Review: “The Good Girls Revolt: How The Women of Newsweek Sued Their Bosses and Changed the Workplace” By Lynn Povich

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Reviewed by Carolyn Schurr Levin


good-girls-revoltThe year 2012 was a big one for Newsweek.  After 79 years in print, the venerable newsmagazine published its last print issue on Dec. 31, 2012, transitioning to an all-digital format in early 2013.  The move reflected the challenges of a weekly publication in a world with a 24-hour news cycle, print advertising revenue declines and a growing online audience.  Perhaps as significantly as Newsweek’s digital transition, in late 2012, former Newsweek staffer Lynn Povich published The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued Their Bosses and Changed the Workplace, her detailed chronicle of the 1970 lawsuit that she brought, along with 45 other women, charging the newsmagazine with discrimination in hiring and promoting women.  That lawsuit, Povich convincingly argues in her recent book, “has become a legacy for the young women who followed us.”

In The Good Girls Revolt, Povich painstakingly describes the workplace for women who wanted to be journalists in the 1960s and the conflicted emotions of the Newsweek women while they planned a groundbreaking lawsuit against their employer.  Why publish such remembrances now, 40 years later?  Povich explained in a September 2012 Newsweek interview: “I was a history major, and I do believe that you can’t figure out where you’re going unless you know where you came from. I wanted to tell our story so it wouldn’t be lost. I also wanted to talk about a generation of women who came of age in the 1960s—polite, apolitical girls raised to keep our ambition under wraps, to be wives and mothers—who challenged those stereotypes and took on the system.”

Povich, a graduate of Vassar College, was hired in Newsweek’s Paris bureau in June 1965 “as a secretary, photo researcher, occasional reporter, and telex operator,” with the help of her father, famed Washington Post sports journalist Shirley Povich.  Like her co-plaintiffs in the lawsuit, also “girls with college degrees,” she was willing “to start at the bottom if it led to something better.”  Working at Newsweek for these college-educated, middle class women was “a dream job,” and they felt lucky to have landed there.  The women, most of whom remained researchers while their male counterparts with the same or very similar qualifications were promoted to higher positions, quickly realized, however, that it was a dead end.  In the mid-1960s, there was a segregated system of journalism that divided research, reporting, writing and editing solely on the basis of gender.  In March 1969, Povich was one of the few women who was promoted to junior writer.  Despite her promotion, she nevertheless joined the sex discrimination lawsuit as a plaintiff.

Interspersed throughout her narrative about the legal battle, and seemingly to give context to the anger that the women felt, Povich detours to describe how life at Newsweek in the 1960s was “fascinating,” and even “a fun and . . . wild place to be.”  “Since most of the writers were in their thirties and nearly all the researchers in their twenties, the culture inside the office mirrored the ‘Swinging Sixties’ on the street.”  She reminisces that “there was a lot of inappropriate behavior at Newsweek.”  Thus, it doesn’t feel out of context that Povich includes in her narrative a description of the deterioration of her first marriage and her current marriage to Steve Shepard, former senior editor in the Business section of Newsweek and later editor-in-chief of Business Week and the founding dean of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.  This digression makes her book, which is largely based on court documents from the 1970 lawsuit, feel surprisingly intimate and personal.

Despite, or maybe because of, the “fun” atmosphere at the magazine, the Newsweek women plotted a “homegrown revolution.”  They “were skulking around the office like spies, waiting for the right opportunity to pounce” on another recruit for their lawsuit.  Povich meticulously describes the background and motivations of her fellow plaintiffs, their bosses and others as Newsweek.  Interestingly, she notes that although they asked the five black researchers on the staff to join the suit, the black women declined.  “At the time, there was more identity with race than gender,” Povich summarily concludes about their decision.

In the winter of 1970, the Newsweek women hired Eleanor Holmes Norton, at the time the assistant legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union and a “veteran civil rights activist and self-avowed feminist,” to represent them.  Norton agreed to take their case after looking at the Newsweek masthead and seeing “all men from the top category to the second from the bottom and virtually all women in the last category.”  The lawsuit Norton filed was the first female class-action suit and the first filed by women in the media against their employer.  Norton commenced the action on behalf of the Newsweek women with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on March 16, 1970.  In the complaint, they argued that they had been “systematically discriminated against in both hiring and promotion and forced to assume a subsidiary role” simply because they were women.

According to Povich, the Newsweek lawsuit succeeded on many levels, not the least of which was to encourage other women in the media to come forward.  In the following years, women sued their employers at Time Inc., Reader’s Digest, Newsday, the Washington Post, the Detroit News, the Baltimore Sun, the New Haven Register, the Associated Press, the New York Times and NBC.  Povich claims that she and the other “budding feminists” who filed their lawsuit against Newseek in the 1970s played a large role in transforming the media workplace.

The Newsweek women’s lawsuit did not go to court.  Rather, it was settled quickly on Aug. 26, 1970.  By that time, the plaintiffs numbered 60 women from the Research, Letters and Photo departments of the magazine.  In the settlement, Newsweek agreed to “affirmatively seek out women” for reporting and writing positions and to “identify women employees who are qualified” as possible senior editors. Yet, despite that affirmation, life for the Newsweek women did not change quickly enough for them after the settlement.  By March 1971, they believed the Newsweek management wasn’t living up to the spirit of the agreement in recruiting women writers.  They filed a second complaint with the EEOC on May 16, 1972, arguing that “sex discrimination at the magazine remains essentially unchanged.”  That second lawsuit was settled on June 28, 1973, when Newsweek agreed that by Dec. 31, 1974, approximately one-third of the magazine’s writers would be female, and by the end of 1974, one of every three people hired or transferred to the staff of foreign correspondents would be a woman.

Women in the media today clearly have many more opportunities than Povich and her counterparts did in the 1960s.  Those of us who have followed have benefited from their courage.  Povich interviews several female journalists who credit the Newsweek lawsuit with their success.  Anna Quindlen said she was hired by the New York Times “because of six courageous women who brought the women’s suit.” Similarly, Gail Collins, also of the New York Times, credits the pioneering women:  “The women who fought those fights were not the ones who got the rewards. People like me, who came right behind them, got the good jobs and promotions.”

At Newsweek, although progress was “slow and painful,” things vastly improved.  Povich herself became the first female senior editor in Newsweek’s 42-year history.  Interestingly, in her epilogue, Povich writes that she worked in that position until her first daughter was born, and then she voluntarily gave up the senior editor position and negotiated a part-time position to work on special projects in 1980.  In 1984, two years after her second child was born, she returned full-time as a senior editor.  Povich’s own career trajectory implies that women themselves often make life-work choices; those choices are not solely made by the managers they report to.

Povich doesn’t naively argue that the Newsweek women’s lawsuit, and the ones that followed at other media companies, were panaceas, solving all the issues for women in the workplace.  By interviewing three women working at Newsweek in 2009, Povich reports that although much had improved at the magazine, “So much of the language and culture was still the same.”  In 1970, women made up 25 percent of the Newsweek editorial masthead; 40 years later, that number was 39 percent.  There were still few females at the top of media organizations.  And, so, Povich concludes, “The struggle for social change is still evolving.”  As that evolution continues to take place, reading Povich’s story feels important, so that women in the media can fully understand “where we came from” to continue to work to improve where we are going.

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