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Q&A: Gail Collins

The first woman editorial-page editor at The New York Times writes a book about American women—and talks about Jayson Blair.

- October 10, 2003

The first female editor of the New York Times editorial page does not seem, at first blush, a natural author for a history of American women in the home. But Gail Collins—who earlier this year was frequently mentioned in media columns as a candidate for the job Howell Raines left vacant—has a story to tell that's as much about other famous firsts as it is about "the tension between the yearning to create a home and the urge to get out of it." Collins' first book, Scorpion Tongues, was a snappy history of gossip and politics in America. Book magazine recently called America's Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines "a remarkable history, which unites the efforts of female sharp-shooters and channel swimmers, novelists and abolitionists, immigrants and defense workers to create a triumphant, kaleidoscopic self-definition of American women through their actions and achievements." talked to Collins recently about late-night writing, very large women, and—of course—Jayson Blair.

I'm going to ask the most obvious question first—why this book?
You always write the book that you want to read. I'd always wanted a book about what happened to women throughout our history that could have all the big moments that you needed to have in it, but would be told from the ground up instead of from the great heroine down. I'm one of those people who always wants to know, when something great happens, where they went to the bathroom.

Were you a history major in college?
No; I've always been journalist. There are an enormous number of really great women historians out there, but most of the stuff they write tends to either be really narrow—you know, like midwives in the 16th century—or else it's academic; it speaks to great theories. My theory was that if my researchers and I could read as much of that stuff as we could get our hands on, I could write the story, then give the readers the trail that I took if they wanted to go back and find out more.

Who is the reader for this that you see?
I had two people in mind, actually. One was my niece, who's in high school, and I threw in a lot of stuff that, maybe if I'd been writing for my friends, I would have figured they already knew. But I wanted to put in everything so that someone like Becka would really be able to see the whole story. And also for my mother, who's just a traditional housewife, and I wanted it to be a book that didn't denigrate what they did, and that understood how much sense it made through most of our history to want to be in the house—that that was the place where you had the most power and control.

How do you find time to work on something like this—do you get up at 5?
It's funny, because my deputy is a very well-disciplined, morning guy, and he would get up at 4 or 5, go running first, then do his book and come in. I come home at night, stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning, then come crawling in half-dead—that's my kind of thing. It took me awhile to get adjusted to not doing it—I would go home at night and stare at the computer and play Free Cell or something.

What were some of your favorite stories from the book?
I was really taken by the Gilded Age, which was morally a very bad period. It really gave me a kick that that was one period in American history where the ideal beauty type was a very large woman. There's one letter I have from a guy out West who reports back that he was watching this woman tight-rope walker in Virginia City, and he says, "She had the most beautiful shape of anyone I ever saw—enormous thighs!"

I was also really taken with the early part of the 19th century, which was probably the most repressive period for the society's vision of what women were supposed to be. What gave me such a charge is how many women figured out ways to work around all these rules without appearing to be breaking any of them—either by saying, "Well, I'm a woman and therefore not interested in politics, but as a mother...," or by traveling around the country giving speeches about how a woman's place is in the home.

Your name was floated as a possible dark horse candidate for the executive editor position...
Well, it was a lovely thought, although, given the fact that I haven't been in anyone's newsroom for about 20 years, the idea that I would be the right person to run the newsroom didn't make any sense at all. But I thought it was really sweet that people mentioned me.

Do you miss the newsroom?
No, I've always been an opinion person for virtually my entire career, and most regular civilian people don't understand how carefully we divide this world between the news side and the opinion side. If you're in it, it's not the same thing, and I've always been an opinion person.

I was so amazed when I realized that Jayson Blair was only in June—it seems now like much longer ago.
When I got this job two years ago, my thought was, "Well, I may be a reasonable person to have picked to be the editorial-page editor, because I'm very good at taking boring issues and making them interesting, and we're at a really boring point in American history." Since I've been editor, we've had the terrorist attack, we've had two wars, we had the entire roiling of our own shop here with the Jayson Blair thing, we had a blackout, a few weeks ago a worm got into our system and was sending letters out to the whole world saying, "Thank you for your Op-Ed contribution." It's hard to believe that I've only been doing this particular job for two years, because, gosh, it seems like we've had enough adventures to last a lifetime.

Has that changed the editorial page?
The things that happen downstairs didn't really—except that we're all part of the paper, so of course everybody was taking everything to heart. I mean, I've worked for many papers where a reporter went rogue and started making stuff up, but normally they just fire the reporter and move on. The degree to which everybody here went into trauma over the Jayson Blair thing does really tell you how incredibly seriously they take their jobs here. But we're seven floors away from the news operation, and we really don't interact that much with the people downstairs. Howell Raines had been my predecessor here, and he was just a stupendous editorial-page editor, so we all loved him—but we weren't really in the loop.

And in terms of the major events—what changes have those wrought?
Well, gee, we talked a lot more about foreign policy than I had really planned on. When the Afghan war began, I was horrified until I realized I had two people on the board who had covered wars in Afghanistan. There's almost always this incredible depth you can rely on when stuff happens.

Has the tenor of reader submissions changed at all?
Right after 9/11 we were just getting so much stuff—the poor letters people were getting, I think it was, 500 emails an hour.

You mention in all of your bios that you're the first woman editor of the editorial page—is there any defensive aspect to the book, or is it more of a celebration?
It's absolutely a celebration, I hope. When I was growing up, we looked at women's history in particular, I think, as a great struggle, because that's where we were. Looking at it right now, the thing that really knocks you out is how canny women were. It makes you feel like you're sitting on the shoulders of these funky women who are always playing by the rules, but managing to wiggle around them in very smart ways.

I have talked to various female journalists—never at the Times—about hitting various glass ceilings. Do you have any stories that you're willing to share?
I was at a panel last weekend, and a woman in the audience basically asked me a glass-ceiling question about how women still, after all this struggle, cannot get the very best jobs. Walter Isaacson was sitting next to me and I could hear him mumbling, "Hell of a person to ask why women can't get good jobs—she's got the best job in American journalism."

There wasn't much talk about this during the Jayson Blair thing, but do you feel like you've been the beneficiary of affirmative action for women at any point?
Sure. I think that there were undoubtedly times when I got stuff, especially when I was just starting out as a columnist. But the other thing I've learned is that there's always something when anybody gets any job, so you can't really break your heart over the fact that your combination worked for you at that particular point.

Lizzie Skurnick is a writer and editor in Baltimore and a frequent contributor to You can buy America's Women at Photo credit: The New York Times.

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