, her thoughts on women of my generation and the future of women in the United States.
FL: Your book focuses greatly on the progress and change that women in our country have achieved; is there still more to come?
GC: I think your generation will experience huge changes. I was just reading some comments by a famous astronomer who said his field still had very few women at the top but that [this] was bound to change since almost all his students were women. That’s true in so many areas – from veterinary medicine to accounting. And as women get more and more of the degrees, employers will have to accommodate their desire for more flexibility. Also there will be more and more women who will be the main wage-earner in families and more guys who are the chief caregivers at home.
FL: Many women you write about in your book struggled between pursuing a career and a family. In what ways is this struggle still relevant today? Will it ever cease to exist?
GC: There’s always going to be a struggle. Even in your lifetime I don’t think the United States will turn into Sweden and start providing a full package of child care and maternity leaves and paternity leaves for every parent. We’ll be really lucky if we can just get quality child care for low-income families. So the answers are going to come on an individual basis and the best advice I can give young women is that if they want to have kids and a career, they have to be sure they pick a partner who is ready to handle half the responsibility – or more.
FL: As someone who came of age during feminism’s second wave, how did the movement affect you? Do you consider yourself a feminist? Why or why not?
Yes, I’m a feminist – feminists are people who support equal rights for women and I’m pretty sure the majority of the American population qualifies. But I have to admit when I was in college I was a little dodgy about it, and worried that somehow “feminist” equated to “anti-man.” That’s a really old problem. I found essays from the 1920s complaining that feminists were people who wore really unattractive shoes.
FL: Why do you think the term “feminist” evokes a negative response from girls and women of younger generations? Is this necessarily a bad thing?
GC: As I said, it isn’t just your generation.There was really only a tiny window in history where “feminist” was regarded as something cool. I think it’s because the word does suggest militancy, and this country has always had trouble with militant women. But for your generation, there’s also the question of what there is to be militant about. Most young women I’ve run into don’t feel oppressed.But even for those who are lucky enough never to run into any real gender-related obstacles, there’s always the need to reach out to help the women who do.
FL: Your book profiles several women who encountered overt sexism in their everyday lives and careers. However, the stories in your book also convey a subtle sexism that seems to have permeated much of American culture. Were you ever affected overtly or subtly by sexism?
When I do talks, I’m often asked a question that’s sort of an invitation to talk about the obstacles I’ve faced as a woman in my career. But to tell you the truth, there haven’t been any serious ones, because the women about five minutes ahead of me in journalism filed all the suits and got in the face of the editors and opened all the doors so that people like me [could walk] through. They didn’t get the rewards – once the editors were convinced that they had to hire more women for high-profile jobs, they ignored the people who’d been protesting and getting in their hair, and went out and hired new faces instead.
I know a lot of the women who fought the fight and were passed over, and although they’re still ticked off about those editors, they’re really excited about the progress other women have made in the journalism business. And to me that’s the definition of a great heart.
FL: Do remnants of this sexism exist today?
GC: Well, there’s sexism of a different kind. For instance, young women have a harder time getting into the college of their choice than young men do, because most colleges get more qualified female applicants. But most of them don’t want a student body that’s much more than 50 percent female, so they prefer less-qualified guys to women who would break that 50-50 ratio.
FL: What is your favorite thing about your job?
It’s a pretty easy job to love. The Times columnists can come and go as they like, and travel anywhere they want, without getting any special permission. But to tell you the truth, that’s just icing on the cake. The core thing I wanted was to have a career in writing, and being a columnist is the best since you get to write absolutely anything you want, twice a week, for the best paper in the world. I’ve spent so much of my life working in an 800-word column-sized format, that it seems like the most natural way to express myself. When I started out, everyone thought 800 words was extremely short, but the national span of attention got tinier and tinier. So now I guess I’m testing the readers’ patience.
FL: What advice would you give a young woman interested in pursuing gender studies, journalism, or politics?
Follow your heart. If you pursue work you love, you’ll be a success wherever you land on the career totem pole. I tell young journalists that they need to write about the things they care about, even if it’s an oversubscribed field like music or sports. There’s plenty of opportunity for compromise in life, but you don’t want to compromise in choosing the thing you’ll be devoting eight, ten, twelve hours a day to. Really, it’d be like marrying a compromise husband.
Fiona Lowenstein is a high school junior, weekly guest blogger and Girls Leadership Institute alumna. To read more about Fiona and her work, visit her website.