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Newsweek's women rebel

In suing for job discrimination 40 years ago, these "good girls" made lasting change.

How the Women of Newsweek Sued Their Bosses and Changed the Workplace By Lynn Povich
How the Women of Newsweek Sued Their Bosses and Changed the Workplace By Lynn PovichRead more

The Good Girls Revolt

How the Women of Newsweek Sued Their Bosses and Changed the Workplace

By Lynn Povich

Public Affairs. 288 pp. $25.99

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Reviewed by MarySheila McDonald

On March 16, 1970, an ironic coincidence unfolded at Newsweek magazine: a provocative cover story headlined "Women in Revolt" examined women's dissatisfaction with their role in society and 46 female staffers filed a sex discrimination complaint with the EEOC.

The women alleged that females were "systematically discriminated against in both hiring and promotion and forced to assume a subsidiary role."

In The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued Their Bosses and Changed the Workplace, Lynn Povich relates how the filing of the first all-female class-action complaint affected the men and women working for Newsweek at the time, as well as subsequent generations of Americans.

With vivid recollections of the author and major and minor participants, Povich, a party to the suit, succeeds in making recent history enraging, poignant, and even sexy.

Revolt recounts a coming-of-age journey for Newsweek, with epiphanies - or what Povich calls "Click!" moments - for those on both sides. Change followed. The magazine's top editor, Osborn Elliott, who had been slow to grasp the injustice of Newsweek's gender caste system and was surprised by the anger of his female colleagues, had his own "Click" moment and named Shana Alexander Newsweek's first female columnist.

But when three young female Newsweek staffers wrote a March 2010 article on gender equality headlined "Are We There Yet?," they found that women are still not on an equal footing in the executive suite two generations after the "Women in Revolt" story appeared. 

(In yet another piece of irony, a female Newsweek editor-in-chief, Tina Brown, announced in October that the magazine would abandon its print edition in the United States and go entirely digital.)

Though the lawsuit never made it to court, it had immediate and lasting effects. The women's attorney, Eleanor Holmes Norton, said, "The Newsweek case was path-breaking in terms of the impact on law and society. It encouraged other women to come forward and it had an effect on journalism and it had a wide-ranging effect on women."

Norton, an African American who wore an "afro," had to instruct her clients: "You gotta take off your white gloves, ladies!" In fact, only one black woman from Newsweek decided to join the initial complaint. The rest of the plaintiffs were white, well-educated "good girls" like Povich. The daughter of acclaimed Washington Post sportswriter Shirley Povich, Lynn Povich was a Vassar graduate who worked in Newsweek's Paris bureau and then as a researcher in New York.

Women at Newsweek were relegated to research and fact-checker jobs despite possessing credentials and degrees from the nation's top colleges. Though Newsweek was known to be a "liberal institution," Povich became its only female writer in 1969, though her copy about social trends was often rewritten.

It was Judy Gingold, "the ringleader," whose "click" moment sparked the revolt. A quintessential good girl, Gingold graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Smith College and was a Marshall scholar at Oxford. Unable to find a job in New York, she settled for running copy at Newsweek and became a researcher. During lunch with a female attorney friend in 1969, Gingold shared that all women at Newsweek were researchers. Her friend said: "You know that's illegal?" and proceeded to educate Gingold about Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Gingold called the EEOC the next day and was advised to secretly organize her female coworkers and file a complaint. For a good girl, this was unnerving. "It is getting yourself to accept a different set of values and relinquish old ones. This is one of the hardest things I've ever done, but I felt I had to sue," she said.

Nora Ephron described her brief time at Newsweek this way: "For every man there was an inferior woman, for every writer there was a checker. They were the artists and we were the drones. . . . They were just trying to sleep with you - and if you wanted to, you could. But no one was going to fire you for not sleeping with them." Povich referred to the work environment as a "cauldron of hormonal activity." Reflecting on that milieu, she notes there was inappropriate behavior that would be seen as sexual favoritism and a hostile work environment today.

The "newshens," as one headline referred to the plaintiffs, would have to file two complaints. After round one, a Memorandum of Understanding was negotiated and signed on the 50th anniversary of the 19th Amendment. It stated there would be good faith efforts to seek women within and outside Newsweek for reporting and writing tryouts. Frustrated by anemic progress, the women filed a second suit. A second memorandum was signed stating that by the end of 1974, approximately one-third of Newsweek's writers and reporters would be female and by Dec. 31, 1975, a female senior editor world be in charge of one of the editorial sections. In another ironic twist, it was Povich who became the first female editor in Newsweek's history.

"I was amazed that as one of the women who had been a leader in the lawsuit, I was rewarded with being named the magazine's first female senior editor," she writes. "That wasn't true for most women on the front lines in media lawsuits. But the barricades were falling, and the women were rushing in."

You go, girls!