When Everything Changed by Gail Collins

In 1960, a woman had to get her husband's permission to apply for a credit card. Fast-forward to 2008, and a woman was campaigning for presidency. The cataclysmic change that happened in less than 50 years was not a predesigned, natural progression—it happened because a generation of women smashed all expectations about the role of the American woman.

Gail Collins, the first female editorial page editor for the New York Times, recounts the revolution in the lives of women in her book When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present. 

Ella Josephine Baker

Photo: AP

Ella Josephine Baker (1903–1986)
As a leading African-American civil rights and human rights activist beginning in the 1930s, Ella Josephine Baker was a founder and acting director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. She fought against sexism within those prominent organizations as she led the charge for racial equality for more than five decades.

She left home after attending Shaw University to become a community organizer and worked alongside some of the most famous civil rights leaders of the 20th century, including W.E.B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall, A. Philip Randolph and Martin Luther King Jr., though her contributions were often overlooked by the men in the movement. "Baker is one of the unsung, or at least not-sung-enough, heroes of the civil rights movement," Collins says."What I love about her is that her approach to organizing was ego-free. This is as rare in the upper ranks of equality movements as it is in every other human endeavor."

Baker also mentored young civil rights stalwarts Diane Nash, Stokely Carmichael, Rosa Parks and Bob Moses. Called "our Ghandi" by members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, she was known as an inspiration to those who worked with her. "Ella never cared about titles, or the spotlight, or even about money—of which she had very little," Collins says. "It was all about the young students she was training and the grassroots people they were going out to mobilize."

Lilly Ledbetter

Photo: Rick Rowell/Getty Images

Lilly Ledbetter (1938–present)
Lilly Ledbetter was getting ready to retire as a supervisor in a Goodyear plant in Alabama when she received an anonymous letter telling her that she was being paid just 71 percent of what the other men who held the same job were making. Goodyear initially offered her $10,000 to settle out of court, but she took the case all the way to the Supreme Court. Because federal law required complaints to be filed within 180 days of the discriminatory paycheck, she lost. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was so angry about the decision that she read her dissent from the bench and urged lawmakers to take action. In 2009, President Barack Obama signed an amendment to the Civil Rights act called the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Ledbetter said: "I had no idea this was such a national problem. I've heard it from physicians, teachers, nurses—every job you can imagine."

"Women today are used to getting together to encourage each other, but the ones in our history who just knock me out are the women who took a stand even when no one thought it was a good idea—not their friends or their fellow workers or their neighbors," Collins says. "Lilly Ledbetter is in that tradition, like so many of the people who made history, by demanding that their employers respect their equal rights. She was a simple working-class woman from the South who was used to the idea that women had to work and determined that she'd get a fair shake."

Betty Friedan

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Betty Friedan (1921—2006)
In 1963, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, a book that is credited with sparking the "second wave" of feminism in the United States.

"Betty Friedan was the perfect mixture for her moment," Collins says. "When you look back, her politics actually seem very moderate. Her famous book, The Feminine Mystique, was in the end mainly a call for women to have careers as well as families. But she delivered the message with a kind of primal scream of frustration and outrage that shook up a quiet, conservative country and made millions of women—particularly middle-class, college-educated women—look up and say: 'Wow. That's me.'"

At a long, dreary conference in the summer of 1966, Friedan and several other women co-founded NOW, the National Organization for Women. She also organized the National Women's Political Caucus in 1971. Among her many accomplishments, Friedan helped organized the nationwide Women's Strike for Equality on August 26, 1970, on the 50th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (which granted women the right to vote). That day, 50,000 people marched down Fifth Avenue in New York City to demonstrate their support for the Equal Rights Amendment.

Billie Jean King

Billie Jean King (1943–present)
Billie Jean King was one of the most famous athletes in the world in the 1970s and represents the great strides women's athletics made between 1960 and today. 

When she was 11, King joined a tennis tournament at the Los Angeles Tennis Club but was not allowed in the group photo because she was wearing shorts rather than a skirt. By the time she went to college, she had already won the Wimbledon doubles championship but was not granted an athletic scholarship to play at Los Angeles State because such funds were rarely available to women. In 1970, King and eight other top female players boycotted the Pacific Southwest Open over the difference in prize money (male winners got $12,500 in prize money; females only $1,500), thus beginning the popular women's tennis tour. King was named Sports Illustrated's athlete of the year in 1972, the first time a woman had ever received the title. 

But it was when she beat Bobby Riggs at a nationally televised tennis match in response to his provocation that females played "so far beneath men's tennis" that she really made her name. King beat Riggs 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. She later said, "I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn't win that match."

"The biggest weapon for opponents of women's rights was always ridicule," Collins says. "Sometimes we fear being made to look silly even more than we fear physical danger. When Billie Jean King played Bobby Riggs at that famous battle of the sexes match, she made it clear from the start that she understood that this was both an important and an extremely cheesy moment in sports history. She laughed at it before anyone else could, totally defined the event on her own terms. And then, of course, she destroyed Riggs on the court.

Sandra Day O'Connor

Photo: Dane Penland, Smithsonian Institution

Sandra Day O'Connor (1930–present)
Raised on a cattle ranch, Sandra Day O'Connor was 19 when she started at Stanford Law School as one of five women in the class. While there, she served on the Stanford Law Review and gave birth to her first child three days before being sworn into the Arizona bar. In spite of her accomplishments at law school, being female meant no law firm in California was willing to hire her as a lawyer, although one firm did offer her a position as a legal secretary.

O'Connor worked intensely, beating out an incumbent judge for an appeals court position, and in 1981 became the first woman ever to serve on the Supreme Court—but Collins says that is not the only accomplishment O'Connor should be known for. "She was a swing vote between the right and left who took maximum advantage of her situation. Although she was never chief justice, her court was definitely the O'Connor court. And the direction she steered it was marked by the kind of sensible, moderate yet progressive spirit that has marked so many of the best women in American politics." She commanded so much respect during her career on the Court that legal affairs writer Jeffrey Toobin called her "the most important woman in American history."