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Collins: Letter to young American women

By Gail Collins, Special to CNN
  • Journalist Gail Collins remembers big changes and current problems for women
  • Women couldn't get credit card or lease unless their father or husband co-signed
  • Rep. Pat Schroeder was mooned by boys sport team after Title 9 passed
  • When future Gov. Madeleine Kunin sought editing job, it was suggested she waitress

Editor's note: Journalist Gail Collins, the first woman to edit The New York Times editorial page, is the author of "When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present." She wrote this piece, a letter to the next generation of women, exclusively for CNN.

(CNN) -- Dear Young American Women,

It's possible that you have been told a time or 10 that you don't appreciate how tough your elders had it. It's true that, if you had been coming of age back in, say, 1960, you would probably be feeling more restricted, if only because you were doomed to spend your days in a skirt, nylon stockings and girdle. (Everybody wore a girdle back then, even Barbie, the individual least in need of a foundation garment in American history.)

Back then, if you wanted a career that involved travel, you'd have to have become a flight attendant. Although good luck with that -- there were 100 applicants for every opening. People paid to go to special schools to learn how to improve their chances of being chosen for that very job that involved appallingly low pay and allowed you to be fired if you gained weight or got married.

Fifty years ago, women couldn't get a credit card or apartment lease unless their father or husband co-signed. And it was perfectly legal for an employer to say that he didn't hire women. (Madeleine Kunin, the future governor of Vermont, applied for an editing job at my own beloved New York Times and was asked if she'd like to consider waitressing in the corporate dining room.)

You may be thinking right now that this actually doesn't sound so bad, that it would be more fun to take to the streets protesting job discrimination than worrying about living in the streets because there aren't any jobs around at all.

Point well taken. You've got your own problems and truly, you are not required to bow down to the generation that gave you equal opportunity to play high school sports. (Now even Sarah Palin loves Title 9. But when it first became law, men were sure it would mean the end of football and everything they held dear. Rep. Pat Schroeder of Colorado was touring a local high school shortly after it passed, and the boys' basketball coach said "Show the congresswoman what you think of Title 9." The team turned around and mooned her.)

There are plenty of challenges that still remain and you know about them better than me. If you're planning on knocking them dead in business or one of the professions, you may discover, to your shock, that there's still discrimination out there. If you're thinking about a military career, there's never been a better time for a woman, but the problem of sexual harassment in the field is disturbingly real.

No matter what you're doing, you're probably going to wind up worrying about how to balance work and family.

Violence against women hasn't gone away; it actually seems to be getting worse. And if you're prepared to worry about things on an international sphere, the oppression of women in other parts of the world is a cancer that has to be cured if the planet is going to evolve in the right direction.

What with all that, it looks like there's plenty on your plate. And if you don't feel like dwelling on the non-problems, if you automatically assume that a woman has as much right to have a terrific career and exciting adventures as any guy, that's great. For the entire history of recorded civilization, people had ideas about women's limitations, and their proper (domestic) place in the world. That all changed in my lifetime -- came crumbling down. The fact that I got to see it, in the tiny sliver of history I inhabit, just knocks me out. You taking it for granted knocks me out.

But if you do want to take a look back now and then, and contemplate how America evolved into a country where women could finally claim their rights, you might enjoy the ride even more. It's a great story, and it was all leading up to you.