Thursday, October 2, 2003

A new history of women begins on the west side

Laura Pulfer

Because I am Cincinno-centric - or 'Nati-obsessed or whatever it's called when you know in your heart that your hometown is the center of the universe - I did not start by asking the distinguished writer about her career. Or her book. Or the scandal at her newspaper.

Instead, I asked Gail Collins, the first female editorial page editor for the New York Times and author of an unexpectedly fascinating and witty new history of American women, about growing up in Western Hills. A nice life. Close family. Roy and Rita Gleason's daughter went to high school at Seton, a girls' school where "we were in charge of everything."

Gail Gleason was in charge of the newspaper. Rita also made her take speech classes, for which Gail wrote "little monologues." These were published. "A little book," she says, when she is outed as a 15-year-old author by her sister-in-law Laura Gleason. The interior of the restaurant is dim, but I'm sure she is blushing. Modest. Very Cincinnati.

Anyway, I don't expect it was a big surprise to anybody who knew her that she might continue to be an overachiever. After a journalism degree from Marquette University and a master's in government from the University of Massachusetts, she was a financial reporter at United Press International in New York and a columnist at the New York Daily News and Newsday before joining the Times in 1995. Then in June 2001, she was named to one of the most powerful positions at one of the most powerful newspapers in the world. Responsible for the two opinion pages the Times publishes every day, she was mentioned as a possible replacement for deposed editor Howell Raines.

She's fond of Raines, who resigned after it was discovered that one of his reporters was lying and stealing, "fabricating and plagiarizing," in journalese. "It was a terrible time. He is a very dear friend. He's writing a book."

Finally we talk of her own book, which could cure any student who's sick of history. America's Women, Four Hundred Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates and Heroines (William Morrow, 556 pages, $27.95) begins in 1587 with the first English child born in the New World and ends with Betty Friedan leading a march down Fifth Avenue 383 years later to another New World for women.

In between is an intellectually curious examination of birth control, toilet facilities, beauty pageants, Playboy Clubs, cowgirls, childbirth and the "perpetually mixed message about women's role." She concludes, "Melanie and Scarlett, Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane, the soccer moms and the vampire slayers. All of them are more complicated than they let on."

She'll be signing copies of her book at 7 p.m. today at Joseph-Beth Booksellers at Rookwood Pavilion in Norwood. You will have no trouble locating the author. She'll be behind a big stack of books, of course. No brittle New Yorker wearing black and a superior expression, she looks just like what she is. A bright, well-bred west side girl who had to take dancing and accordion lessons. She has a nice smile and a friendly expression. She'd be the one you'd ask for directions if you were lost.

One media critic called her "a national columnist who still has the soul of a local one." Maybe she'd have had the same soul if she'd grown up in any other Midwestern city.

But I doubt it.

E-mail or phone 768-8393.

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