Gail Collins: Transitions

The New York Times columnist is an expert on transitions — personal, professional and historical.

By Deirdre Wyeth

Gail CollinsWith her latest book released in paperback this past October, Gail Collins has brought the huge personal, social and political transitions made by women in the past 50 years to a larger audience. When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present (Back Bay Books) focuses on everyday changes (liberation from panty girdles) as well as the extraordinary cultural shifts that have brought us, among other things, a 2010 election season with multimillionaire female candidates.
In her own life, Collins says, she's found a rhythm of change that works for her and keeps her challenged. We asked her about some of these transformations.
Collins: One thing that really struck me: slacks. It isn't the biggest, most dramatic issue. But slacks always came up. When I talked with women who were working in the '60s, they all had a story about not being able to wear pants. I spoke with a teacher in Alaska who would go to her school wearing snowshoes and wooly leggings, and she still had to have a skirt over everything. And while I was doing this research, I suddenly remembered that when I was in college in the late '60s, we weren't allowed to wear slacks out of the dorm — unless we were going bowling. Another thing that had a huge impact on women's lives was Title IX. Playing competitive sports was a real agent of change for so many women, including Sarah Palin. I once wrote a column pointing out that Palin was in many ways a product of the women's liberation movement, and Gloria Steinem called me up and said, "OK, I'm shooting myself now."
When I started in journalism, I noticed that men tended to look for the big, groundbreaking stories while women were more willing to just find something useful to do, whatever the size. So I did feel the guys kind of had an advantage. But women are so much better at balancing a lot of jobs that they have the edge now, when it's necessary to be so entrepreneurial to pursue a career in this business. I've been asked a lot about why there aren't more women columnists and why there tend to be more men writing op-ed pieces at the Times. We've never accepted any excuse for not trying to get a good balance. But it's still true that when it comes to letters to the editor, unsolicited op-eds, we get a lot more from men than women. That's a rough measure of the people out there who are raising their hands to be heard. We've had many meetings about that — is it because women like to take longer to think about things before they commit to an opinion? There's such a premium on getting letters and essays right on the breaking news. Someone suggested that perhaps women are unwilling to take a firm stand on a subject about which they have only a superficial knowledge. Which is good, although sometimes I think that's really a definition of a columnist. But I see this as a passing phase. The idea of women being encouraged to speak up is only about two minutes old in terms of the history of the world. By the time the next generation is running the show, nobody will be talking anymore about how there aren't enough women writing opinion.
It's not surprising that there are all these new women with big, vivid personalities coming to the top on the right. Whenever there's something new — early radio, early television, even early aviation—women tend to do well. Then once things get more settled and established, they get elbowed out of the way. Right now the Tea Party is very disorganized and it's been easy for new faces to pop up. But it's the opposite when you have a field that's very established and full of people who've been waiting their turn in line. They're deeply encrusted, like barnacles. That's how it is in the Democratic Party right now — it's harder for new women to just pop up.
The most critical transition I made came early in my career. I was working for a weekly paper in Fairfield County, Conn., and was assigned to cover the state legislature. The paper went bankrupt, and I had to figure out what to do next. I decided to start a news service covering the state legislature for small papers. I had 36 weeklies and dailies subscribed to Connecticut State News Service by the time I left. I wrote so much — the papers all wanted their own stories — that I broke down the barrier between writing and thinking. Probably like the people who ice skate. At some point they're able to focus on technique because they don't have to worry about just staying upright. The process becomes second nature. There's something to be said for slave labor when you're young — it can be great training. But it needs to be the right kind of work. I see young people now with web jobs who are working endless hours, but often they’re moving stories from one place to another place, with less chance to really create things.
I've always changed jobs every five years. When I became editorial page editor at the Times I figured I'd do the same thing. About three years in, I started talking to Arthur [Sulzberger, publisher of The New York Times] about going back to being a columnist a little bit down the line, and we planned it all so the change was very smooth. I thought it'd all gone swimmingly, and I was stunned that some people presumed that I'd been pushed out. Because normally, I guess, people don't just give up jobs like that.
I don't recommend this five-year plan for everybody; it depends on people's own internal chemistry. And I only discovered it was a good rhythm for me because there was so much chaos in the business that I kept getting laid off from my early papers. But I found that five years was the point at which I'd have learned how to do a job, and the good, wholesome terror of abject failure began to fade. Once I get comfortable, it's usually best for me to find some new challenge. But people need to figure out what works for them. Changing jobs isn't a negative the way it once was. People no longer have career paths that are straight upward arrows. When I've spoken to students, I've brought up the image from Uncle Tom's Cabin of Eliza crossing the river, jumping from ice floe to ice floe. That's how most careers are now. 
This article was first published in the Winter 2011 issue of NYWICI’s print newsletter CONNECT.
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Deirdre Wyeth