Gail Collins, a New York Times columnist and the first female editor of that paper’s editorial page, spoke on campus Tuesday about women’s rights from the 1960s to the present.
The Daily Princetonian: Let’s talk about journalism and newsrooms. What do you think of the current gender balance in today’s newsrooms?
Gail Collins: It depends a lot on where you are and what’s happening, but clearly that ceiling has been cracked. Now, Jill Abramson is our editor, we’ve had a woman CEO at the Times, and I was editorial page editor before I went back to being a columnist. Women just do everything, as you can imagine. It’s been that way for quite some time. There was a day, a long time ago, I was on the bus for some presidential campaign — and that used to be the ultimate place where it was just these guys — and there was a guy behind me who was on the phone trying to get his kid back home to poop, and I thought, “Oh my God, it has all changed. The whole order is done.” The thing is now is that everything is so fast, and the world belongs to the people who are digitally smart and are fast at whatever they do, and that’s too bad in a way. You’d like to think there would be more time for contemplation, but there’s not. It’s a Twitter universe, and that’s the way of the world.
DP: Jumping off of that point, especially with your column writing, how does social media affect how you and journalists can interact with people who respond to your pieces?
GC: I am sort of in the middle. I have to admit, I do not Twitter. I think the Times has an account for me so my column goes up every week, but that’s about it. It seems like an invitation to a disaster, so I’ve not done it. And I’m not technologically really smart at all about the other stuff. But when I started in the business, there wasn’t anything. When I was editorial page editor, that was sort of the time at the beginning of the millenium when everything happened, and the difference in the way we perceive the world between before and now is just extraordinary. I think we thought we were very responsive, but we had no idea how we were totally cocooned. Now, the second you do anything, there’s all this stuff going on all over the place. Everything you write is commented on, and you kind of have to not pay too much attention to it or else you could lose your mind completely. If you hadn’t come up outside of it, you couldn’t understand how totally different this universe is to the way journalism and media were even 10 to 15 years ago. The public is up on what we do, which is good, except it does reward speed over thinking fast. To some degree, it rewards opinion over serious reporting, which is really a problem. It doesn’t reward local stuff. There is no reward right now for people who cover local and state government. That is my absolute, number-one worry in the world. How are you to get a generation of leaders when, at the bottom part where everybody’s supposed to be working their way up, there is nobody watching you?
DP: You’ve spoken about the journey of American women from 1960 to the present. When did everything change?
GC: The amazing thing about it was if you look at 1960, the vision of the way women’s role in life should be was pretty much the same as it had been for several thousand years. Then, in a period of eight years, it all changed. It was so fast. If you look between 1964 and 1972, everything changed and flipped around in such a short period of time, which I think is the most amazing part of this story.
DP: If you had to say something to the college women of Princeton who will be leaving here and entering into the real world, what would you say?
GC: It’s interesting that when you look at it, it seems like the world was turning to create this platform for you guys to leap off of. It was totally unexpected, where men and women were leaping off together, which is the big change. It is the story of men as much as it is women. Often, when I do talks with a lot of young women, they express great concern about how they are going to manage a family with a great career, and, since the country has not yet attacked this issue, [the answer] is find yourself a great partner who cares as much about your career as they do theirs. That’s the secret to happiness and well-being. Younger women have told me that they have partners or are dating people who are very enthusiastic about being the one to stay at home while the wife leaves to get a career, because actually the stay-at-home thing is kinda cool if you organize it the right way. You can stay at home, and write your novel, and hang out with your kids, and be a part of the community, and organize your day to some degree while your wife is running around like a wild woman pursuing her career. It’s a blessed couple in which anybody gets to do that, and I don’t know if it’s always more women than men that look longingly to that option.