When everything changed
A barrier-breaking journalist’s career illustrates that man-made rules can be re-written
Gail Collins has written extensively about women fighting for their rights over the years, including this year’s 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage. I had the fortune to interview her when I was a sophomore journalism student, weeks after she became the New York Times’ first female editorial page editor. Her career shows that man-made rules — and they are often made by men — can be re-written.
“Learn and obey the rules very well, so you will know how to break them properly.”
— The Dalai Lama
Gail Collins was expecting college to be carefree. A college recruiter who visited her all-female Catholic high school in Cincinnati filled her with dreams of “no rules.”
“That turned out to be a total lie,” she said.
Collins came to Marquette University in 1963, when it was a hotbed of social upheaval and change. But on campus, she found the old rules still applied. “Women weren’t even allowed to go out wearing slacks unless you were going bowling,” she remembered.
Collins decided she wasn’t going to just go with the flow and go bowling. During her time in college, campus was taken over by student sit-ins, teach-ins, walkouts, and marches. Arrests followed a few protests while raised voices were heard in the streets as well as the halls, classrooms, and assemblies.
It was the perfect time to take a stand and the perfect training for her job. “I was there during the time of the great student rebellion,” she said. “I went to school to get opinionated, and I guess in that sense it worked out very well.”
In 2001, Collins became the first woman editor of The New York Times editorial page, one of the most important jobs in all of journalism. Only weeks after her start, New York and the rest of the world were shaken by the horrific events of September 11th.
In 2009, she published When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women, from 1960 to the Present. The book contains stories of women who broke the rules and challenged the status quo. During her time on campus, Collins lived and witnessed this journey herself. “We really did get a great education,” she said. “But probably not the one we signed up for.”
She later wrote a master’s thesis about the activism of her time on campus, and she asserted that breaking the rules was rooted in religious idealism. She argued that rooting civil disobedience in these beliefs made them more powerful, rather than campus protests stemming from, as she put it, “just hating your parents.”
“We had many fights,” she remembered. “All these students came in with different viewpoints. But they were all non-cynical viewpoints.”
Collins threw herself into activism with issues that were sweeping campuses across the country, from the war in Vietnam to civil rights. Her senior year, the student government led a picket of a school dance held at the Eagles Club because the organization had a whites-only policy.
Also that spring, the Beatnik poet Allen Ginsberg was set to perform on campus until the university heard he had taken off his clothes at a reading. His event was canceled by the university.
“We protested for months,” Collins remembered when I interviewed her. “We had a great time. It was much more fun than a simple reading.”
Eventually, Collins and her friends worked out a deal with the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, for Ginsberg to appear there. On the night of the performance, students traveled across town to see the eccentric artist. There were no reports that he took off his clothes.
Collins was editor in chief of the Marquette Journal her senior year and a reporter at the Marquette Tribune before that. Her professors remembered her writing, and her activism. “She was an excellent writer and also quite a campus activist,” remembered Ed Pepan, assistant to the dean of the College of Journalism from 1965 to 1993. “She always had some pretty strong opinions on one thing or another. She’s a very interesting person.”
Though she intended to “write the great American novel” after graduation, her skills took her in a different direction. Collins used her writing versatility in the following years to become a reporter, columnist, editorial page editor, and nonfiction author of several books.
Collins built her career questioning and challenging the status quo. When she was named the first woman editor of The New York Times editorial page, she had just begun work on When Everything Changed. The book opens with the story of a woman in 1960 who dared to wear slacks in a courtroom.
In October 2019, Collins published a new book about women in American politics. It’s called No Stopping Us Now.
Tim Cigelske is the author of The Creative Journey: A Timeless Approach to Discovery. He draws on his experience as a journalist writing about creative people from all walks of life, including farmer, children’s author, comic book artist and Pixar animator.