EXCERPT: 'When Everything Changed,' by Gail Collins

Men, in their capacity as breadwinners, were presumed to be the money managers on the home front as well as in business, and women were cut out of almost everything having to do with finances. Credit cards were issued in the husband's name. Loans were granted based on the husband's wage-earning ability, even if the wife had a job, under the theory that no matter what the woman said she planned to do, she would soon become pregnant and quit working. A rule of thumb that banks used when analyzing a couple's ability to handle a mortgage or car loan was that the salary of the wife was irrelevant if she was 28 or under. Half of her income was taken into consideration if she was in her 30's. Her entire salary entered the calculations only if she had reached 40 or could prove she had been sterilized. Marjorie Wintjen, a 25-year-old Delaware woman, was told her husband's vasectomy had no effect on the matter "because you can still get pregnant."

Even when a woman was living on her own and supporting herself, she had trouble convincing the financial establishment that she could be relied upon to pay her bills. The New York Times was still reporting horror stories in 1972, like a suburban mother who was unable to rent an apartment until she got the lease co-signed by her husband – a patient in a mental hospital. A divorced woman, well-to-do and over 40, had to get her father to co-sign her application for a new co-op. Divorced women had a particular problem getting credit, in part because of a widely held belief that a woman who could not keep her marriage together might not keep her money under control, either. (Insurance companies held to the same line of reasoning when it came to writing policies for car owners, theorizing that a woman who broke the marital bonds would also break the speeding limit.) Joyce Westrich, a program analyst, wanted to buy a house in New Jersey for herself and her two children after she and her husband legally separated. All the banks she approached turned her down, to Westrich's befuddlement, until her real estate broker "whispered … in the manner of a character in a deodorant commercial – 'Maybe it's your marital situation." Although her about-to-be ex-husband's income was much lower than hers, once he agreed to co-sign, Westrich had no further troubles.

"Men need faster service than women …"

The presumption that women needed men's protection in every aspect of life led to a kind of near-infantalization. Looking back on her life as a housewife in the 1960's, the writer Jane O'Reilly recalled that she had "never earned my own living, never taken a trip alone, never taken total responsibility for a single decision. The only time I tried to give a speech, I fainted. I had been divorced once, and lasted only four months before I remarried in a fit of terror. I had never gone to a party by myself, never gone to the movies by myself. I wanted to run away from home but I felt I had to ask permission."

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