If you were a newcomer, you might have noticed, as did Jane Bryant Quinn as a newcomer once, that the randy (male) writers and editors might “cruise the newcomers, letting them know that their so-called careers would be helped if they joined the guy for drinks.” If you were up for the antics, you know you can always sneak down to the infirmary, where you can go to “take a nap” for an hour or two. You wouldn’t get fired for not wanting to. Going by the Sports writers, they might audibly rate you as you walk by, and—Because it was the 60’s! Because you were wearing your mini-skirt and it felt good! Because the whole place was a “cauldron of hormonal activity!”—you might, as did Maureen Orth, think it was funny or fun. “But women,” Orth never forgot, “were clearly subordinate.”
“For every man there was an inferior woman, for every writer there was a checker,” said Nora Ephron about Newsweek in the ‘60’s. “They were the artists and we were the drones.” It was a dead end for women at Newsweek. Women who went on to be successful writers, such as Jane Bryant Quinn, discovered after a stint at Newsweek that, they would “never become a writer, just an older researcher, making my younger and younger male writers look good.”
Women who were hired at Newsweek, like Judy Gingold, were told: “If you want to write, go someplace else.”
And some of them did. But for those who didn’t the environment began to fester, the frustration elevating to boiling point. On March 16, 1970, after conspiring for months and deciding on a plan of action, forty-six female employees of Newsweek “filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), charging that [they] had been ‘systematically discriminated against in both hiring and promotion and forced to assume a subsidiary role’ simply because [they] were women.”
The response they received the following Monday from editor-in-chief Osborn “Oz” Elliott’s only worked to reinforce the institutional discrimination: “The fact that most researchers at Newsweek are women and that virtually all writers are men stems from a newsmagazine tradition going back almost fifty years.”
In The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued Their Bosses and Changed the Workplace (Public Affairs, 2012), Lynn Povich delivers in the fast-paced, efficient prose of a writer who knows her way around a news story, the details of this monumental case: the first class-action lawsuit by women, and the first by women in the media. She describes the Newsweek office as it was in the 60’s and the details of the women’s secret gatherings as they geared up to sue their bosses. She gives a quick history of many of the women’s backgrounds that led to their employment at the magazine, and details the women’s experiences with their two lawyers—Eleanor Holmes Norton and Harriet Rabb—as they sued for the first time, then when they decided to sue again a year later.
But the year following the first lawsuit, the women were not satisfied with how things were progressing. “Only 23 percent of the newly hired writers were female, but 39 percent of the newly hired researchers were male. Of the four Newsweek women who had tryouts [for writing positions], three had failed.” Only three new women writers had been hired—compared to nine male. “Management still seemed stumped about how to move forward,”
And so, as Povich tells it:
On May 16, 1972, we announced that fifty-one women had filed a second complaint against Newsweek with the EEOC “because sex discrimination at the magazine remains essentially unchanged.” Two weeks later, Margaret Montagno was the lead plaintiff on a complaint filed with the New York State Division of Human Rights “On her own behalf and behalf of the 50 or more female employees similarly situated.” In a half-page, single-spaced paragraph, enumerating all the ways the magazine discriminated against women, Margaret charged Newsweek with unlawful discriminatory practice, ending the complaint saying, “Because I am a woman I believe I have no chance to become a senior editor or part of top management at Newsweek. Because I am a woman I believe I have very little chance to become a writer, bureau chief or reporter at Newsweek. I believe that to be a woman at Newsweek is to accept a permanent position in those lower paying an/or less prestigious jobs restricted to or predominantly held by women.”
The original Newsweek lawsuit was the first in a series, followed quickly by TimeLife Inc., and The New York Times. And what made this lawsuit even more awe-inspiring than being the first in a line of many—the women strategically planned the original March 16, 1970 lawsuit to coincide with an issue of Newsweek that featured an article about the burgeoning women’s movement entitled “Women in Revolt.” Whereas Newsweek was known as a liberal news source and was covering both the women’s movement and the civil rights movement, the top editors had failed to notice their own sexual discrimination.
It took Povich six years to conduct research and compile documents for Good Girls, but the history and research were woven together with seamless grace. There’s a multiplicity of voices represented within the pages, over 40 people were interviewed who worked at Newsweek during that time, and the accounts are woven into a painstaking tapestry. Not only is it a riveting and digestible account of the lawsuits—including the emotional rigor leading up to them among the women, and the various divisions and disagreements within the group—but it’s also an in-depth look at how the newsweekly functioned—how correspondents and reporters phoned their reportage in to writers, how writers compiled, how the researchers filled in or checked the hard-facts—including details about which sources they used and the process of chasing down a fact. It’s a brilliant account of how a newsroom functions—and how this one in particular disfunctioned in terms of equal opportunity.
What’s intriguing about this book is that it’s not just a historical account. It’s firmly situated in the twenty-first century, with the viewpoint looking back. It’s a retrospective, as Povich includes quotes from interviews with the main players in the lawsuit—forty years later. It makes for an evocative layering of accounts—the artfully rendered reconstructed scenes of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s era workplace and the details of the lawsuit (right down to what the women wore in court on the first day of the lawsuit) are paralleled with commentary from those looking back. It’s generous on Povich’s part, because it allows for the men who were at the top during the lawsuits to admit their ignorance now that they have hindsight. Oz Elliot, the very editor who at first tried to explain away the discrimination because the men vs. women divide was “tradition,” ended up being the editor who “made women’s advancement a priority.” Elliot himself later said of the male editors who ruled Newsweek, “God, weren’t we awful?” Before Elliot died in 2008, Povich was able to interview him for the book. “Looking back,” he told her, “I would have been more sensitive about what it was all about before the storm broke. And in retrospect, I’m sure I would have said something different than that it was a newsmagazine tradition!”
This entire book hinges on retrospect, which is why I think it’s interesting that this book is classified as History/Memoir. Perhaps if Povich were doing nothing but a historical account of the case it would make more sense to be shelved in History. But she’s not. Yes, the women sued and changed the workplace, but her book opens with an account of how change hasn’t happened. The fascinating (albeit disturbing) fact of this lawsuit is that forty years later, males still dominate the writing and editing positions at Newsweek (not to mention the majority of other similar publications). Povich opens this book not back in the 1960’s, in those moments where discrimination was glaringly obvious—she starts in 2008. The book should also be classified as Current Affairs. She starts with three female employees, Jessica Bennett, Jesse Ellison, and Sarah Ball, who’ve all noticed instances of male favoritism.
Bennett, who started as an intern in 2006, “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.” Ellison was the “number two to the editor of Scope, the opening section of the magazine that featured inside scoops and breaking news.” The summer of 2007 a “half-dozen college-age ‘dudes’ had come in as summer interns and suddenly the department turned into a frat house.” Suddenly, these dudes were being assigned stories where she still had to pitch all of her ideas. Seeking advice, she went to one editor who told her, “The problem is that you’re so pretty you need to figure out a way to use your sexuality to your advantage.”
Bennett and Ellison eventually teamed up with Sarah Ball, a twenty-three-year-old Culture reporter at Newsweek. Ball was moved by a recent Vanityfair.com article by Nell Scovell, the opening of which she recited by heart to Povich during their interview: “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.” The three women co-wrote a 4-page story called “Are We There Yet?” which ran on March 22, 2010, “almost forty years to the day that we had charged Newsweek with sex discrimination,” writes Povich. The three women went on to show that basically, no, we’re not there yet. That women still make seventy-seven cents on the male dollar, that “female MBAs make $4,600 less per year than male MBAs” in their first jobs out of business school. They pointed out that in 2009 only six of the forty-nine cover stories were written by women. “Newsweek,” they wrote, “was once ground zero for a movement that was supposed to break at least one glass ceiling.”
Povich manages to end on a somewhat upbeat note, citing the original Newsweek lawsuit as a “legacy for the young women who followed.” But what sticks with me after finishing this book is the fact that “The women’s movement is an incomplete revolution.” It’s an unsettling feeling, beyond disturbing—like feeling stuck in a quagmire or worse, tired. That something was half built, then abandoned, and then forgotten. Perhaps this book is exactly what we need right now to reinvigorate the movement. Perhaps we need to be reminded that at least we’re not (I hope) being complimented on our perky breasts or targets of walk-by ratings from male co-workers, but we’re only a few links down the chain from that. And really, that’s not far enough.