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Women: Reflecting on four decades of covering a movement

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Ellen Goodman
December 24, 2009
— It is one of those moments when I feel like a time traveler. I look out the airplane window and watch a young woman on the tarmac directing our jet to its gate. As she waves the signals, I fall into a silent, familiar reverie: “I remember when.”
What I remember, of course, is a time when no woman would have been hired for this “man’s job.” What I remember is when my generation opened the door for hers. If I talked to her about the old days, I wonder, would she listen as politely as if I were talking about walking four miles in the snow to school?

I am time traveling these days because on Jan. 1 I’ll be ending my tenure as a syndicated columnist. While my colleagues are busily sizing up the decade with lists—Twitter in; Tiger out—I’m quietly sizing up the last four decades.


Cleaning up the office, I found a clipping from 1969 when, as a young reporter, I was sent to cover this brand new phenomenon called the women’s movement. The next Sunday, I picked up the paper and was stunned to find a one-word banner headline over my byline: WOMEN.


The editor’s note explained: “Today’s Sunday Globe attempts to fathom this phenomenon of the female revolution.”


My own story said that “a female revolution is sweeping the land, in some cases subtle and unspoken, in others dramatic and defiant.” This brazen decision—on the day after the Manson killings no less—to lead The Boston Globe with WOMEN jeopardized the editor’s career but redirected my own. Ever since then, from my perch as an observer, I’ve tracked this story—WOMEN—more consistently than anything else.


How to sum up the time and distance we’ve traveled? Advance and backlash? Forward march and stall-out?


Today, half the law students and medical students are female. But only 15 of the Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs. We had the first serious woman candidate run for president—and lose. We had a mother of five, a governor and a Title IX baby run for vice president—as a conservative.


The Equal Rights Amendment was defeated because people were scared into believing that women could end up in combat. Now nearly a quarter-million women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, 120 have died, 650 have been wounded. But still no ERA.


What a story this has been to cover. Women now hold the majority of jobs—because men have lost more of them. Women earn six out of 10 college degrees—yet earn 77 cents for every male dollar.


A woman is now speaker of the House, but there are only 73 women in that House and 17 in the Senate. At 60, Meryl Streep is playing a romantic lead, yet girdles have been resurrected as “body shapers” and girls are forced into ever-more narrow standards of beauty. Young women grow up believing they can be anything they want, just don’t call them by the F-word: feminist.


My generation—WOMEN—thought the movement would advance on two legs. With one, we’d kick down the doors closed to us. With the other, we’d walk through, changing society for men and women.


It turned out that it was easier to kick down the doors than to change society. It was easier to fit into traditional male life patterns than to change those patterns. We’ve had more luck winning the equal right to 70-hour weeks than we’ve had selling the equal value of care-giving. We have yet to solve the problem raised at the outset: Who will take care of the family?


As a young mother and reporter, it did not occur to me that my daughter would face the same conflicts of work and family. Or, on the other hand, that my son-in-law would fully share those conflicts. I did not expect that over two-thirds of mothers would be in the work force before we had enough child care or sick pay.


Not even the most efficient time traveler can sum up one decade, let alone four of them. The amazing good news is that younger women—surely even the woman on the tarmac—take this progress for granted. It’s harder to take away what is granted. The troubling news is that so many think their problems—especially balancing work and family—are private dilemmas to be solved on their own rather than as, well, a movement.


It turns out that my editor was as prescient as he was bold. WOMEN became the headline, the social change of my adulthood.


If the women’s movement were a course, I’d award it an incomplete. But how lucky to have been a reporter on this beat. We’ve had lives our mothers could only imagine. It’s been a great time for WOMEN. Or should I say, a great beginning?


Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe. Her e-mail address is ellengoodman1@me.com.

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