Exclusive Interview with New York Times Columnist Gail Collins

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New York Times Columnist and author Gail Collins never imagined her writing career would take her as far as it has. Collins says she picked up her interest in writing early in life from her mother. She would later grow up to earn a degree in journalism from Marquette University and a degree in government from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She later went on to found the Connecticut State News Bureau and in 2001 became the first women to ever be named editor of the New York Times editorial page. Collins recently spoke with Spare Change as part of a series of interviews to celebrate International Women’s Month. The last issue of Spare Change featured feminist writer Kate Millett.

Adam Sennott: You’ve had an illustrious career; along with writing four books, you founded the Connecticut State News Bureau in 1972 and have written for the New York Daily News and Newsday – and you were even editor of the New York Times Editorial Section. When did you first discover your passion for writing, and did you ever imagine it would take you where it has?

Collins: No, I was in school in the 60’s and I remember very clearly having to talk to somebody one day about what we wanted to do with our lives and somebody said, ‘Oh maybe we can work for the New York Times.’ and we all said, ‘Oh no, mainstream media. Sellout, oh no. We would never do such a thing. ’ That was a long time ago. So no, I never envisioned it working out like this, but it’s been a great ride.

Sennott: When did you first discover your passion for writing?

Collins: I did that when I was really young. My mother had always wanted to be a writer, you know, and she had to drop out of college and get married and stuff. So it was kind of in the air from the time I was really young.

Sennott: So you grew up around writing?

Collins: Yeah. If you’re a kid you can just tell what really knocks your parents out. Whenever I did something that involved writing, it was really special for my mother.

Sennott: In your book Scorpion Tongues you discussed a rumor that Hillary Clinton had thrown a lamp at her husband, President Bill Clinton, shortly after he was elected. You also wrote that “by passing along the rumor that Hillary had physically attacked Bill Clinton, people were expressing their secret fears that she (and maybe by implication all women) would try and push her husband aside and run things herself.” Though 18 years have passed, do you think America has gotten over its fear?

Collins: Yeah, that was written a while ago. To some degree, sure. It was much heavier back then, and that was right when they were first coming into the White House and they were doing the whole thing about “you buy one, you get two,” and people were not used to that. It was a new thing. But I do really think that often, if you’ve got these sort of rumors at large that don’t seem to come from anywhere in particular, that it often has to do with some kind of trauma that people have, a worry that people have.

Sennott: Two of your books, America’s Women: Four Hundred Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines, and When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present covers nearly 450 years of women’s history in the United States. Where do you think feminism is now, and what direction is it headed?

Collins: Older women always say to me, “younger women don’t appreciate what we went through” and yada yada yada. It’s almost like, “we’ve walked many miles and we weren’t allowed to wear slacks, and we were in the snow, and it was so terrible, and we were suffering.” But I always think that we were very lucky, and that young women today have a much more complicated challenge then we did. I mean, it’s the most wonderful thing in the world to be out on a picket line, or protesting, and not only knowing what you’re doing is right but knowing everybody knows it’s right, including the people you’re protesting and that it’s going to be changed. You really did feel, back then, that the wind was at your back and that this was going to work out, mostly because of the success of the civil rights movement. But young women today, it’s all very complicated. They have all kinds of problems, a lot of them having to do with just how you balance work and family, which is a huge issue that I run into all the time wherever I go. And also, often at work things will be complicated; they might feel that the whole place is run by men and that the men don’t quite get them, but it’s not like the men are running around like they did back in the day saying, “Oh, we don’t hire women for this job,” or anything like that. It’s all kind of complicated, and to deal with stuff like that is much harder than to deal with the stuff that we dealt with, which was just so completely out in the open. But I know that young women today are incredibly strong. They don’t generally like the word feminist, but nobody’s ever liked the word feminist. It was popular for only about three seconds in the entire history of the world. So, I always say if they just had another name for it, like Fred or something, it would work out better.

Sennott: What are some of the things that you think may have stalled the women’s movement, or may have had a negative impact on it?

Collins: Well, I don’t know that anything stalled it. I don’t really think it’s stalled. The biggest problem for women, and I think that it sort of leaps off into everything, is that work/family thing – and that’s something that doesn’t have a simple solution. The most important thing, if you want a really serious career and a family, is to make sure you’ve got a partner who wants to take half the responsibility, or more. Other than that, it’s not clear how you deal with these things. It’s very complicated, particularly for single mothers. The source of most of the poverty in the United States is women who are trying to raise families all by themselves.

Sennott: Do you think the public has a better understanding in this day and age of how difficult it is to be a single mother?

Collins: Yeah, they do. The interesting problem is that the response is different from different places. At least when we did the end of welfare and entitlement there was a very clear (it seemed to me at the time) agreement that meant that there was going to be quality childcare available to everybody who needed it who was going to go out and work. That promise really hasn’t been kept. So that’s just a huge, huge problem for working women. Also, there are many people who think that the answer is that you should just tell people not to have sex unless they are married. That doesn’t work. Preventing teenage pregnancy is really important, but there’s a lot of states in which they’re teaching abstinence only sex education, which isn’t helping stuff any. So it’s a very complicated issue.

Sennott: In When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, you tell the stories of women such as Lois Rabinowitz, who in 1960 was thrown out of a New York court room for wearing slacks as she tried to pay her bosses speeding ticket. How did you go about finding these stories, and which one impacted you the most?

Collins: Well, Lois was not hard. It was such a huge subject, and when I first started doing the book I was just sort of like, ‘Oh my God, where do I go? Where do I start? What do I do?’ So I just went through the Times in 1960 and looked for every reference to women, and there were surprisingly few actually, but one of them was Lois in her great day being tossed out of motor vehicle court. So her story popped right up the first week I was working on this sort of thing. One of the women that I just really loved was Lorena Weeks. She was this very simple woman in Georgia back in the 60s who had grown up very poor, had always worked, and who was married with children and worked for the phone company and just desperately, desperately wanted to send her kids to college – and was prepared to do anything for that. She wound up, because she applied for a promotion for a job that they said only men could do, she wound up at the end as being sort of the critical, seminal court case that made it possible for women all over America for the next generation of two, to not be discriminated against in this way. What they used to do was always say, “Oh yea, that’s open to anybody but you’ve got to be able to lift thirty pounds, otherwise you can’t do it.” And these poor women who had been lifting their babies and stuff forever were all sort of blocked off. Lorena had been lifting a thirty-five pound typewriter every day at her job; they said that didn’t count either. She was in semi-rural Georgia, and nobody thought the suit was a good idea. I think even her family was even embarrassed by the fact that she was out there doing this, and her coworkers hated it. She said one of the ministers in her town preached against it. And she just kept on going because she thought it was the right thing to do. I grew up in a time when we were so supportive of women and we do all these meetings and we say “You go girl” and do the whole thing. These women from the past, who just did it even though nobody thought it was a good idea and they got no support, they just went ahead and did it. They just knock me out, and they’re my favorites by far.

Sennott: Were there any stories that you had to take out in the editorial process that you wish could have been told?

Collins: I had researchers, and they were mostly college students who went out and interviewed many of the average women that I have in the book. I didn’t want to skew what they were doing so I generally just told them to go and find me a woman who worked in the 1960’s and had children at home or something like that. They would often find their relatives which turned out to be great because I think they were a little bit more open than they might have been if some stranger had come in and talked to them. And that was the hardest part of the book: you can’t put them all in. There were just a trillion of them, and weeding them down was the hardest thing to do. There were amazing, wonderful women who never got in the book at all just because I didn’t have room for all of the stories.

Sennott: During your recent speech at Bunker Hill Community College, someone suggested that both America’s Women: Four Hundred Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines, When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present could be used as textbooks in colleges. How do you think women are currently portrayed in history books?

Collins: Well, actually, my book is used some places. I am thrilled to have people get up and suggest it should be used in more, but it does get around. Right now, it’s a good time for that kind of stuff. Everybody sort of goes out of their way to try and make this telling of America’s story more expansive than it used to be and include more kinds of people, so that’s all great.

Sennott: You were the first women to ever be named editor of the New York Times Editorial Section. What was it like to have earned that position and to set a milestone similar many of the other great women you have written about?

Collins: The nice thing was that you could just tell when they named me that everybody was happy. They weren’t particularly happy about me as a particular person, but everybody in the building was just really happy that that was going to happen – that there was going to be a woman doing that. You could just kind of feel that. That’s kind of the way the Times is and that’s why I love working here so much. It was really a great adventure. I had never really thought about being an editor on that level, but it was a great time. I was really thrilled to do it.

Sennott: Did you expect it at all?

Collins: Oh God, no.

Sennott: You’ve written columns about both Sarah Palin and Hilary Clinton. Though they are both on opposite ends of the political spectrum, what do you think their success says about how far women have come politically? Do you think you will see a female president in your lifetime?

Collins: Yeah, and whenever I say that people say, “Well if it’s not going to be Hillary who else could it be?” Which is not really fair. I mean, name me what guy out there who you think is going to be President in the future. We don’t tend to have long running successions that’s going on here. So yeah, I think probably there will be one in my lifetime. As for Sarah Palin, I wrote once during the campaign that she really is a product of the women’s movement. She’s a person who, whatever else you think of her, is not constrained by her gender. I really doubt that there was ever a moment in her life where she thought, “Well I can’t do that because I am a girl.” That’s just not the way she is. So in that sense she really is a product of the women’s movement herself. I wrote that once and Gloria Steinem called me and said, “Okay, I am shooting myself now.” But I still think it’s true.

Sennott: Both Palin and Clinton have been able to climb the ladder in their respective parties. What do you think it says about how far each political party has come that they are willing to accept women in leadership positions?

Collins: It’s an interesting thing. I think you have to take very seriously the fact that the Republican Party has managed to produce all of these very high-profile female leaders. I find it worrisome that they all seem to be A-hot. It’s very weird that you seem to have all of these very good looking women, I am kind of wondering what the role is for a normal looking women in the Republican Party right now. We’re not seeing quite as many of them. And as far as Sarah Palin is concerned, it’s very troubling for me as a woman who roots for women of both parties that she’s not better prepared. I’d love to see conservative women who really thought things through in a serious way taking the lead.

Sennott: In April 12, 2009 the New York Times published an article about street newspapers across the country. As someone who understands the power of written word, how important do you think it is for the homeless and economically disadvantaged to be able to get their opinions and voices out there?

Collins: It’s important for everybody to get their voices out there, particularly people who don’t have many kinds of outlets because they are homeless or disadvantaged.