Brain Pickings

The Good Girls Revolt: The Untold Story of the 1970 Lawsuit That Changed the Modern Workplace

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How the first sex-discrimination lawsuit in the history of media shaped the modern workplace.

In the summer of 2006, a young journalist named Jessica Bennett started as an intern at Newsweek. Shortly thereafter, three guys showed up as interns and by the end of the summer, all three of them were offered jobs but Jessica — who had been given a number of their stories to rewrite — wasn’t. Once she eventually was, a year later, she found herself getting worse assignments and fewer published articles than her less experienced male colleagues. Meanwhile, her best friend, Jesse Ellison, another Newsweek writer, had just found out that the guy who had replaced her in her previous position was hired at a significantly higher salary.

At first, it didn’t even occur to the young women — who had come of age in the post-feminist era — that there might be a gender issue at work, especially at a magazine where women comprised 40% of the masthead and the managing editor was female. But the deeply engrained boy’s-club mentality of day-to-day management became increasingly evident and frustrating for many of the women on the staff, who had started pooling together and discussing the issue. Then, one day, Tony Skaggs, a veteran researcher in the magazine’s library, walked into Newsweek video producer Jen Molina’s office and told her that decades earlier, the women at Newsweek had sued the magazine for gender-based discrimination. Shocked, Molina Googled the lawsuit but found nothing — a particularly besetting outcome for those of us who belong to the generation nursed on the notion that if it isn’t Googleable, it doesn’t exist.

In The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued their Bosses and Changed the Workplace (public library), Lynn Povich, one of the original Newsweek staffers who helmed the watershed lawsuit, tells its previously untold story, building — or, perhaps, deconstructing — around it a larger narrative about the tectonic shifts in gender politics in the past four decades and where this leaves us today. Not unlike Mad Men, it exposes the many social, cultural, and legal limits for women at the time, but also tells what Povich calls a “coming-of-age story about a generation of ‘good girls’ who found [themselves] in the revolutionary ’60s.” Perhaps most jarring of all, however, is that even as we read on as modern people who take pride in the progress of the past half-century, we become increasingly aware of the subtler but no less damaging sexist undercurrents that, forty years later, still permeate many social structures and cultural institutions.

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 generally ended up in lesser positions than men. One summer, two graduates of the Columbia Journalism School were hired – he as a writer and she as a researcher/reporter. That’s just the way it was, and we all accepted it.

Until we didn’t. Just as young omen today are discovering that post-feminism isn’t really ‘post,’ we were discovering that civil rights didn’t include women’s rights. . . . We began to realize that something was very wrong in 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 confidence and courage to find ourselves and stake our claim.

'Women in Revolt,' Newsweek, March 16, 1970

But what makes the lawsuit most striking is that it took place immediately after Newsweek ran a cover story on the fledgling feminist movement titled “Women in Revolt” in March of 1970, with a screaming cover featuring a naked woman bursting through a broken female-sex symbol. As the issue hit newsstands on that fateful Monday morning of March 16, 46 of Newsweek’s female employees filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under the charge that they had been “systematically discriminated against in both hiring and promotion and forced to assume subsidiary role” due entirely to their gender. It was the first sex-discrimination lawsuit in the history of media, and it garnered prolific news coverage around the world — some of which was itself appallingly emblematic of the sort of culturally condoned sexism at the heart of the lawsuit. Povich offers a chilling example:

The story in the New York Daily News, titled “Newshens Sue Newsweek of ‘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.

But the women, undeterred, moved forward with the suit. They had chosen Eleanor Holmes Norton, the assistant legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, to represent them. Povich recalls a monumental moment at the packed press conference:

‘It is ironic,’ [Norton] said, waving a copy of the magazine, ‘that while Newsweek considers women’s grievances noteworthy enough for such a 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.’

But the irony didn’t stop there. Povich recalls:

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 int he 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 it 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.

Indeed, when the idea of a women’s liberation cover story first came up, the editors immediately realized they couldn’t have a man write it — but they didn’t trust any of the women on the staff with it. Instead, for the first time in the magazine’s history, they went outside the organizaton and hired Helen Dudar, a star writer at the New York Post, to write the piece. (Coincidentally or not, Dudar’s husband was one of Newsweek’s top writers.) As Povich recalls, this only galvanized the women at Newsweek, who then decided to time the lawsuit with the cover story’s release. The rest, as the saying goes, is history — but, oh, what riveting and reverberating history.

In an age when we celebrate how women are changing the face of media, The Good Girls Revolt is an essential piece of media history that shows us not only how far we’ve come but, with just the right amount of self-conscious cultural discomfort, how far we’re yet to go.

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