Gail Collins

(WOMENSENEWS)–While writing a new book on the history of U.S. women, political columnist Gail Collins was making history herself as the first woman at the helm of The New York Times editorial board.

But Collins never considered including herself among the cast of hundreds she profiles in "America’s Women: Four Hundred Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates and Heroines." "Compared to what these women did, the incredible, extraordinary things they accomplished, this is nothing.
(My work) is a pleasure," says Collins.

While Collins downplays the significance of being the first female editorial page editor at The Times, others, such as Trish Hall, editor of the paper’s Sunday Money and Business section, find Collins’ new appointment "important and inspiring."

Eleanor Randolph, a member of The Times editorial board, agrees. Collins, she says, has no trouble making up her mind when the board is split on an opinion, though she is not heavy-handed. "She leads with enthusiasm," says Randolph. "The place is, dare I say, great fun."

In 1995, Howell Raines, then editorial page editor of The New York Times, offered Collins a job on the editorial board. When Raines later became executive editor at The Times, Collins’ name came up as a possible replacement for editorial page editor and in August 2001 she took over the position.

Two years later, when a scandal erupted in The Times’ newsroom and led to Raines’ resignation, Collins was part of a steering committee plotting the paper’s long term future.

"It was one of the most heartbreaking things I went through in my time in journalism," she says. "And I would prefer never to do it again."

In and Out of the Home

During the past couple of years when Collins was not managing editorial writers and running editorial meetings she was busy writing "America’s Women," her third book.

While working on an article on women for The Times’ Sunday magazine millennium issue, Collins was struck by the changes that have happened for U.S. women over the past 400 years.

Stacy Schiff, who wrote a review of the book for The Times, called the book a "bravura accomplishment."

"It also happens to make for a story more complex, and more inspiring, than anything Harriet (Tubman) or Susan B. (Anthony) could have imagined," Schiff wrote.

The book begins in 1587 with the arrival of New World colonist Eleanor Dare, who would give birth to the first English child born in what has become the United States, and ends in 1970 with Betty Friedan leading a feminist march down New York’s Fifth Avenue.

In between Collins writes about the icons and the ordinary. She also covers birth control, Kotex, Playboy clubs, colonial diapering, bra-burning, personal grooming and toilet facilities.

"Whenever there is a history moment, I want to know how they got to the bathroom," she says.

The central theme of women’s history, Collins discovered, was the urge to create a home and the yearning to get out of it.

The idea of a woman’s place being in the home was "laced with hypocrisy," Collins says, given that most women had to work in the fields or factories. Meanwhile, when black women tried to become traditional housewives after the Civil War, whites in the North and South were horrified.

Women were always excused from working only in the home whenever there was a national emergency such as a war or an economic downturn.

"And there were so many emergencies that you could cite the entire history of women in America just by the emergencies," Collins says. "Any time you needed literate, low paid workers–teachers, nurses, and secretaries–women always turned out to be the answer."

A Lifetime Career

Collins’ career began in childhood. Her mother, Rita Gleason, always wanted to be a journalist. "I knew that if she had finished college that’s what she would have wanted to be," Collins says. Instead, her mother dropped out to work in the defense industry during World War II. And in 1945, she gave birth to a daughter, Gail.

"I always wrote from the time I was really little," says Collins, now 57.

She ran the newspaper at her all-girls Catholic school and even published a book of comic monologues at the age of 15. She earned a journalism degree from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wis., in 1967 and a master’s in government from the University of Massachusetts in 1971. In graduate school, she met and married her husband, Dan Collins, now an editor at CBS News. After graduation they moved to Connecticut.

In her early 20s, Collins took a job covering the state legislature in Hartford for The Fair Press, a small weekly in Fairfield County, outside of New York City. When the paper could no longer afford to keep her on, Collins, rather than look for another job, started her own news service called the Connecticut State News Bureau in 1972. After five years and with about 35 subscribers, Collins sold the news service in 1979.

"She just saw this perfect void in the market, which was none of these small papers had anyone covering what their state reps and senators were doing," says Hall, who worked for Collins at the service.

Following a three-year stint covering finance at United Press International, Collins became a political columnist for The New York Daily News and later New York Newsday, where she delighted in the gossip and folly of New York politics.

One of those politicians was Alfonse D’Amato, the former U.S. Senator from New York. Once Collins asked him to name the last five books he had read. When he said "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich," she mocked him every chance she got.

"Some of the politicians just grit their teeth," says The Times’ Randolph, who used to cover local and state politics with Collins.

While some politicians may have bristled under Collins’ scrutiny, journalists praised her. Murray Kempton, one of New York’s most beloved columnists, called her one of his favorite columnists. "It would be hard to get an endorsement more important than that in the journalistic community of New York," Randolph says.

It took Collins over four years to complete her book, writing at home after work and early in the morning. Now she says that now she’s contemplating what do with her newly found free time. While she’s not sure what her next project will be, she says the path of women in the U.S. is clear.

Women are still wrestling with the tension between home and work, Collins says, but the next challenge is for "American women to join hands with women in underdeveloped countries and in the Mideast to make sure that the opportunities we have get transported to the rest of the world."

Luchina Fisher is a writer and producer in New York.

For more information:

America’s Women: Four Hundred Years of Dolls,
Drudges, Helpmates and Heroines: