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The Good Girls Revolt
How the Women of Newsweek Sued their Bosses and Changed the Workplace
By Lynn Povich
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Lynn Povich was one of the lucky ones, landing a job at Newsweek, renowned for its cutting-edge coverage of civil rights and the “Swinging Sixties.” Nora Ephron, Jane Bryant Quinn, Ellen Goodman, and Susan Brownmiller all started there as well. It was a top-notch job — for a girl — at an exciting place.
But it was a dead end. Women researchers sometimes became reporters, rarely writers, and never editors. Any aspiring female journalist was told, “If you want to be a writer, go somewhere else.”
On March 16, 1970, the day Newsweek published a cover story on the fledgling feminist movement entitled “Women in Revolt,” forty-six Newsweek women charged the magazine with discrimination in hiring and promotion. It was the first female class action lawsuit–the first by women journalists — and it inspired other women in the media to quickly follow suit.
Lynn Povich was one of the ringleaders. In The Good Girls Revolt, she evocatively tells the story of this dramatic turning point through the lives of several participants. With warmth, humor, and perspective, she shows how personal experiences and cultural shifts led a group of well-mannered, largely apolitical women, raised in the 1940s and 1950s, to challenge their bosses — and what happened after they did. For many, filing the suit was a radicalizing act that empowered them to “find themselves” and fight back. Others lost their way amid opportunities, pressures, discouragements, and hostilities they weren’t prepared to navigate.
The Good Girls Revolt also explores why changes in the law didn’t solve everything. Through the lives of young female journalists at Newsweek today, Lynn Povich shows what has — and hasn’t — changed in the workplace.
For Steve, Sarah, and Ned
and for the Newsweek women
and for the Newsweek women
WHAT WAS THE PROBLEM?
JESSICA BENNETT GREW UP in the era of Girl Power. It was the 1980s, when young women were told there was no limit to what they could accomplish. The daughter of a Seattle attorney, Jessica regularly attended Take Your Daughter to Work Day with her dad and was the academic star in her family, excelling over her younger brothers and male peers. In high school, she was a member of Junior Statesmen of America, a principal in the school orchestra, and a varsity soccer player. Jessica was accepted to the University of Southern California, her first choice, but transferred after freshman year to Boston University because it had a stronger journalism program. When the Boston Globe offered a single internship to a BU student, she was the recipient.
Then Jessica got a job at Newsweek and suddenly encountered obstacles she couldn't explain. She had started as an intern on the magazine in January 2006 and was about to be hired when three guys showed up for summer internships. At the end of the summer, the men were offered jobs but Jessica wasn't, even though she was given one of their stories to rewrite. Despite the fact that she was writing three times a week on Newsweek's website, her internship kept getting extended. Even after she was hired in January 2007, Jessica had to battle to get her articles published, while guys with the same or less experience were getting better assignments and faster promotions. "Initially I didn't identify it as a gender issue," she recalled. "But several of us women had been feeling like we weren't doing a good job or accomplishing what we wanted to. We didn't feel like we were being heard."
Being female was not something that ever held Jessica back. "I was used to getting everything I wanted and working hard for it," said the twenty-eight-year-old writer at Newsweek.com, "so my feeling was, why do I need feminism? Why do I need to take a women's studies course? And, of course, there was the stereotype of the feminist—the angry, man-hating, granola-crunching, combat-boot-wearing woman. I don't know that I consciously thought that, but I think a lot of young women do. I went to public school in the inner city, so issues of racial justice were more interesting to me than gender because, frankly, gender wasn't really an issue."
Her best friend at Newsweek, Jesse Ellison, was also frustrated. She had recently discovered that the guy who replaced her in her previous job was given a significantly higher salary. She was doing well as the number two to the editor of Scope, the opening section of the magazine that featured inside scoops and breaking news. But that summer, a half-dozen college-age "dudes" had come in as summer interns and suddenly the department turned into a frat house. Guys were high-fiving, turning the TV from CNN to ESPN, constantly invading her cubicle, and asking her, as if she were their mother, whether they should microwave their lunches. They were also getting assigned stories while she had to pitch all her ideas. Since a new boss had taken over, Jesse felt as if she had been demoted. She didn't know what to do.
Jesse, thirty, sought the advice of a trusted editor who had been a mentor to her. He told her, "You're senior to them—shame them." Then he said, "The problem is that you're so pretty you need to figure out a way to use your sexuality to your advantage," she recalled, still incredulous about the remark. "Even though I think he was just being an idiot for saying this—because he had really fought for me—hearing that changed my perception of the previous six months. I was like, 'Wait a minute! Were you being an advocate for me because you think I'm pretty and you want me in your office? And, more important, is this what other people in the office think? Not that I'm actually talented, but this is about something else?' It really screwed with my head."
Jesse had grown up in a conservative town outside Portland, Maine. Her mother, a former hippie who was divorced, had started a small baby-accessories business. During the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court hearings, Jesse was the only one in her eighth-grade class to support Anita Hill. She went to a coed boarding school, where she was valedictorian of her class, and then to Barnard, an all-women's college, where she graduated cum laude. She, too, never took a women's studies course. "I just felt like I didn't need it," she said. "Feminism was a given—it was Barnard!" After a brief job at a nonprofit, she enrolled part-time in Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She also got an internship on the foreign language editions of Newsweek and was hired full-time when she graduated with her master's degree in June 2008. But now, a year later, she, too, was struggling to move ahead at Newsweek. What was the problem?
"It wasn't like I believed that sexism didn't exist," said Jesse. "It was just that it didn't occur to me that what was happening at work was sexism. Maybe it's because we are a highly individualized culture now and I had always done really well. So I just assumed that everything that was happening was on the basis of merit. I grew up reading Newsweek and I had tremendous respect for it. I felt like, I'm in this world of real thinkers and writers and I have to prove myself. The fact that I wasn't being given assignments was simply an indication that they didn't think I was good enough yet. It didn't occur to me that it was about anything else. For the first time in my life, I was feeling inadequate and insecure."
Jessica Bennett felt the same way. "Maybe it's a female tendency to turn inward and blame yourself, but I never thought about sexism," she said. "We had gotten to the workforce and then something suddenly changed and we didn't know what it was. After all, we had always accomplished everything we had set out to do, so naturally we would think we were doing something wrong—not that there was something wrong. It was us, not it."
What was the problem? After all, women composed nearly 40 percent of the Newsweek masthead in 2009. It wasn't like the old days, when there was a ghetto of women in the research department from which they couldn't get promoted. In fact, there were no longer researchers on the magazine, except in the library. Young editorial employees now started as researcher-reporters. There were women writers at Newsweek, several female columnists and senior editors, and at least two women in top management. Ann McDaniel, a former Newsweek reporter and top editor, was now the managing director of the magazine in charge of both the business and editorial sides—a first. So it couldn't be that old thing called discrimination that was inhibiting their progress. The fight for equality had been won. Women could do anything now at Newsweek and elsewhere. Hadn't Maria Shriver's report on American women just come out in October 2009, declaring, "The battle of the sexes is over"?
Jesse and Jessica stewed about the situation, discussing it with other Newsweek women and friends outside the magazine, who, it turned out, were also feeling discouraged in their careers. "It felt so good just talking to each other," recalled Jesse. "It was like, 'Oh my God, I'm so sick of feeling silent and scared. It's not fair and we should say something.' That impulse was great; knowing that 'I'm not alone' was empowering."
One day Jen Molina, a Newsweek video producer, was talking about the magazine's "old boys club" to Tony Skaggs, a veteran researcher in the library. Tony informed her that many years before, the women at Newsweek had sued the magazine's management on the grounds of sex discrimination. Jen was shocked. She had no idea this had happened—and at her own magazine. She told Jessica, who told Jesse, and the two friends began investigating. Jessica immediately Googled "Newsweek lawsuit" and "women sue Newsweek" but she couldn't find any reference online. "Funny," she remarked, "we're trained in digital journalism, so we think if it's not on Google, it doesn't exist."
A few weeks later, Tony walked into Jessica's office with a worn copy of Susan Brownmiller's vivid chronicle of the women's movement, In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution. A crumpled Post-it note marked the chapter mentioning a lawsuit at Newsweek in 1970, almost forty years earlier. "I just remember sitting at my desk reading it," she said, "and every two sentences saying, 'Holy shit,' because I couldn't believe this had happened and I didn't know about it! So I instant-messaged Jesse and said, 'You have to get over here and read this.' Why didn't we know this? Why has this died? And why was there only one person in the research department who had to get this book for us to let us know about it?"
When they read about the case, it all seemed so familiar. "We realized we were far from the first to feel discrimination," said Jesse. "So much of the language and culture was still the same. It helped drive home the fact that it was still the same place, the same institutional knowledge, the same Newsweek."
This happened in the fall of 2009, just as a scandal at CBS's Late Show with David Letterman was making headlines. Joe Halderman, a CBS News producer who was living with one of Letterman's assistants, had found her diary revealing her ongoing affair with her boss. Halderman threatened to expose the relationship if Letterman didn't give him $2 million. On October 1, Letterman confessed—on air—that yes, "I have had sex with women who work for me on this show." That same month, ESPN analyst Steve Phillips, a former general manager for the New York Mets baseball team, was fired from the sports network after admitting that he had an affair with a twenty-two-year-old production assistant. In November, editor Sandra Guzman, who was fired from the New York Post, filed a complaint against the newspaper and its editor-in-chief alleging "unlawful employment practices and retaliation" as well as sexual harassment and a hostile work environment. (The case is pending in Manhattan federal court.)
The Letterman scandal infuriated Sarah Ball, a twenty-three-year-old Culture reporter at Newsweek, particularly after she read an article by a former Letterman writer. "I was galvanized by Nell Scovell's story on VanityFair.com," recalled Sarah, who cited the beginning of the piece by heart: "At this moment, there are more females serving on the United States Supreme Court than there are writing for Late Show with David Letterman, The Jay Leno Show, and The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien combined. Out of the fifty or so comedy writers working on these programs, exactly zero are women. It would be funny if it weren't true." Sarah told her editor, Marc Peyser, about the piece and in the course of the conversation, Peyser suggested a story on young women in the workforce, pegged to the scandals. "He was really into it," Sarah recalled. "He kept saying, 'This could be a cover, this could be a cover.'" Sarah, who had seen the Brownmiller book, immediately told Jessica and Jesse about Peyser's interest. The three women went back into his office and pitched a story combining the old and new elements. "It was perfect," said Jesse. "It was bigger than us, we had our own narrative that we felt was important, and there was the forthcoming fortieth anniversary of the lawsuit in March."
Peyser had heard about the lawsuit and told them that it had gone all the way to the US Supreme Court. That night, Jesse started searching online through all the 1970 Supreme Court cases but found nothing mentioning Newsweek. "We knew there was something about a lawsuit," she said, "but we didn't know what it meant." Jessica finally paid to search the New York Times archives, where several articles on the lawsuit turned up. "I was bouncing out of my chair I was so excited," she said. "We knew we had to do something but it still wasn't clear from those clips whether the suit had been settled or whether it actually went to court."
The three women spent the next few weeks digging deeper and calling various sources, including Susan Brownmiller and some former Newsweek women whose names were mentioned in the book. I was one of the women. Jessica and Jesse contacted me when they learned that I was writing about the case. They wanted to find out what had happened and why. They were determined to write a piece for Newsweek questioning how much had actually changed for women at the magazine, in the media, and in the workplace in general.
When I met the two young women for lunch, they reminded me so much of my friends and myself forty years earlier. We, too, had been bright young things, full of energy and expectations. We also had been thrilled to be working at an important magazine and we, too, had begun to realize that something wasn't right at Newsweek. But if they were post-feminists, we were pre-feminists. Unlike these young women, many of us were far more conflicted about our ambitions and clueless about having a career. My only desire after college was to go to Paris, and I was lucky enough to get a job there as a secretary in the Newsweek bureau. I never imagined that five years later, I would be suing the magazine for sex discrimination.
As I listened to Jessica and Jesse struggle to understand what they were feeling—their marginalization, the sexual banter and innuendo, the career cakewalk for men their age—it reminded me of "the problem that had no name" that Betty Friedan had defined in her 1963 groundbreaking book, The Feminine Mystique: that "strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction" of the American housewife who, "as she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night—she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—'Is this all?'"
Friedan's "problem" did not apply to working-class women, who had to earn a living but were confined mainly to low-paying jobs. It was the condition of the postwar suburban housewife. Although many middle-class women had been recruited to work during World War II, they were forced to go home when the soldiers returned. For educated women, whose husbands could support them, not having to work was seen as a status symbol until, as Betty Friedan pointed out, many of them realized they wanted—needed—something more than a husband and children.
Finding meaningful work, however, was not easy. In just about every industry, "office work" for women meant secretarial jobs and typing pools. Even in creative fields, such as book publishing, advertising, and journalism, where there was a pool of educated females, women were given menial jobs. In the 1950s, full-time working women earned on average between fifty-nine and sixty-four cents for every dollar men earned in the same job. (It wasn't until the passage of the Equal Pay Act in June 1963 that it became illegal to pay women a lower rate for the same job.) And there were very few professional women. Until around 1970, women comprised fewer than 10 percent of students in medical school, 4 percent of law school students, and only 3 percent of business school students.
At Newsweek, our "problem that had no name" in the mid-1960s was sexism, pure and simple. At both Time and Newsweek, only men were hired as writers. Women were almost always hired on the mail desk or as fact checkers and rarely promoted to reporter or writer. Even with similar credentials, women ended up in lesser positions than men. One year, two Columbia Journalism School graduates were hired—Paul Zimmerman as a writer and Ann Ray Martin as a researcher/ reporter. That's just the way it was, and we accepted it.
Until we didn't. Just as young women today are discovering that post-feminism isn't really "post," we were discovering that civil rights didn't include women's rights. Just like Jesse, Jessica, and Sarah, we began to realize that something was very wrong with the Newsweek system. With great trepidation, we decided to take on what we saw as a massive injustice: a segregated system of journalism that divided research, reporting, writing, and editing roles solely on the basis of gender. We began organizing in secret, terrified that we would be found out—and fired—at any moment. For most of us middle-class ladies, standing up for our rights marked the first time we had done anything political or feminist. It would be the radicalizing act that gave us the confidence and the courage to find ourselves and stake our claim.
THIS BOOK IS THE FIRST full account of that landmark Newsweek case, the story of how and why we became the first women in the media to sue for sex discrimination. Like Mad Men, the popular TV series on life at an advertising agency in the 1960s, not only does our tale reflect the legal and cultural limits for women at the time, but it also is a coming-of-age story about a generation of "good girls" who found ourselves in the revolutionary '60s. But if our pioneering lawsuit has been forgotten by many people, even at Newsweek, our fight for women's rights still reverberates with the younger generation. There have been many victories. Women today have more opportunities and solid legal support. They are more confident, more career-oriented, and more aggressive in getting what they want than most of us were. But many of the injustices that young women face today are the same ones we fought against forty years ago. The discrimination may be subtler, but sexist attitudes still exist.
Jessica, Jesse, and Sarah, and many young women like them, are beginning to understand that legal principles are not the only impediment to power. They see that the rhetoric they were taught—and believed—does not fully exist in the real world; that women still don't have equal rights and equal opportunities; that cultural transformation is harder than legal reform; and that feminism isn't finished. The struggle for social change is still evolving, and now they realize that they are part of it, too.
Here is our story.
"Editors File Story; Girls File Complaint"
ON MARCH 16, 1970, Newsweek magazine hit the newsstands with a cover story on the fledgling feminist movement titled "Women in Revolt." The bright yellow cover pictured a naked woman in red silhouette, her head thrown back, provocatively thrusting her fist through a broken blue female-sex symbol. As the first copies went on sale that Monday morning, forty-six female employees of Newsweek announced that we, too, were in revolt. We had just filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charging that we had been "systematically discriminated against in both hiring and promotion and forced to assume a subsidiary role" simply because we were women. It was the first time women in the media had sued on the grounds of sex discrimination and the story, irresistibly timed to the Newsweek cover, was picked up around the world.
"'Discriminate,' le redattrici di Newsweek? " (La Stampa)
"Newsweek's Sex Revolt" (London Times)
"Editors File Story; Girls File Complaint" (Newsday)
"Women Get Set for Battle" (London Daily Express)
"As Newsweek Says, Women Are in Revolt, Even on Newsweek" (New York Times)
The story in the New York Daily News, titled "Newshens Sue Newsweek for 'Equal Rights,'" began, "Forty-six women on the staff of Newsweek magazine, most of them young and most of them pretty, announced today they were suing the magazine."
The UPI photograph capturing the announcement shows three young white women sitting alongside our attorney, a serious black woman with an imposing Afro. Behind them are pictured several rows of women in their twenties; I am shown standing in the corner with long dark hair. At 10 A.M. our lawyer, Eleanor Holmes Norton, the assistant legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, began reading a statement to a packed press conference at the ACLU's office at 156 Fifth Avenue. "It is ironic," she said, waving a copy of the magazine, "that while Newsweek considers women's grievances newsworthy enough for such major coverage, it continues to maintain a policy of discrimination against the women on its own staff. . . . The statistics speak for themselves—there are more than fifty men writing at Newsweek, but only one woman." She pointed out that although the women were graduates of top colleges, held advanced degrees, and had published in major news journals, "Newsweek's caste system relegates women with such credentials to research jobs almost exclusively and interminably."
Eleanor noted that a copy of the complaint had gone to Katharine Graham, publisher of the Washington Post and president of the Washington Post Company, which owned Newsweek. "The Newsweek women believe that as a woman, Mrs. Graham has a particular responsibility to end discrimination against women at her magazine," she said. She called on Mrs. Graham and the editors to negotiate and asked for "the immediate integration of the research staff and the opening of correspondence, writing, and editing positions to women."
Then she opened the floor to questions for the three Newsweek women at the table. One reporter asked who was the top woman at the magazine. Lucy Howard, a researcher in the National Affairs department, replied that it was Olga Barbi, who was head of the researchers and had been at Newsweek for forty years—which got a big laugh. Then Gabe Pressman, the veteran investigative reporter for local WNBC-TV, pushed his microphone in front of Mary Pleshette, the Movies researcher, and asked whether the discrimination was overt. "Yes," she answered. "There seems to be a gentleman's agreement at Newsweek that men are writers and women are researchers and the exceptions are few and far between."
It was an exhilarating moment for us, and a shocking one for Newsweek's editors, who couldn't have been more surprised if their own daughters had risen up in revolt. We had been secretly strategizing for months, whispering behind closed doors, congregating in the Newsweek ladies' room, and meeting in our apartments at night. As our numbers increased, we had hired a lawyer and were just reviewing our options when we were suddenly presented with a truly lucky break. In early 1970, Newsweek's editors decided that the new women's liberation movement deserved a cover story. There was one problem, however: there were no women to write the piece.
I was the only female writer on the magazine at the time, but I was very junior. As a researcher at Newsweek, I had also done a lot of reporting, and my editor in the Life & Leisure department had liked my work. When he decided that he didn't want to write about fashion anymore, he suggested that I be promoted to do it, and in mid-1969, I was. In addition to fashion, I wrote about social trends, including the gay-rights and women's movements. But things weren't going well. The senior editor who promoted me had moved to another department and the new editor thought my stories were too sympathetic to the activists. My copy was often rewritten.
When the idea of doing a women's lib cover was proposed in early 1970, the editors were savvy enough to realize they couldn't have a man write the story. Though I was not experienced enough to tackle a cover story, another woman on the magazine could have written it: Liz Peer, a gifted reporter in Newsweek's Washington bureau. But the editors never reached out to her. (When I asked my editor why they hadn't asked Liz, he told me that although she had been a writer in New York and a foreign correspondent for five years, he "wasn't sure" she could write a Newsweek cover.)
Instead, for the first time in the history of the magazine, the editors went outside the staff and hired Helen Dudar, a star writer at the New York Post, to do the piece. (Helen's husband, Peter Goldman, was a top writer for Newsweek.) That galvanized us. Our case might take years to wind its way through the EEOC backlog, but announcing our lawsuit the morning the "Women in Revolt" cover came out would get us prominent press coverage. We knew that worse than being sued, the publicity would mortify the magazine's editors, who prided themselves on the progressive views and pro–civil rights coverage that put Newsweek on the map in the 1960s.
The Sunday night before the press conference, we gathered at Holly Camp's West Eighty-Third Street apartment to prepare for the historic day ahead. We were nervous, excited, and resolute. I felt especially happy for my close friend Judy Gingold, the conscience of our collective. Judy had been the first one to see our situation at Newsweek as a moral issue, and against the grain of her good-girl up-bringing, she had pushed us to file a lawsuit. First on our agenda was deciding who would speak at the press conference. Silence. No one wanted to do it. Pat Lynden, a reporter in the New York bureau who never shied from confrontation, finally said, "I'll do it with someone else." Lucy Howard, a good friend of Pat's, stepped up. "I thought if I don't do this, the whole lawsuit will go down the drain," she recalled. "It never occurred to me that I would have to answer a question. I just assumed I would be a warm body and that Eleanor would speak." Then Mary Pleshette proposed that I join them, but I demurred. "As someone who has become a writer, I don't think I should represent the class," I said, throwing it back to her. "Mary, why don't you do it?" Mary, always the first to raise her hand in class, said she would be willing to do it as long as everyone agreed, which they did.
The three spokeswomen moved to a corner to practice answers and to discuss what they would wear (Lucy decided on a pink John Kloss dress, Pat a rose-colored T Jones dress, and Mary a burnt-orange shift). Another group formed to write a release about the Monday press conference, which Susan Agrest's husband would drop off later that night at various news organizations to get the event on their daybooks. The rest of us, with our lawyer's help, drafted a letter to Katharine Graham informing her that we were about to file the suit. "We are writing to you," the letter said, "because we cannot believe that you are fully aware of the extent to which we are discriminated against at Newsweek
- "The Good Girls Revolt is as compelling as any novel, and also an accurate, intimate history of new women journalists invading the male journalistic world of the 1970s. Lynn Povich turns this epic revolt into a lesson on why and how we've just begun."—GloriaSteinem
- "A meticulously reported and highly readable account of a pivotal time in the women's movement."—Jeannette Walls
- "Povich's in-depth research, narrative skills and eyewitness observations provide an entertaining and edifying look at a pivotal event in women's history."—Kirkus
- "The personal and the political are deftly interwoven in the fast-moving narrative.... The Good Girls Revolt has many timely lessons for working women who are concerned about discrimination today....But this sparkling, informative book may help move these goals a tiny bit closer."—NewYork Times
- "Solidly researched and should interest readers who care about feminist history and how gender issues play out in the culture."—Boston Globe
- "Povich's memoir of the tortuous, landmark battle that paved the way for a generation of female writers and editors is illuminating in its details [and] casts valuable perspective on a trail-blazing case that shouldn't be forgotten."—Macleans
- "[Povich] strikes a fair tone, neither naïve nor sanctimonious.... Among her achievements is a complex portrait of Newsweek Editor Osborn Elliott and his path from defensive adversary to understanding ally."—AmericanJournalism Review
- "Women still have a long way to go, the journalist Lynn Povich rousingly reminds readers in The Good Girls Revolt, her fascinating (and long overdue) history of the class-action lawsuit undertaken by four dozen female researchers and underlings at Newsweek magazine four decades ago.... If ever a book could remind women to keep their white gloves off and to keep fighting the good fight, this is the one."—LieslSchillinger, New York Times
- "Crisp, revealing.... [A] taut, firsthand account of how a group of razor-sharp, courageous women successfully fought back against institutional sexism at one of the country's most esteemed publications."—Washingtonian
- On Sale
- Sep 10, 2012
- Page Count
- 288 pages