The Good Girls Revolt

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

by Lynn Povich

The Good Girls Revolt

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NPR Summary

In the 1960s, Lynn Povich became part of a revolution at Newsweek when she and her female co-workers sued their bosses for equal opportunity in the newsroom. They asked for a third of the reporters and a third of the writers to be women, and a third of the researchers to be men.

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Excerpt: The Good Girls Revolt

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 news - worthy 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.

Excerpted from The Good Girls Revolt by Lynn Povich. Copyright 2012 by Lynn Povich. Excerpted by permission of PublicAffairs.

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