Describe your new book.
My new book is When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present. It starts in 1960 with a woman named Lois Rabinowitz, who was evicted from Manhattan traffic court for attempting to pay a parking ticket while wearing slacks. This was at a point in history when women were generally unable to get a credit card or sign a lease on their own, and when it was perfectly legal to tell a job applicant that the opening was for men only.
The book explains how we got from there to here, in the equivalent of a split second, historically speaking. It mixes the big, headline-worthy historical events with average women's stories of how they lived, what they wore, how they related to the opposite sex and what dolls they played with as children. Turned out, Ken was having way more sex with Barbie than I ever anticipated.
What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
I once had a summer job working for a small ad agency in Connecticut whose biggest account was Lender's Bagels. They wanted to market a necklace made out of a small bagel with face painted on it. I presume the bagel had been treated so that it wouldn't get moldy, but that part wasn't my problem. The creative staff was having a big fight about what to call this interesting piece of jewelry, and my job was to call people randomly out of the phone book and ask them: "If you had a necklace holding a little bagel with a face painted on it, would you call it a Bagelhead necklace or a Bitty Bagel necklace?"
The responses were extremely interesting. Among the very few people who actually were prepared to answer the question, the overwhelming favorite was Bagelhead. So I turned in my research and they named it Bitty Bagel.
How did the last good book you read end up in your hands and why did you read it?
I happen to work at a place, the New York Times, where everybody is always writing books. So two of the last really good ones I've read were written by people who work within 20 feet of my office. One is Commencement, a novel by J. Courtney Sullivan. The other is Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.
What makes your favorite pair of shoes better than the rest?
On the shoe subject, I pretty much go for comfort first, so my favorites would be the best-looking shoes that I can happily stand in for hours on end. However, after five years of talking with American women about their likes and dislikes, I can tell you I am definitely not the norm. Women are going to do incredible things over the next hundred years, and most of them are going to do them in really impractical shoes.
Name the best television series of all time.
My all-time favorite is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I grew up watching TV in the 1960s, when most of the shows were westerns, starring a brave male hero who rode alone. Buffy is the mirror image of all those programs where the women never got to have any adventures at all, except for getting kidnapped and caught in tornados. Plus, it is extremely funny.
Who's wilder on tour, rock bands or authors?
Have you ever been out on tour with authors? We're extremely boring, and frequently whiny.
There was a time when writers were more interesting, at least the ones who came out of journalism. It used to be that when you went out on a campaign bus with a pack of reporters, you could figure that once everybody had filed their stories, there would be at minimum some effortful drinking. But now they're filing 24-7 for the web, and when they aren't they're engaging in healthy activities like running. The last time I was out, I sat in front of a guy who was on the phone for hours making encouraging noises for his little boy, who was getting potty trained.
Who are your favorite characters in history? Have any of them influenced your writing?
I've always had a soft spot for the Grimké sisters. They were abolitionists who went around the country giving speeches against slavery in 1830s and thereafter. This was at a time when women were absolutely not supposed to address mixed audiences of men and women, let alone on a subject that inflammatory. What I loved about them was the way they just kept trotting along, almost oblivious to the fact that angry crowds kept trying to burn down the auditoriums where they were speaking. Angelina Grimké was also a great advocate of women's rights back when there were only about six people interested in that issue. She married Theodore Weld, a very dashing abolitionist, and her supporters were thrilled to have proof that you could be a feminist and still catch a man.
Dogs, cats, budgies, or turtles?
Definitely dogs. My husband and I are talking about getting one. Although, to be honest, this is a conversation that has been going on for more than 20 years without fruition. Maybe I should downgrade to turtles.
Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.
Since I've just finished my second history of American women, I ought to give you five of my favorite women's history books. These are all very specific books about one sliver of the picture, and that's one of the reasons I love them:
American Beauty by Lois W. Banner
They Saw the Elephant: Women in the California Gold Rush by Jo Ann Levy
Serving Women: Household Service in 19th-Century America by Faye Dudden
Perfection Salad: Women & Cooking at the Turn of the Century by Laura Shapiro
Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media by Susan J. Douglas